Jane Austen, Dracula and 3 Myths about the Epistolary Novel

Many famous writers of the 19th century have used the epistolary format in their novels, among them Jane Austen (Lady Susan) and Bram Stoker (Dracula).

Despite the fact that this novel format has been brought to perfection already two centuries ago, a variety of misconceptions is prevalent in many forums and discussions about writing.

It is time to dispel some of those myths.

The term epistolary novel is often used for a novel that combines letters, diary entries, newspaper articles and other documents. In other cases, people who refer to the diary form may mean that the novel consists of diary entries only. The same can apply to letters and the letter form.

Especially the diary form seems appealing to aspiring writers. In internet forums and discussions, you often find questions about the rules and constraints of this format. It is true that any variant of the epistolary novel implicates certain limitations. But some of the statements that are made about the diary form are just wrong. Let’s analyse the following three myths.

Myth 1: It is hard to show many perspectives in a novel written in diary form. It is too restricting if you want other points of view as well.

I assume the line of reasoning here is that you need a person, albeit fictions, to write a diary. This means there is a first-person narrator, more specifically a person who cannot be omniscient. And one person can only write from his or her own point of view.

The misconception in this case is that you can only have one diary from which you compile your novel. Who said that? Why can’t you have two or two hundred? Do people think that composing a book from several diaries would look unreal? If you think that, consider a non-fiction example: many well-written books about the Napoleonic Wars rely on several private journals kept by officers or soldiers.

Another example of an author using different narrators – in this case in letter format – is Jane Austen: She wrote some of her early stories and the novella Lady Susan in the epistolary style. She continued to employ epistolary elements until her last novel, Sanditon. Jane Austen has included letters specifically to give the reader an insight into the characters, e.g. by the first letter Mr Collins writes in Pride and Prejudice which conveys his pompous character.

But if you insist on having a diary and by one person only, can you have different points of view? Of course! The person could write down what was told by other people. Or put letters he or she received into the diary. Or other documents. This would mean that you broaden the strict diary form and allow other documents as well. And why not? If Bram Stoker has done it, so can you.

People who consider the single perspective in a diary form a problem miss an important point: When you start writing, not changing the perspective is the problem, but keeping it. Many (first draft) scenes are written badly because the author describes anything that comes to mind or what could be relevant for the reader at some time. Perspective is forgotten, and the reader experiences the text equivalent of a music clip camera:

Sir Ronald noticed a coach that was approaching the house. The coachmen was lashing on the horses, regardless of the bad road that was in need of repair as was much of the estate as Sir Ronald was often reminded when taking a ride after breakfast. On that day, though, nothing would matter but what the passenger in the coach would say when he reached the front door.

Keeping the perspective is what you want. When you change it, you’d better have a good reason for it. Writers who struggle with the perspective might want to look into the diary format some more and perhaps make it a writing exercise.

Myth 2: You cannot have direct speech in a diary format.

Some people claim that a diary entry cannot comprise a dialogue in direct speech. The reason for this statement may be that personal diaries are often kept using indirect speech only:

I had a bad day yesterday. Some people just cannot appreciate when you tell them the truth. So I met Betty in town. She showed me the new sweater she had just bought and asked me to agree that she looked great in it. I said she looked like a stuffed turkey in it, but luckily she could still return the ugly thing …

There is no law that says you cannot use direct speech in a diary. Have a look into Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The novel is put together from journals, diaries and letters of several persons. Dialogue is included regularly.

Myth 3: Before you can write a story in diary form, you need to be able to keep a diary yourself.

This is my favourite myth. While the previous myths result from picking a particular idea about the diary form and adopting it as a general principle, this myth does not make any sense at all. It is similar to claim that:

Before you can write a dialogue, you need to speak with other persons a lot.

Everyday conversation kills any novel:

“Hello.” – “Good morning.” – “Did you get my e-mail?” – “Yes, but Paul had told me already.” – “What do you think?” – “Well, we should discuss it at the meeting.” – “Hasn’t that been postponed?” – “Yes, but it’s not very urgent, is it?”

Even writing this is painful!

A dialog in a novel is not a real life conversation, and an epistolary novel is not someone’s personal diary.

In both cases, the novel follows the form of something that exists in everyday life, but the content is artificial in that it is refined, made to create suspense, a certain atmosphere or whatever the author needs to move the story forward.

I do not wish to discourage anyone from speaking with other people or from keeping a diary. In fact, any writer should write – not only stories but also notes about ideas, locations, words and phrases. These notebooks may even become the object of scientific research. But don’t expect to learn how to write this way.

In summary, if you are thinking about writing a novel in epistolary form or strictly in diary from and people tell you that it will make it impossible to do this or that, do not let yourself be discouraged. Check carefully if the problem really exists and if this alleged problem is not in fact your intention.

One thought on “Jane Austen, Dracula and 3 Myths about the Epistolary Novel

  1. An interesting post; while it is possible to write dialogue in a letter, it is something that should be kept to a minimum, otherwise the illusion of writing a letter is lost if the author does it too often. The same could be said of writing a diary.

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