Today on the Writer’s Glossary…
An epistolary novel tells its story using letters or other types of papers and documents, such as diary entries, newspaper clippings and files. It was a particularly popular form in the 18th century.
Famous examples of epistolary novels are Clarissa by Samuel Richardson and Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula also use this form, which fell out of favour by the 19th century.
Framing a narrative using letters can add an element of realism to a novel, as the reader is privy to the character’s innermost thoughts, if it’s a diary or the politics of the world, if you’re using newspaper articles. It’s also a useful form to use for duplicitous characters, who say one thing and write another.
The epistolary novel has its drawbacks, as it lacks a sense of immediacy because everything is reported and the reader can become jaded by this. There are modern examples of the epistolary form that have been very successful. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and Watchmen, the graphic novel by Alan Moore both use this form to great effect, in a contemporary setting. YA fiction tends to use letters, emails and diary entries a lot because it lends itself to the internal world of teenagers. If you choose this form for the right reasons, it can work well.