How to Write an Effective Epistolary Narrative

An epistolary narrative uses a series of documents such as diary entries, letters, blog entries or emails to tell a particular story. The story unfolds in the documents, giving the reader an intimate glimpse into the private lives of its characters. Epistolary writing was a popular technique used by numerous 18th and 19th century novelists, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Bram Stoker and Leo Tolstoy.

Effects of Epistolary Narration

As a literary form, the epistolary narrative creates an illusion of intimacy, giving the reader access to a world that he would otherwise never have access to. It allows the writer to present multiple characters’ points of view directly, adding realism to the narrative. However, it can also make the narrative seem disjointed if the writer uses too many different perspectives without properly introducing and connecting them.

Forms of Epistolary Narration

Epistolary narration comes in three forms: monologic, dialogic, and polylogic. Monologic narratives present the correspondence of one character; dialogic narratives present the correspondence between two characters; and polylogic narratives present the correspondence among three or more characters.

Decide on Story

In order to write an effective epistolary narrative, the writer should first decide on the story that he wants to tell and the primary tension that exists in that story. Is the story about a correspondence between two or three secret lovers or is it by an old woman writing down the story of her life in a letter to her granddaughter? The writer needs to know these basic elements in order to decide on the most effective type of epistolary narration for his story.

Decide on Form

Once the writer knows what kind of story he wants to relay, he has to decide on the form of the narrative. The narrative about the old woman writing the story of her life is an account of one character’s correspondence, or monologic. Identifying whom the letter is addressed to is very important in this type of narration since it will likely appear only once. It is also important in polylogic narration because the reader will not otherwise know which character is writing to whom. The correspondence between two lovers is an example of dialogic narration. In this case, constant interruptions of “dear Sarah” or “love always,” in the beginning and at the end of each letter are not necessary and can actually become quite irritating to the reader. Additionally, the actual form of the correspondence can add its own form of tension: A mailed letter might take days or weeks to reach a destination (while plot points continue to evolve), while an email might be instantly accessed (or caught in a spam filter). Diary entries, on the other hand, lend themselves well to dramatic irony.

Build Tension

Tension is important in all stories, but is much more difficult for the writer to construct in dialogic and polylogic narratives. In monologic narratives, the narrative arc is only constructed by one character’s story, while in dialogic and polylogic narratives, tension is built using a series of perspectives and interpretations of those perspectives. It goes without saying that the more characters that an epistolary narrative has, the more complicated it becomes for the writer to create proper tension in the story arc, without confusing the reader.

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