Though people don't write letters like they used to, we writers don’t care. We can bring them back in fiction.
Today, we’re going to cover a lost form of literature, one which I think should make a comeback. It’s called epistolary, and it’s a great form. Let’s cover it.
What Is Epistolary Storytelling?
Epistolary stories are constructed of and told through documents. They’re usually first-person letters written from one character to another, but they might also use newspaper clippings, written testimony, court transcripts, and more. They’re stories told not through traditional prose, but primary accounts from the characters themselves.
As you can see, the examples I just listed are so last century, particularly letter writing. Not that nobody has penpals anymore—it’s just not as popular as it used to be. Modern examples of an epistolary story might include a story told as an exchange of emails between characters, or maybe a string of Reddit comments (I don’t think I want to read that one).
Though it’s fallen out of favor of late, epistolary storytelling is timeless. So long as people communicate and/or record information with written (or typed, or dictated) words, we’ll have epistolary.
So what are some classic examples of this style, what makes them so cool, and what can we learn from them? Let’s take a look.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
One of the most famous novels of all time, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein uses epistolary style to great effect. First published in 1818, the novel tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a hideous creature and promptly disowns it, leading to the unraveling of both their lives.
Frankenstein begins as a letter from a sea captain to his sister. When the captain stumbles upon a withered and exhausted Frankenstein, the narrative transitions into a first-person account of the monster’s creation. Then we delve a layer further when, within Frankenstein’s account, the Creature confronts him and presents its own story. Then Frankenstein tells the rest of his story, and finally the sea captain concludes the tale with more letters.
So what’s the upshot to all this? First off, epistolary narratives can be densely layered, as in the case of Frankenstein. The captain’s account contains Frankenstein’s, and Frankenstein’s contains the Creature’s. It’s an unusual Russian doll effect, and one that rewards careful readers.
Furthermore, it gives the author an elegant way to juggle multiple first-person narrators. Managing several third-person point-of-view characters is doable (George R.R. Martin has 31 of them in A Song of Ice and Fire!), but a book with multiple characters using the pronoun “I” gets confusing quickly. Not so with epistolary stories. If a character writes a letter to another, we’re oriented by the name at the end of the letter. There’s really no better way to get this effect.
Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
An odd novel in many ways, Dangerous Liasons tells the story of two pre-revolution French aristocrats, Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil, and their manipulative social schemes. Unlike Frankenstein, this one’s told entirely through letters. Valmont and Merteuil’s escapades escalate in each letter, leading to grim conclusions for all involved.
First off, Dangerous Liasons proves how easily epistolary style injects a story with realism. Some readers actually thought this was a work of nonfiction when it was released. Subsequent readings have correctly identified it as fiction, yet it’s been deemed no less controversial for it. The book was banned in France for 60 years!
I have no doubt that the form heightened the controversy. Third-person prose is engrossing, first-person arguably even more so. But I’d argue stories told not through a narrative voice, but in the voices of the characters themselves, are those that represent reality best.
The Martian by Andy Weir
You probably know what this one’s about, so I’ll make the synopsis quick. Astronaut gets stuck on Mars, has to rely on scientific expertise and general sassiness to survive. There you have it.
Why mention this book? Because it’s a perfect example of how epistolary narratives work in the modern day. Rather than write letters, Mark Watney (the main character) describes the story to us through video journal logs, in addition to some entries from supporting characters. They’re not writing letters, but it works the same way—and just as well.
Furthermore, The Martian plays with hidden information adeptly. Watney’s crew thinks he’s dead, yet by reading his video entries, we know he’s clearly not. We already know more than the characters, which is a fun position for a reader to be in. It builds anticipation for those moments when they all get on the same page. Plus, the style provides a confessional nature. It gives the effect that there’s no single narrator at all.
Finally, The Martian’s epistolary style underscores the unique voice of its protagonist. Since Watney spends most of the novel alone, it would be difficult to show that voice short of giving him a volleyball and naming it Wilson. The epistolary narrative lets Mark tell the story in his own words, thereby giving us direct access to that snarky yet hopeful character voice.
Epistolary storytelling is fun, unique, and versatile. I hope I’ve convinced you to give it a go.