Dan asks:

I’m writing a novel that would be described, I guess, as epistolary; in that possibly a third to a half of the book uses letters, diary entries and even several short-short stories written by the central character. Question I have is how to format these. Indent? A different type face? Italics (can get boring if it goes on for three pages, I’d think—which some of the material needs to)…I’m a published author; two books thus far, but this will be my first novel.

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the question! I’m assuming that you’re asking about how to format the manuscript for traditional publication. (If you’re asking about how to design the book for print or ebook publication as a self-publisher, I would suggest going through the wealth of information on The Book Designer.)

But, for traditional publication, I would advise you to think about two things as you format the novel for submission – your framing device and formatting consistency.

The Framing Device

In narrative prose, a frame is a story told around the main narrative. It generally opens and closes the story and highlights an important theme or plot from the larger tale. Way back when, I talked about the framing device used in Easy A (Oh My! What A Lovely Frame), and noted that the frame needs to enhance and not distract from the main narrative. (See also: 6 Tips For Writing An Epistolary Novel.)

I say this because when a writer submits a non-traditional narrative in the form of letters, flash fiction, diary entries or ephemera from the protagonist, they have to be ready to explain why that particular story is best told in that format. (Or better yet, the main narrative itself should make it perfectly clear why we’re reading the story in the format we’re reading it in.)

why we broke upIn Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman’s Why We Broke Up, Min writes a (long) letter to Ed that reflects upon their ultimately doomed relationship and places the letter in a box that she leaves on his doorstep. The reader learns the story of their relationship through the letters, and Kalman’s images serve as the visual representation of the items that inspire each vignette/portion of the letter.

The frame is introduced with the “Dear Ed,” and the explanation of what we (as the reader) and Ed (as the recipient of the letter) are about to read, as well as an image of the box on the doorstep. In other words, the reader knows from the beginning why the story is structured as it is, and appreciates the emotional immediacy of holding Min’s ‘letter’ and rifling through their box of keepsakes.

So if the question was asked, “Why does this story have to be told in a letter and images instead of straight pose where Min tells the story in real time?” The answer might be, “The frame of this story allows the reader to see Min further out from the events as they occurred, and thus in the writing of the letter/sharing the story, we can participate in Min’s final act of closure and get a better sense of what the relationship really was. The pain is still there, but there is introspection too, which Min could not share in straight narrative prose since introspection requires time.”

So now that I’ve talked about the use of a framing device (which I’m sure you’ve already considered), it’s time to talk about the formatting. But…

Formatting

Without knowing the why of this particular frame and/or more about the manuscript itself, it’s hard to give advice about the format. For example, are we reading a linear collection of diaries, stories and letters, or is non-linear, e.g. somebody else finding these pieces of ephemera in a non-chronological fashion?

That said, in most cases I think that the introduction of the framing device – and thus, the narrator – should happen early and would probably best be formatted in a traditional 12 pt. Times New Roman with a .5 inch indent. (Some of you might say, “But what about the italicized portion in the front of a mass market paperback?” and I would say this is a prologue and not a framing device, since the purpose of those two to three hundred words is to give a piece of the story to come from a slightly different point of view. It is generally a plot teaser instead of an introduction to a fully fleshed out frame.)

In looking at the three types of prose your manuscript uses:

  • diary entries
  • letters
  • short stories/flash fiction

I think all of them lead themselves to some obvious markers for the next section.

For example, won’t every diary entry begin with a date? And, while I advise against using “Dear X” in a straight epistolary novel when the character is only writing to one person — in this case, I think that with letters being interspersed with other formats, it might be okay (or even necessary) to have each letter start with the traditional salutation and greeting?

For the short fiction, I can see the appeal in using italics, though it might be mistaken for a flashback. Does each piece of fiction have a title, which could be centered above each story?

As long as you were consistent, in theory each section would open with either a traditional letter format with a date, address and salutation; a diary entry with the date and perhaps another marker that is unique to the protagonist (think about how Bridget Jones counted cigarettes, drinks, and weight at the beginning of her entries, for example); and a centered title above the pieces of flash fiction.

Caveat

A book designer may have other thoughts, but if we’re thinking about submissions to an agency or publisher I would be hesitant to get crazy with different fonts, etc. Different fonts tend to be distracting instead of illuminating when one is reading a printed manuscript.

Whatever way you go – the most important thing is that your framing device and formatting choices do not distract from the story you’re trying to tell. It’s hard to be specific without seeing a manuscript, but I hope you’ve found this helpful as you move forward!

If you have a question for me, please get in touch using my contact form and I’m happy to take a crack at it!

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Release date: August 15, 2017

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