4 Tips for Writing Epistolary Short Fiction
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
An epistolary novel is a work framed as a series of documents, conventionally an exchange of letters or a diary. These days, the definition has expanded to include many other forms of personal and mass communication - basically anything written down. This can include email, IM/SMS logs, newspaper articles, memoranda, blog posts, forum posts, social media updates, transcripts of TV or radio broadcasts or phone calls, newsletters, police/medical/psychiatric records, ad copy, propaganda materials and a wide range of personal notes. Such novels usually forego a chapter-to-chapter structure in favor of letting the documents speak for themselves.
The epistolary style is not limited to novel-length works, though. It's well-suited to serials, and can also be used in short fiction and even flash fiction. Would you believe that I have an example of an epistolary short story right here?
That is "Overdue Notice," featured in the Laughing at Shadows Anthology, and it's a favorite from way back - before I even started shopping short fiction around. Needless to say, I used to live in a place where the locals couldn't be asked to return their articles in a timely fashion, and had a nasty little idea after one too many days on a wait list.
On Epistolary Fiction
I love epistolary fiction, and many writers are on a similar wavelength. However, the style isn't as easy as it seems, and novices make a few common mistakes. Here are a few things to remember:
1. Be true to the form
Depending on the exact form you take, epistolary fiction can be slightly restrictive. You can't just take a conventional dialogue, carve it up into emails or text messages and call it a day. People use different conventions when communicating by different media - shorter or longer, more or less formal, with different sentence structure and word choice. And there are some things - ellipses, for example - that are commonly used to render spoken language into text, but are rarely used by people writing things out.
Whatever form you take, really lean into the style of the medium you've chosen. That means no personal introductions in letters between friends. That means no ellipses - and less punctuation in general - in text messages. That means no live narration in a diary or blog post. Make sure that whatever you're writing rings true.
2. Keep the mundane parts trim
On the other hand, don't commit yourself so much to realism that you make it boring. Real life correspondence is full of mundane little details, and you're not obliged to capture them all. Endless questions in letters and meandering in diaries is certainly realistic, but such details can drown out the dramatic parts.
Here's a simple maxim for epistolary fiction: Always strive for realism unless it would interfere with dramatic tension. It's good advice for fiction in general, really - the worst writing sin is to be boring, so being interesting must be a priority over all else.
3. Mind the length
This is especially true if you're writing for a specific market, but it's worth remembering regardless: Epistolary fiction can be deceptive in its length. Media such as letters, email, news articles and blog posts can be longer than they seem on the page - the text, absent the short sentences of dialogue, can be very dense. By contrast, fiction written as chat or text logs can be less dense, as dozens of short lines fill up more pages than the word count might suggest.
If you have a word count requirement, keep notes on your word length as you go. This will save you trouble in the end. This goes double for novels, by the way - in the end, the 100+ documents you need to write to reach standard length may be more than you can manage.
4. Know your markets
There are a broad range of stories that can be written in the epistolary style, but there are some genres that are more suitable.
Epistolary fiction has a long association with horror, going back to Dracula - and I'm sure all of you have encountered the "Diary of a man slowly going mad" trope. Perhaps because it has become such a cliche, epistolary doesn't seem so common in horror anymore.
These days, probably the most common genre in epistolary fiction is humor, particularly satire. There's a long history of this, too - ranging from parody articles to correspondence from a bumbling oaf to the diary of a man who doesn't realize everyone is making fun of him. We're not sick of these tropes yet, it seems.
Romance is another genre with obvious epistolary appeal. Try to avoid the obvious love letter cliche, though - there are so many more interesting avenues. Gossip columns, postcards from the couple, a social media-fueled rumor mill - all novel takes on the genre.
Don't limit yourself to these, though. Advertising inserts for products of the distant future? A mystery litigated on a murder victim's Facebook page? A Bond villain's scheme tracked in real time by a news site? Give it a shot - just make sure that your target market is interested.