Epistolary…you may be reading that word and thinking: “What the heck is that?” Chances are you have read a book incorporating the epistolary technique – one written using a series of correspondence or diary entries. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple all are examples of this style of storytelling. Thanks to a childhood filled with letter writing, I am fond of and connect with the epistolary story. It is a more engaging version of a first-person account that allows the reader to get inside the thoughts and feelings of a character or multiple characters. I appreciate this depth of empathy that goes along with being in the mind of a character. Other features that make the epistolary genre distinctive include:
- Shaping the relationship between letter writer and recipient
- Providing story dimension by offering different points of view
- Allowing for deeper character development
- Clarifying the passage of time
It may feel like a dated (no pun intended) way to convey a story, since letter and diary writing seem to be a thing of the past. Communicating our deepest emotions rarely takes the form of words on paper now that we mostly call, email, text, and post to social media. However, as usual, storytellers adapt, and reflect the world they seek to entertain. Electronic musings don’t preclude writers from the epistolary format, they just find new ways to weave the tale using these modern forms of communication. Proof is in the recent success of Where’d you go Bernadette?, a publication that uses letters, memos, and emails; Maria Semple’s work lasted a year on the New York Times Best Sellers list, landed on NPR Bestseller lists, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It will be interesting to see how the next generation of writers uses tweets and texts to compose an epistolary novel.
There are many things that divide us as humans, but there is one thing that clearly unites us: storytelling. Stories can vary by culture and method, but at the core they convey something about who we were, are, or hope to be. As cultures develop, so too do the methods in which stories are told. In this multi-part blog series, I look to highlight some of the methods of storytelling that are alternatives to the traditional novel.