• Julie Gray

What is Epistolary Writing?

First, you have to say epistolary three times fast. Can't do it. I just wanted to point that out.

But more importantly - what is epistolary writing? It's letter writing. Correspondence. Which is almost a lost art form in this day and age.

Do you remember writing letters? When is the last time you did it?

Though I do feel that we write in this way less and less, I, like many of you, upon occasion, when I have time, do write some pretty entertaining emails to close friends. And I think that counts. I do not like to relegate letter writing to the past when it is defined as having to be done with quill pen and by candle light.

I like to imagine though, in the time before the internet, before the phone and the telegraph, when letters were the sole way to communicate with others if not in person. And letters would take weeks or months to arrive.

Letters were then carefully composed - they had to be. They had to both inform and update the recipient of illness, deaths, changes in life. But they also had to reach out emotionally and maintain connections over what was then vast spaces and the probability of never seeing one another again.

Letters back home served many purposes… sometimes heartbreaking news from the front of a war, sometimes letters from home to the front, read in a trench, filled with pedestrian details that must have been so comforting…

I recently read a letter back home from a soldier in the US Civil War, who had been wounded. It is short and written in a shaky hand, you can see the soldier is in a great deal of pen. The letter is to his father. The soldier died of his wounds but his father received the letter.

Now: What does letter writing have to do with literary writing?

Epistolary novels are novels that are written as a series of correspondences; letters, telegrams, clippings, etc.

Read more here.

And for the very, very brave and intrepid, read more here.

Did you know that both Dracula and Frankenstein were written as epistolary novels? How about The Martian (later a movie with Matt Damon)? So was The Princess Diaries and Bridgette Jones. Epistolary writing not only has a fascinating and long history, it is an interesting and not oft used tool for your writing. Check out a great list of epistolary novels here.

In one of my favorite novels, A Confederacy of Dunces, the novel is not epistolary per se, but our main character does maintain a correspondence with an old flame and the correspondence occurs throughout the book as a minor yet ultimately important note.

Whether your story is two people corresponding, or several, piecing together a story in this way offers a fascinating opportunity to tell a story through different lenses and points of view, in a patchwork quilt so that the underlying story has to be pieced together by the reader.

In my personal and professional experience, narratives that a viewer or reader must interact with - and think about - is among the most satisfying experience for them because it engages our brains. What is REALLY happening? What is the subtext?

There is always subtext in literature - but in using the epistolary form, the subtext is ratcheted up very HIGH because we have what are in essence, unreliable narrators.

The unreliable narrator refers to just who is narrating the book. In other words it is possible and even probable, that whoever is telling us this story is not necessarily telling us the whole truth. Slowly, another truth or reality is artfully revealed through other characters, causing us to begin to doubt our narrator. Until - should the writer play it out so - until we find out whether our narrator is totally unhinged or in fact living in some kind of absurd situation. Or maybe our narrator becomes unhinged in the circumstances of the story.