Epistolary Novels–Some Drawbacks

San José, by Denis SalasNovelists constantly strive to present well-rounded characters and believable plots, and this struggle often begins with the selection of a narrative style. Should the author tell the story from the point of view of one character or of several? Should the story begin in the present and reveal important details in flashback? Should the reader learn of events as they happen or only hear about them through a character’s retelling?

One particular narrative choice, the epistolary form, has been popular for centuries–in novels like Pamela and Dracula–and seems to make a resurgence periodically–in books like Griffin and Sabine and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Writers like the fact that the epistolary form allows letters or other kinds of text to drive both plot and character development. When properly executed, an exchange of letters between characters–or a dramatic series of newspaper articles or diary entries–can create a compelling plot and sufficient characterization to keep the reader interested in the story. However, I argue that the epistolary form presents its own problems, both in terms of realism and in terms of immediacy.

The problem of realism lies in the fact that the epistolary form often requires letter-writing characters to reveal information for the sake of the reader, rather than for the sake of their own correspondence, creating unrealistic content in the letters. For example, in writing to her beloved sister, a character might say, “Thank you for the birthday present you sent me! How did you know that a hand-sewn tablecloth with red and green embroidery and yellow lace trim was exactly what I wanted for my forty-eighth birthday?” The details about the tablecloth and the letter-writer’s age exist solely for the benefit of the reader, since one assumes that the beloved sister knows exactly what she sent and exactly how old her sister is. Epistolary novels lend themselves to these sorts of problems with realism when the correspondents know more about each other than the reader knows about them. In an effort to convey information to the reader, the author of the novel puts far more information into a letter than it would otherwise have: “Dear Husband, As a nurse, I am deeply disturbed by the outbreak of cholera. Love, your wife.” One assumes that the husband knows his wife’s occupation, and in a “real” letter, his wife would never need to mention her line of work.

The problem of immediacy is one that presents itself frequently in epistolary novels. The beauty of the epistolary novel is that its characters can exchange profound, personality-defining thoughts while hinting at the action happening around them as they communicate. However, when the action needs to be more immediate–a battle scene or a violently explosive confrontation, for example–a letter describing the action might create too much distance from the reader. Compare, for example, a character’s personal account of a mugging with a letter about that same mugging. (“Charles stepped into the dark alley and knew immediately he shouldn’t have taken the shortcut. A man emerged from the darkness. He held a knife.” or “Dear Susan, I was mugged last night. I decided to take a shortcut home, but the minute I stepped in the alley, I knew I had made the wrong decision.”) The epistolary form keeps the reader at arm’s length, a distance that might not be suitable for describing fast-paced action.

I suggest that an author consider the shortcomings of the epistolary form before choosing it for his or her own novel. If the letter-writing characters know a great deal about one another, does it make sense for them to write each other exhaustively detailed letters that serve mostly to convey information to the reader? If the novel is to have immediate and jarring action, would it be more exciting for the characters to experience the action right before the very eyes of the reader, so to speak, or will the reader be satisfied to read about the action, secondhand, in a letter or newspaper article?

As always, Beaumont Hardy is a writer’s friend in times of narrative indecision. Send me your written work, your writing thoughts and your narrative concerns, and I will be happy to provide editorial guidance.

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