Enrich your Fiction: Letters

Last week I mentioned that I was considering cutting the first 20,000 words of Withered World. This week I’m standing by that revelation and following through on the decision. In place of the 20K will be a series of letters which will be inserted after each remaining chapter of the novel. They’ll only be about 1-2 pages each.

Epistolary style is a device that has longstanding use in the history of literature, though it is not quite as common these days than in the past. But it clearly still can have its place in storytelling. With the advances in communication technology, this style can really take on a modern–and quite unique–tone. A number of writers already have jumped on this. Epistolary style can now  be anything from letters to texting, instant messaging or event Twitter, I suppose. Though I would tend to stick with letters, personally – I tend to swear off technology in my writing.

I get the sense from my writer friends that the letter version of epistolary style is more often used in historical fiction (which is where I typically encounter it) and historical/regency romances.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of this style. I tend to skim or even skip those sections when I’m reading unless the author successfully and fully hooks me. I see italics, and my mind just goes other places. I can’t explain it. Though if a full story is told in this fashion, then I’m game. I loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower! It is one of my favorite books.

Nevertheless, I feel like short letters would be just the trick I need to make my novel feel complete. So, I set out this week to do some research and learn a bit about some letter-writing dos and don’ts in novels. I was surprised to find that my Google searches turned up very little! You can check out this article from Bustle about 11 contemporary epistolary novels that are a blast to read. They say reading novels written in this style are fun to read because “it’s like there’s no narrator at all — it feels as if you’ve actually stumbled upon the character’s old diary entries or a letter she wrote to her best friend. If the novel includes documents from multiple people or time periods, it’s like you’re the only one who holds them all, and you get to piece together the story’s puzzle.” That’s reassuring for sure!

Here are five tips for adopting epistolary style (specifically letters) in your fiction.


  1. Be concise. Keeping things short and to the point is pivotal. You don’t want to lose readers like me to the menace of all your italics!
  2. Ask yourself: Does it drive the plot forward or reveal pertinent information? If not, perhaps the letter is unnecessary or should take on a different topic.
  3. The correspondence should express the character’s unique voice. Writing in first person is one thing. But writing the correspondence of another individual in their voice can be quite another. My character who will be drafting the correspondence is a scientist. But, these are his personal letters to a woman and not official studies or work that he is performing. Finding the right voice might prove to be a bit challenging. If you are using this style to represent multiple characters, be sure to distinguish between each character’s voice.
  4. Consider gaps in time. Your character isn’t likely to be able to write every day. This isn’t a journal (or is it? If it is, perhaps ignore this point). There might be a long stretch of time between messages, particularly if your character is busy or in hiding.
  5. If you’re writing letters, use tactics that remind your reader that these are letters as opposed to diary entries. Talk directly to the intended recipient of these letters. Utilizing pronouns can make this easy.

Adopting the epistolary style will be difficult, and it doesn’t exactly fit into the genre I’m writing – Dystopian/Fantasy. But, that’s okay. I’m forging new ground, as they say.

As an experiment, I decided to do a poll and ask my family and friends about their opinions concerning epistolary style. If you’d like to take the poll too, you’re still welcome to do so. I would love to have your feedback. I’ll share the results of the poll next week!

Happy reading/writing!