In this lesson, you will discover that prose writing can take on different formats, from letters and diary entries to newspaper clippings and interviews. Explore how writers of both non-fiction and fiction tell stories through these different forms.
What Is Epistolary Writing?
Captain's log, stardate 9522.6: I've never trusted Klingons, and I never will... With just a few words, I am transported (or is it beamed?) to the world of the popular TV series and movie franchise 'Star Trek'. While not all of Star Trek is told through journal-like entries like this, its screenwriters often used Captain Kirk's log as a way to convey information and set up their latest intergalactic adventures.
While the word 'epistolary' is an adjective meaning 'of or related to letters', epistolary writing uses forms like letters, diary and journal entries, and other types of documents, to tell a story and deliver a message, from the Bible and C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters', to Bram Stoker's Dracula and Anne Frank's diary.
Letters have been a form of writing since the beginning, but leave it to the Ancient Greeks to step it up a notch by writing epistles, or formal letters, to groups of people at once, telling them how to behave and how to live their lives. Historically, the most famous epistles are from the New Testament, mostly written by Saint Paul and other early Church leaders to groups like the Romans or the Corinthians.
In 1942, C. S. Lewis (of The Chronicles of Narnia fame) published his novel, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis's book takes the form of a series of 31 fictional (that means made-up) letters from a demon bureaucrat named Screwtape to his lower-ranking nephew Wormwood, another government worker in Hell. Screwtape's letters advise his nephew on how to tempt the humans he is charged with leading astray - which is all just an elaborate way for Lewis to instruct his readers on how to avoid sin and live good, Christian lives.
Not all epistolary works are so concerned with telling us how to lead good, clean lives. Two other well-known novels that use a letter format are Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky's Poor Folk (1846) and American Alice Walker's 1982 novel, The Color Purple. For each novel using the letter format, point-of-view, or the scope of the narrative voice telling the story, is limited to the characters writing the letters.
For example, The Color Purple is an epistolary novel told through letters written by a poor black teenage girl, Celie, to both God and her sister, so we only hear about Celie's difficult life through her own words and her direct experiences. Author Alice Walker's choice to tell us the story using Celie's voice gives Celie a kind of power she doesn't have in her everyday life.
Written from June 1942 to August 1944 by a teenage Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl documents her thoughts and feelings, some important and others seemingly trivial. A month after she receives the diary as a gift, Anne and her family and family friends are forced into hiding in an office building in Amsterdam to escape religious persecution from the Nazis.
At the beginning of her diary, Anne writes: I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.
Knowing how Anne's story ends before starting to read Diary of a Young Girl adds another layer to these words from her first entry. The Secret Annex was discovered in August 1944 by the Nazis, and Anne and all but one of the eight people hiding with her die in concentration camps within a year. The sole survivor, Anne's father Otto Frank, returns to Amsterdam and her diary is published in 1947.
Because of its publication, the 'you' Anne mentions in her first entry is now the entire world, as we are all taken into her confidence. The diary format gives the reader an intimate look into Anne's thoughts and feelings during a very difficult time, but it is also remarkable, because its historical context stands side-by-side with the seemingly commonplace hopes and dreams of a 13-year-old girl that we know were never realized.
Non-fiction diaries are usually edited down, as Anne's was, but fiction writers use the diary format to give us a close glimpse on a specific character and build a closeness between the main character and the reader. Bridget Jones's Diary, a popular novel from 1996 by Helen Fielding, uses diary entries to show Bridget Jones's sense of humor and candor, including daily records of how much chocolate she's had to eat that day.
Other Epistolary Forms
Sometimes fiction writers put together a few different epistolary forms to tell their stories. Bram Stoker decided to tell the story of Dracula (1897) using a mix of diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings and other accounts.
Getting only glimpses of the vampire Dracula's strange behavior through firsthand reports makes the danger he presents that much more unsettling and scary. For example, in chapter two, a young British lawyer named Jonathan Harker recounts in a letter an early experience with the Count from Transylvania, whom he is helping with a real estate sale:
As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me...a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal. Think about how point-of-view influences the dark mood of even this short quote, and how, if presented in a more all-knowing voice, we wouldn't share in Harker's confusion and fear when encountering this strange man.
Similarly, the novel World War Z by Max Brooks is written as a series of interviews with individuals from across the globe who survived what is referred to as the 'Zombie War'. As with Dracula, Brooks' use of an oral history-like structure to tell his story grounds the novel more in reality than traditional horror stories, and is said to have given new life to the zombie apocalypse genre.
Originally, epistolary writing referred to non-fiction (true) writing that used a letter format. Over time, the epistolary format has grown to include both fiction (made-up) and non-fiction, and other written accounts, from diary and log entries to newspaper clippings and interviews. Sometimes these forms are combined by fiction writers, making point-of-view an important part of the story they want to tell.
Viewing this video lesson will guide students' success in the following:
- Defining epistolary writing and naming titles of examples
- Listing the forms of writing that fall under this heading
- Explaining the advantages offered to writers using these formats