Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ask O: How Do You Tell a Story in Letters?


Happy Wednesday, my writing friends,

Last week, I mentioned a certain book that I wrote that recently launched…I promised not to mention it again, but its initials are LFYGBA.

I co-wrote it (as well as my other novels) with the amazing Tricia Goyer. This one weaves a historical tale, told in letters, throughout a contemporary tale. Tricia wrote the modern part and I penned the letters.

Recently, a friend asked how I showed a story all in letters. I’d be happy to share.

Epistolary Novel
I didn’t come up with the idea. Epistolary novels—tales told in letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, or other documents—have existed for a long time. The first one I read was Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Scary! But so well written. Also, C.S. Lewis used this form in The Screwtape Letters. My kids enjoyed the Dear America series (so have I!). And of course, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, tops the list of popular recent examples.

Two main cool things draw me to these novels. First, short, to-the-point chapters; second, strong character voice.

Get To the Point!
In normal fiction, there’s a lot of wiggle room. I like description: the soft whistle of a distant train, the scent of bacon cooking on a campfire… But people don’t write letters like that. I would find myself lost in the scene, imagining myself as my heroine, describing what I saw and felt, only to realize later (or by my editor telling me!), I needed to cut it down. Epistolary novels need to say a lot in as little words as possible.

For my female protagonist, I allowed myself a bit more leeway, but I wouldn’t allow Clay, the leading man, to describe much at all. What a challenge to show enough of a scene for readers to feel like they were there, but also not make him sound too wordy—and thus, wimpy! A lot of time and editing went into his letters.

Normally, (even though we’re taught not to) I find a little freedom in a narrator voice. Does every single word always sound exactly like what the character would say? In a regular novel, probably not (maybe it should). But when portraying the character through letters? No space for narrator voice. At. All.

How obvious would it be if a letter to suddenly jumped from Ellie’s voice (the heroine) to the author’s? It would rip the reader right out of the scene.

This realization hit me early on and had an awesome effect. It made me go deeper into point of view than I ever have before. I absolutely had to become Ellie and Clay (and Grandfather and Janey), in order for them to sound authentic. Especially with Clay, after every letter, I’d go back and ask, “Does this sentence sound like Clay?” I did that several times.

So my advice, if you’re interested in writing an epistolary novel, first, remember to trim the fat off of those letters, and second, painstakingly work to create a distinctive voice.

And third, learn the term epistolary—it just sounds cool.

God bless and happy writing!



  1. That is a cool word, Ocieanna! I loved reading the Screwtape Letters and have read a couple of others written in that format. And, of course, Paul's letters (epistles) to the churches, too.

    Thanks for the info. Those are good tips for writing in close third person point of view, too. :)

  2. Interesting! It would be fun to see a resurgence of this type of fiction since everyone says letter-writing is a lost art, what with our texting and quick emails that most times, don't even have a greeting first.

    This has nothing to do with anything LOL but a friend just mentioned how she's started to do synopses in the first person. Hmmmmm.

    1. Thanks, Tanya. Maybe rather than using letters, someone could write a book using texts and e-mails. Probably already been done.

      Yes, first person present tense seems to be popular these days.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Wow, I never knew it would be so difficult to tell a story through letter writing - you did a great job with it though, and I could definitely tell each character had their own unique voice.

    1. Thanks, Kalyn. It was a challenge, but really fun, too!

  4. Sounds cool! One of my favourite novels when I was in my teens was a epistolary novel from two penpals writing each other. I've read short stories written in this form and enjoyed them too. And I loved LFYIGB - the letters were awesome! :)

    1. Thanks, Bonnie! It seems like I've read more than I mentioned in the blog, but I can't remember. LOL!


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