5 Fantastic Reasons Why You Should Be Writing an Epistolary Novel Right Now

Currently I'm working on an epistolary novel.  In case you don't know, that's a novel that is made up of fictional newspaper clippings, journal entries, experiment journals, blog entries and other items that give the novel a "found" quality.

It's kind of like what those kids did who made The Blair Witch Project.  I remember when Blair Witch came out, all the hype surrounding it, and we all wondered whether or not it was true.  What was great about that film is all the publicity that went with it.  There were news reports, wikipedia pages, and several other things that tied it to the real world, just enough so that it had a slight sense of realism...just enough to cause audiences to question.

Of course, the movie was kind of a let-down.  It's like Stephen King writes in "Danse Macabre": The girl in the horror movie goes to the top of the stairs, reaches for the door, opens it, and she finds a horrific giant cockroach.  The audience says: "Gee, I was expecting a much bigger cockroach."

I'm actually finding the creation of an epistolary novel a lot of fun, and I wanted to provide some observations I had about the genre and why you should try your hand at writing one.

  1. They are really popular right now - I am currently reading Stephen King's The Outsider, and even though it isn't completely epistolary it uses elements of an epistolary novel.  There are several instances where an interview transcript is used for witnesses to a murder. In The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber there are several letters written back and forth from wife to husband which add to the conversational nature of the narrative.  It seems that a lot of novelists are using epistolary methods in their novels, so why not write one that is made up almost entirely of these "found" documents?
  2. You can pick up anywhere in the narrative - One standard thing that is the usual case in writing a traditional prose novel is that you generally work from one chapter to the next from beginning to end.  I usually create an outline for all of my novels (as I suggest all good novelists do) but what I'm finding is that I'm able to seamlessly write documents anywhere on the outline and not worry so much about continuity.  One of the joys of reading an epistolary novel is that the reader discovers the story in pieces and has to put it together as they go.  It's kind of like a puzzle where the pieces fall into place slowly and naturally.  You can always shift "chapters" around at will if you think readers should find out information in the order you choose.  The fun is in crafting the world through the various narrative documents.
  3. Characterization is on a whole new level - Since the narrative is told in varying point of view (first person, third person limited) the writer is allowed to really get into the heads and "become" the characters in the narrative.  Not only can writers delve into the head of an unreliable narrator (a journal of a criminal, for example) but they can also write dramatic dialogue exchanges via interview transcripts.  Newspaper articles allow for hard facts without much embellishment to move the story along and inform the reader of things that the first person narrators were not privy to or did not want to reveal.  It is a new playground for a writer to explore, play and find new voices.
  4. It is an adventure for the reader - Readers are used to the common prose narrative.  Shaking things up with a piecemeal set of documents that make them feel like they are rifling through someone else's things is exciting and fresh.  It plays to the soundbite-Twitter-feed-instant-message culture in which we live.  It gives a little more control to the reader who can rifle through the various documents like a detective trying to solve a murder.
  5. It has a rich tradition - The epistolary novel is not anything new, of course (thank you, Solomon).  It has a tradition that goes all the way back to the mid-1700's. Some of my favorite epistolary novels are H.P. Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu, C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters and of course Lawrence Sanders' The Anderson Tapes.  There's a whole list of these books on Wikipedia, many of which you should check out and read before heading down the rabbit hole on this prose style.

Well, I'm just about to open the Scrivener file of this new adventure and start working on it again. If you have any ideas about writing an epistolary novel or if you've written one and want to share, please leave a message in the comments below.

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