6 Tips for Writing an Epistolary Novel

From Samuel Richardson’s Pamela to Jerry Spinelli’s Love, Stargirl, the epistolary format continues to be popular in literature.

Having just finished reading Spinelli’s novel, I thought that I might share six tips for successfully writing an epistolary novel:

1.) It’s not necessary to start every entry with “Dear xx.”
In Spinelli’s Love, Stargirl, Stargirl writes to Leo consistently and lets the reader know that she does not intend to send him these letters. Though each entry is dated, we do not start and end each entry with “Dear Leo” or “Love, Stargirl”. This makes for much smoother reading, and also a cleaner format.

2.) Remember that your main character is writing to one specific person.
When writing the novel, keep in mind that what has happened during that day and what your main character would tell the person that she’s writing to may be completely different. Perhaps your main character would censor certain portions of the day, depending on which secondary characters she’s writing to. For example, when Stargirl is talking to her ex-boyfriend Leo about Perry, a boy who she thinks she might like, she is hesitant to share too many details. She also prefaces many of her thoughts with a warning or a disclaimer, to protect Leo’s feelings.

Because she didn’t intend to send the letters, she also occasionally has a Q&A session with herself, taking on the role of Leo and Stargirl. Spinelli gives us a way to hear what Leo would think, through what Stargirl believes Leo would think. This is an interesting way to show us another side of the recipient of the letters, since Leo can not actually respond.

3.) Don’t forget that these are letters, not diary entries.
Similarly, your main character should address the person they are writing to directly in their letters. Consider phrases like, “I know what you’re thinking” or “Don’t be mad, but…” that may help remind the reader that there is a second person involved in this exchange.

4.) Time gaps are important.
There are times where your character is going to be so busy that they’re not going to have time to write. In Love, Stargirl, when we reach the climax (which I won’t share to avoid spoilers), Stargirl doesn’t write to Leo to tell him about it until three days later. Gaps in time tell a story too, as well as lend realism to your novel.

5.) Remember that each letter has to adhere to a narrative arc.
An epistolary novel still needs to have a narrative arc, and like a chapter, each letter must advance the plot in some way. Don’t be tempted to write “filler letters!” It is okay for your character not to write any letters for a week if nothing happened in that week that pushes the plot forward.

6.) Don’t write a bad epistolary novel if you could be writing an excellent novel.
Formats should always be chosen to best compliment the story you want to tell. In this case, Stargirl has moved to a new state and is missing her exboyfriend. Writing to him is a way for her to keep him alive in her mind, even though she knows that there shouldn’t be any contact between the two of them. The style works because we understand Stargirl’s desire to reach out to Leo, but also realize why she couldn’t just call him to chat.

Keep in mind, if you’re writing a contemporary novel, there are even more ways to keep in touch. Your character isn’t going to send physical letters as often as she might email. And she’d probably text and call as well. But if you’re half-way through your manuscript and you realize that the format is becoming more of a limitation than a useful device, it might be time to think about alternative ways to tell the story. Interesting formats are great to experiment with, but above all editors and agents are still looking for good stories.

Is anybody currently writing an epistolary novel? Any tips you’d like to share?

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18 thoughts on “6 Tips for Writing an Epistolary Novel

  1. I have just completed an epistolary novel that follows the lives of two young girls growing up in two very different social and cultural environments and it is precisely their differences that ultimately help each of them open their minds and their hearts to new perspectives as they face life’s challenges. Facing multiple heartships they learn and grow from being immature and not all that likeable young girls, into very endearing, caring and giving adults.

    I really enjoyed reading your comments on the method and can take away some great ideas. I liked what you said about time sequencing as I did several times, in fact, use the method of including gaps in time in which something traumatic was happening to one of the girls and the other was concerned for not hearing back. My novel takes place prior to the use of e-mail, so old fashioned snail mail had to be used.

    I also struggled with the idea of not using the epistolary format, but ultimately opted in favor of it as I felt it highlighted the contrast of their two lives which was a major aspect in understanding how different people can seem on the outside and yet how very much the same we really are; all sharing hopes, dreams, loves and losses.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts on this subject.

  2. I am attempting an epistolary novel right now. It’s pretty much complete, but I keep going back to edit. Mine is a horror novel, and I find it a good way to keep mystery alive within the story. Through their letters and journals, my characters can always give the reader as much knowledge they know at the time they are writing. I can also change a few points of view without confusing the reader as to who is talking, because it’s made clear at the top of each entry (but I’m careful not to change POVs too often anyway, just in case). It’s been an adventure in the attempt as it’s certainly a usual way to tell a story.

  3. I am not currently writing one but because writing letters is a lifelong passion of mine, I have often imagined doing it. These tips are fantastic, bookmarking the page. Thank you so much!

    I’m so glad Nathan Bransford linked this to his This Week in Publishing post this week!


  4. I got here through the link in Nathan’s weekly round-up as well. I tried an e-mail novel about a year ago, but gave up and decided to tell the story in a traditional way, using e-mails interspersed with narrative. Haven’t found a home for it, so it may not work anyway. But these are useful tips if I decide to try that route again.

  5. I like experimenting with different forms of narrative,and now the epistolary novel is very clear to me because of this great article- thanx. Epistolary short stories are good too.

  6. I have one. It’s called Deep Sighs. I wrote it to my ‘dead’ friend. I think it meets your tips. I was just wishing he could tell me what happend when he died and what really happens in the land of the dead.

    Book is being published in the UK by StepOut Creatives Publication. Should be out by September 2011 I hope.

  7. My sister and I have written a modern day epistolary novel in which two sisters, one in Texas and one in Georgia, use technology to speed up their communication gaps. Email is perfect when your schedules are conflicting and phone calls are inconvenient. The letters cover one year in the lives of a Texas cotton farmer’s wife and a retired teacher who’s family owns and operates a small marina at a lake in the North Georgia Mountains. The discuss family and social issues common to many families and support each other with down-to-earth wisdom and humor.

    The problem we are having is finding a market for epistolary novels. Have any of you found an agent willing to take this on?

  8. I am writing one which is based on the memoirs of three people, whose view on the events around them is viewed in a very different way. The three characters are related with only one of them knowing the entire truth until the end. It has been a bit of a struggle but I am finding I am enjoying it very much. It is a horror novel which I think will lend credence to what I am attempting to do…

  9. Hai, even though this entry had passed few years, I am glad I found it.

    I am currently working on an epistolary novel but use email instead of letters.

    I am planning on writing the emails from one person ( a sister) only and not to have emails from the recipient ( the brother). so the story will from the perspective the sister only.Whatever respond from the brother will be reviewed and told by the sister.

    What is your comment on this format?

    1. Hi Faridah,

      It’s hard to say without reading it, but I wonder if not having the brother’s voice in the story works as well if the format is email versus a traditional letter. Consider that in Pamela, we only hear her voice but it makes sense because the reader buys that they may be the recipient of the letters, or that a recipient has kept them, or that she never was able to send them, etc. But in an email, where the response can be instant, we’d have to have a reason why the brother wasn’t responding and why we wouldn’t see his in the chain.

      Why don’t we hear from the brother? If he is unable to respond (death, prison, missing, etc.) then at some point, we need to A.) Have the sister comment on his lack of response OR from the beginning say something like, “I know you won’t be able to respond…” etc. and B.) learn by the end why he wasn’t answering.

      If he is responding though, I think we would need a really compelling, plot driven reason why the reader doesn’t get to see it. (Honestly, I’m not sure that I can think of a narrative-driven reason that would work in this case, especially since emails are threaded so the protagonist would have his response in front of her while she wrote back.)

      Hope that helps!

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