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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