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Writing

How to Write an Epistolary Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

The epistolary novel is a unique storytelling method that blends a nonfiction medium with a fictional narrative.

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What Is an Epistolary Novel?

In an epistolary novel, the story is told through the form of love letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, telegrams, or other documents. A modern novel in the epistolary form may include electronic documents such as emails or text messages. Epistolary fiction may be monologic—in which the story is told exclusively through journal entries or letters of the main character, thus representing their point of view. Epistolary writing may also be dialogic or polylogic—consisting of a series of letters or other correspondence between two or more characters, in which multiple points of view are represented through an array of documents.

20 Examples of Epistolary Novels

Prominent examples of novels in the epistolary style include:

  1. Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson (1740)
  2. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)
  3. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774)
  4. Evelina by Fanny Burney (1778)
  5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1823)
  6. Lady Susan by Jane Austen (1871)
  7. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
  8. Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster (1912)
  9. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (1942)
  10. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970)
  11. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
  12. Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock (1991)
  13. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)
  14. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
  15. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (2001)
  16. The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot (2002)
  17. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003)
  18. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006)
  19. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008)
  20. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (2012)
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How to Write an Epistolary Novel

Though writing an epistolary novel can feel restrictive due to its rigid formatting, it actually allows for a nearly boundless amount of creative expression and storytelling techniques. Here are some tips to help you write an epistolary novel:

  1. Explore multiple forms. Epistolary writing is constantly evolving. Epistolary work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often included documents that were commonly found during that time period, like first-person journal entries or exchanges of long-form letters. Modern stories tend to rely on more contemporary sources, such as text exchanges or emails. While some novels stick to one source, others feature a mix: Bram Stoker’s Dracula featured a combination of letters, doctor’s notes, and ship’s logs. When writing your epistolary novel or short story, don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to creating sources. As long as it helps tell your story, any form is valid. The way that we communicate with each other is constantly changing, and the best epistolary novels reflect that.
  2. Make it feel authentic and natural. One of the advantages of writing in an epistolary format is the style’s inherent naturalism. By mimicking the type of nonfiction documents that we consume on a daily basis, epistolary stories create a sense of credibility that is hard to reproduce in traditional fiction. That’s why it’s so important for your sources to feel authentic. For example, if you’re writing a series of emails, you should strive to render the formatting of the subject line, address field, and signature blocks as realistically as possible. A fictional telegram should mirror the truncated syntax of the real thing. Getting these details right will only add to the naturalism and authenticity of your story.
  3. Ensure that each voice is unique. A potential downside of writing an epistolary novel is that the rigid formatting can feel restrictive and repetitive to a reader. That’s why it’s important to make each document feel unique and specific to the character’s voice. If two people are writing letters to each other, for example, the reader should be able to tell immediately which character is writing from the format, word choice, or attitude. Similarly, an individual’s voice might change along with the form; a character will likely write differently when they’re composing a company-wide memo than when they’re composing an intimate text message. A character’s writing style might shift as they go through their character arc. Rather than acting as a limitation, the source documents should serve as an opportunity to explore and sharpen your character’s voices.
  4. Resist the urge to explain yourself. A new author writing their first novel in the epistolary format may feel the need to explain why they’re using a combination of sources. Sure, it may be uncommon to read a doctor’s note, a text message, and a newspaper article successively in real life. However, for the most part, readers will accept a hodgepodge of different sources as long as they’re interesting and in service of a compelling story. Many of the great epistolary novels jump between sources seemingly at random, so don’t worry about explaining your methodology.

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