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Epistolary Writing Forms

Sarah Diaz, Maria Howard
  • Author
    Sarah Diaz

    Sarah Diaz is a librarian with a Master's in Library Science from the University of North Texas and several years of experience in teaching and research assistance. At the undergraduate level, she also holds a BA in French with a minor in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

  • Instructor
    Maria Howard

    Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

Learn the definition of epistolary writing, and explore the various epistolary forms in literature. Study examples of epistolary writing in fiction and non-fiction. Updated: 02/20/2022

What is Epistolary Writing?

Epistolary writing is a form of writing which includes first-hand accounts of an event. The term "epistolary", meaning "written in the form of a series of letters," is derived from the Greek word epistole (message, letter, command), via the English noun epistle. While only letters are mentioned in the definition, epistolary writing may also include other formats, such as diary entries. Epistolary writing can be either fiction or nonfiction. For example, the epistles in the Bible are formal letters written to give instruction, and Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl was the author's account of real events, whereas epistolary novels like Dracula or The Color Purple describe the experiences of fictional characters through the epistolary format.

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.

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  • 0:05 What Is Epistolary Writing?
  • 0:56 Letters
  • 2:36 Diaries
  • 4:20 Other Epistolary Forms
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Forms of Epistolary Writing

There are several forms of epistolary writing, which can be classified according to the method of writing used (letters, diary entries, etc.) as well as the number of points of view included.

Epistolary Novel

A novel told through a series of letters or diary entries is known as an epistolary novel. Within this definition, there are several categories which describe specifically the ways in which the story is told. A monologic epistolary novel is told by a single character; only their letters or diary entries are shown, without any replies or contributions by other characters. Works written in the form of a diary are typically monologic epistolary novels. On the other hand, a dialogic epistolary novel shows an ongoing conversation between two characters responding to each other's letters. An example of this is Poor Folk, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. A polylogic epistolary novel shows three or more perspectives. One famous example of a polylogic novel is Dracula, by Bram Stoker, which is told through many characters' letters and diaries, as well as other formats such as newspaper articles. While many books include the occasional letter, diary entry, or newspaper article along with a more typical prose narrative, epistolary novels are made up primarily or exclusively of epistolary writing.

Letters as Epistolary Writing


Letters are a common form of epistolary writing

a fountain pen and a letter


Letters are one of the most common forms of epistolary writing. In addition to the letters sent between real individuals or groups, many works of fiction incorporate letters and may even be entirely made up of letters. Often, this format is chosen because it is better-suited to the author's purpose than a normal prose story, with the letters themselves being a key part of the plot. For example, in the novel The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, a demon named Screwtape writes letters to his nephew, Wormwood, giving him advice on how best to tempt humans. This is used as an indirect way for Lewis to advise his readers on avoiding such temptations, so the letters play a key role in both the plot and the author's overall purpose.

Letters

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.

Diaries

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.

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Video Transcript

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

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.

Diaries

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the meaning of epistolary?

Epistolary writing is a form of writing in which the story is told through letters or other related formats such as a character's diary.

How do you write an epistolary text?

To write an epistolary text, you can choose which format you are interested in using (such as letters or a diary) and write down your thoughts and experiences or those of a fictional character from their first-person perspective. It may be helpful to look at examples of the epistolary format such as Anne Frank's diary or epistolary novels such as Dracula.

Is the diary of Anne Frank epistolary?

The diary of Anne Frank is written in an epistolary format. However, it is not an epistolary novel, since it is a nonfiction work.

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