I have been toying recently with a story idea told in the epistolary style—that is, told through correspondence between characters, as well as through a variety of news articles and journal entries. This genre of storytelling traces back as far as the 15th century. However, it is likely most familiar to contemporary readers by way of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The epistolary genre became popular as a storytelling device in Victorian England in the early- to mid-18th century. Samuel Richardson relied on this style of storytelling in his mammoth novels, Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1749). The German writer/poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used the genre to tell the story of The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Stephen King made limited use of the device (primarily through newspaper articles placed strategically throughout the novel) in his debut work, Carrie. Later, he returned to the genre in his uncompleted novel, The Plant.
One might ask why an author would choose to tell a story in this manner. Perhaps it is the inherent challenge of telling an engaging story where letters (and news articles and journal entries) act as filters through which the reader experiences the story’s action and plot development. As such, the reader must determine the degree of truth revealed by relying on interpretation of events by potentially unreliable narrators. Done capably, the genre presents the reader with a puzzle to decipher and gaps in narrative they must fill with their own imaginations. In a way, the epistolary genre plays on, if we are honest with ourselves, a fascination with voyeurism. We uncover the lives of a novel’s characters through reading correspondence in which they may reveal their deepest, most primal fears and desires. It can be akin to reading your sister’s diary, if you will.
What is also intrinsically challenging in this type of storytelling is the process of character development. The very nature of this type of storytelling restricts the author to present character using only correspondence written by and about those individuals that people the narrative. The same is true for the actions of those characters in the story. The reader does not get to experience events as the characters experience them. Instead, the role of the reader becomes that of the storyteller’s storytellers’ audience. Through the use of his or her characters’ correspondence, the author further increases the distance between himself or herself and the reader, who now becomes more of a spectator than perhaps an active participant in the unfolding of the story.
Ultimately, the epistolary genre is a means for the reader to experience story in pseudo-real-time. He or she may not be privy to important information until the information is conveyed in a letter written to or read by one of the characters. We never get to peer directly into the thoughts of the characters. As was stated earlier, we only know them through what they write about themselves and what is written with regard to them. The epistolary genre challenges the reader to become a historian and to piece together and discover the truth from the clues left behind in the letters before them.