Epistolary novels are stories told through documents. These novels can be made up of anything from letters and diary entries to online messages and newspaper articles. Instead of traditional narration, epistolary novels emerge from a series of these documents.
I’ve always enjoyed reading them because they’re a different way to tell a story. And I’ve always found it interesting how these types of stories can be “constructed.” As opposed to a straight-forward tale being told, these stories can be manipulated based on who is creating the document or writing the letter; narrators can be unreliable, and readers might not be getting the full picture. But what makes these stories so exciting is that they can be very intimate, and it’s cool to watch a story emerge out of all of the separate pieces.
I remember that the first attempt at a novel (back in middle school) was epistolary—the diaries of a middle school girl and boy who like each each other. But I hadn’t really dabbled in the form again until now. My work-in-progress is an epistolary novel. It is made up of the diary entries and letters of two teenage sisters in the 2060s and their mom in the 2040s, when she herself was a teenager.
I’m just about finishing my draft of the mom’s portion, so I thought I’d take a break today and look back on some of my favorite epistolary novels I’ve read:
- The Princess Dairies Series by Meg Cabot
I loved reading this series in high school. The epistolary format, with the books being made up of Mia’s diary entires, gave reading the whole series the feeling of being best friends with Mia. Reading the books was like gossiping with a friend about all of the ups and downs of high school and about finding out you’re actually a princess.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This is one of my favorite books. Charlie tells his story through letters that he writes to an unnamed “friend” who he heard is honest and understanding. He writes in order to navigate his freshman year of high school and to understand confusing past experiences. The letter format allows this book to be real and raw and unflinching.
- Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristof
The Illuminae Files series is a little more violent than I usually read, and so I don’t think I’ll read the rest of the series, but I fell in love with the format in which these books are told. Far into the future, something disastrous happens aboard a fleet of spaceships, and the book is the resulting collection of files about the incident. Illuminae is made up of inerviews, emails, reports, ship schematics, and more, and it was fascinating how a novel emerged out of all of these parts.
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
If I tried to describe this book, I would never do it justice. It’s another one of my favorite books. One of the most complicated and beautiful things I’ve read, this epistolary novel takes the format to a new level, spanning centuries with its journals, letters, novel-within-a-novel, interviews, and oral histories. You just have to read it to experience it.
- Stolen by Lucy Christopher
This book is made up of haunting letters that an abducted teenager writes to her captor. It’s an examination of Stockholm syndrome, and explores the rugged and terrifying terrain of the Australian desert.
After looking back on some of my favorites, I remembered why I love this way of telling a story so much. I hope using the epistolary format in my book gives readers that intimate feeling that letters and diaries provide. And I hope that all of the separate parts come together to form an amazing story!
Do you like reading epistolary novels? Any favorites?