I’ve always been drawn to epistolary novels – those stories written as a series of documents, most often letters or postcards. The word epistolary is derived from the Greek word epistolé, meaning a letter, and the form can add realism to a story by introducing different viewpoints without employing the device of the omniscient narrator, which, especially for new writers, can be unwieldy and difficult to manage.
In an epistolary novel the third person omniscient – where the story is related by a head-jumping narrator who knows and sees everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each character is thinking – is supplanted by a series of communications that imparts information about the other characters, thus allowing the narrator to tell the reader things they couldn’t otherwise know.
In the days before emails and text messages, letters were an essential part of everyday life and it was only natural for authors to embrace this form of communication. Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in the epistolary form and it still stands up as one of the most successful to date, even though it was written in the later 19th century. It employs letters, diary entries and telegrams as well as newspaper cuttings, doctor’s notes and even a ship’s log, to increase the dramatic tension.
Today, we have even more types of communication to exploit. Electronic media such as email exchanges, blogs and instant messages have also come into use to help present a character’s thoughts, actions and feelings without interference from the author.
Some novels employ a monologic approach, presenting events with a series of communications from the narrator only; the reader is left to deduce the contents of the letters being replied to. Others use a dialogic approach (from two characters), or polylogic (from multiple characters) and this presentation of events from several points of view gives the story an extra dimension.
Here are some examples that spring to mind:
‘We need to talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver – a series of letters to the narrator’s husband.
‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte – in the form of a letter from the narrator to his friend with the heroine’s diary inside it.
‘Carrie’ by Stephen King – uses newspaper clippings, magazine articles, letters, and excerpts from books. Court documents and medical reports
‘Herzog’ by Saul Bellow is largely written in letter format, some real, some imagined, by the protagonist Moses E. Herzog to family members, friends and famous figures.
‘Where Rainbows End’ by Cecelia Ahern – written in the form of letters, emails, instant messages, newspaper articles.
‘Possession’ by A.S. Byatt – uses various methods including diary entries, letters and third-person narrative.