Michaeline: Fun Structures for Writing: Epistolary

A beautiful Persian woman writing a letter, while another woman is waiting outside her window. Consulting? The Messenger?

Letter-writing allows a story to be both intimate and public at the same time. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

As a reader, one of my favorite structures is epistolary writing – the friendly chat of a series of letters (or emails or texts) brings a certain coziness to a story, while preserving a definite curation of information. The writer is writing to a good friend (usually), but at the same time, WRITING (not talking – talking would be more spontaneous), and choosing details and trying to entertain.

Done well, it can be a great romp with a lot of meta. There are built-in layers, and the reader is invited to take part in discovering the bits that are left out because of the conceit that this is just between friends who share a history. (In practice, the good author or authors make sure the reader has the information to figure out just what is going on – the secrets require some work, but the burden upon the reader isn’t too onerous. Just enough pleasant exercise to make the sweetness of the unfolding story taste great.)

In addition, there’s a sense of spying. Yes, yes, we all know what happens to eavesdroppers – they hear no good. But, this is safe prying – we’re allowed the fantasy of being privy to the characters honest and innermost thoughts that were meant to be shared only between intimates. It’s a delicious feeling, really, and no guilt.

Wikipedia says that Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen may originally have been written in epistolary style in the first drafts; the book we know contains a great many letters that define character and make our protagonist take plot-driving actions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistolary_novel

One of my favorite modern epistolary novels is Sorcery and Cecelia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. The story started out as a “Letter Game” between the two authors, with Stevermer taking the part of Kate, and Wrede acting as Cecelia – then they wrote letters to each other in character and created the first draft of the story. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/SorceryAndCecelia

For some reason, a lot of erotic fiction is also written as letters. The infamous Fanny Hill, by John Cleland, is worth a read. It’s got that chatty feel of an epistolary novel, it’s got historical value, and the love scenes can be tender and silly and greedy and vain.

And of course, novels keep up with technology. Stories written in faxes, emails, texts and even emoji are popping up here and there.

Have you got any favorite novels that employ a good letter? A private missive between two characters made public before the panting public’s eyes? It really is a fun structure to play with, and I’ve always wanted to try an epistolary story.

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Fun Structures for Writing: Epistolary

  1. I can think of two stories that I enjoyed that employed letter writing. The first is Frankenstien. The whole story wasn’t told via letters, but the outer layer of the story within a story within a story was, and it worked very well for me as a reader.

    The second is a more contemporary story – Teresa Mediieros’ Goodnight Tweetheart, which uses, as you might guess from the title, tweets to move the story along. Again the whole story isn’t told that way, but the tweets are peppered throughout and it’s very engaging.

    • (-: I really have to re-read Frankenstein one of these days. I didn’t remember the letters at all.

      Goodnight Tweetheart sounds adorable. I do like that surrogate type of romance, where it’s the brains doing all the work, rather than the eyes.

  2. I recently bought (but haven’t yet read) Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, which is a very clever update on the epistolatory structure and plays right into your point about spying. In times past I had to read my staff’s emails on occasion, and I knew my employers had the right to read mine, but I never thought about it in quite these terms. Here’s the book’s blurb:

    Beth and Jennifer work in the newsroom. They’re smart and funny, and best friends.

    And Lincoln O’Neill is the guy who reads their email.

    It’s not as bad as it sounds — it’s Lincoln’s job to read their email. Sort of. He was supposed to send them a warning. He should have sent it the first time he caught them breaking the company email rules. But they both seem so nice… he likes really them. Especially Beth.

    By the time Lincoln realizes how much he feels for Beth, it’s too late to unread all of her personal messages. And it’s way too late to introduce himself. What would he say? “Hi, I’m the guys who reads your email, and, also, I love you …”

  3. One epistolary novel that was recently made into a film is Lady Susan, by Jane Austen. I liked the book, but it’s confusing. As was the movie. Takes a while to figure out who everybody is! So if early drafts of Pride and Prejudice were also written as letter exchanges, that would make sense. I think Lady Susan was an earlier book.

    Attachments sounds like a lot of fun! I’ll have to look for it.

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