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Epistolary Style: Pros and Cons March 22, 2014

The other day I read a book. I know, I know, I should stop doing that. Nine out of ten times after I finish reading a book, I wander around with an intense look on my face that makes Sweetie ask, "What happened?" I answer, "I read a book." He sighs and says, "You know better!"

This particular book was what publishers call "upmarket fiction," on the borderline between literary and commercial. I read it because it's somewhat popular and was supposed to be uproariously funny. But it wasn't funny. It was mildly amusing sometimes, but for the most part it was depressing. Basic synopsis: horrible people are horrible to each other until they realize how horrible they are, repent, and change their ways.

The novel was written in the epistolary style, as a collection of emails, letters, diary entries, interview transcripts, etc. from many different people. Leaving my opinion of this book's content aside, I'd like to go through some pros and cons of the narrative approach.

Pro: Multiple Layers of Meaning

Most epistolary novels are told, for the most part, in first person. This means that in addition to what people say, you can add layers of meaning through how they say it. You can reveal character through grammar, word choice, punctuation, and even font styling. You can put implications between the lines and inject social commentary through caricature. For example, in this novel there were several mass emails from private school administrators filled with meaningless ultra-PC nonsense and personal letters between women steeped in passive aggressive hyper-friendliness.

Con: Too Many Layers of Meaning

What people think and what people communicate are two very different things. We don't have personalities so much as construct them for the benefit of others. We think, we feel, and then we choose how to express those thoughts and feelings to produce the effect we want.

Sometimes we do it deliberately, filtering our words and behavior to fit the mold of "a good person," "a grown-up," "a cute girl," "a cool guy," etc. Most of the time we do it unconsciously. Whenever I interact with people I don't know well, I revert to the personality I learned as a child: meek, sweet, quiet, obedient. Internally, I am none of those adjectives. But even when I make an effort to be more assertive, my voice and behavior modulate themselves involuntarily.

So the way people write emails, letters, diary entries, etc. is largely artificial. What you see in a piece of writing isn't the writer's raw thoughts, but a selective slice of those thoughts shaped to fit a personality they've learned to project. The problem is, when people read things in the first person, they presume they are actually in the writer's (or fictional writer's) head. They have to make an effort to read between the lines and see that what the characters think and what they say don't necessarily match up.

In this book, there were several sudden 180° spins in personality. The horrible titular character, who had been complaining nonstop about her city's poor people, rich people, and all people in between, suddenly wrote a sweet letter to her daughter saying she was ashamed of her behavior and their city is a wonderful place to live. Her horrible husband, who regularly ripped into her in front of rooms full of people—including the secretary he was sleeping with—suddenly snivels that he just wanted to help her. And her horrible neighbor, who had been writing nothing but nasty emails full of deceit and pettiness, suddenly wrote a confession to her estranged spouse about how sorry she was that she had hurt people more than she'd realized.

Most of these spiritual conversions struck me as hollow. All we ever saw of these characters was the bitter, angry, snotty way they expressed themselves in the first half of the book. In order to accept their reformations, you have to believe that they weren't actually bitter, angry, snotty people, but that they were only communicating the bitter, angry, snotty parts of themselves.

But I, like most readers, assumed that what they wrote is what they really thought. When a character behaves horribly, but you never see their thoughts, you can explain their motives later for sympathy. But when a character seems to think horribly, as evidenced in their private diaries and letters, it's much harder to convince readers that they really had a heart of gold all along.

Pro: Unique Ways to Reveal Events

The funniest parts of this book were in the revelation of comedic events after the fact. I returned the book to the library already, so I don't have excerpts in front of me to quote, but an email exchange between Posh Prep School mothers might look something like:

Email from Amy to Sarah
Brittany's tree roots are destroying my yard! It's going to cost me an arm an a leg to have them taken out!

Email from Sarah to Amy
You should make HER pay for it.

Email from Amy to Sarah
I certainly will! I'm going to confront her at pick-up tomorrow. Wish me luck!

Mass Email from Posh Prep School Principal to Parents
Many of you have no doubt heard of the tragedy that occurred during pick-up yesterday....

In epistolary novels, events don't have to flow into each other or even reveal themselves linearly. You can create gaps and hops akin to scene cuts in visual media, in which a character says, "Come on, what could go wrong?" And CUT, the bars are closing on her jail cell.

It's much harder to pull this off in a traditional third-person novel because scene and chapter breaks are sporadic and jarring. You can't hippity hop through time as smoothly. But in epistolary novels, you can time-hop, scene-hop, and head-hop with impunity.

Con: Limited Ways to Reveal Details

At some point in an epistolary novel—or likely at many points—you will want to narrate a scene linearly. You'll want to incorporate dialogue and action. The problem is, people don't write emails, diary entries, etc. like they're fiction. At many points in this novel, the epistolary style devolved from a tool to a conceit.

Email from Sarah to Amy

You won't believe this, but Brittany's husband invited me to lunch today! We went to the Lenny's across the street from the office. At his request, we sat at a quiet booth in the back. After we had taken our orders, he leaned towards me confidentially and said, "I asked you here today to talk about my wife. Has she been acting a bit odd lately?"

I almost laughed out loud. Calling Brittany "a bit odd" is like calling Antarctica "a bit chilly." But I have to work with the man, so I took a sip of water with lemon and chose my words carefully. "Brittany doesn't socialize much with the other parents at Posh School Prep," I said finally....

Who writes emails like this? Nobody. Though the epistolary style gives you a lot of flexibility between passages, you don't have much within them. If you want detailed action and dialogue, you either have to incorporate a narrator or say "screw consistency!" and make characters text ten-page short stories to their friends. This book took the latter approach, and it annoyed the heck out of me.


Claire Saag (April 2, 2014 6:33 am)

I love this! So true. The epistolary style is perhaps one of the toughest to get right and I don't envy anyone who is attempting it. For me, I think it is just too limited and I really wouldn't go there, but I'm sure that there are people out there who can work wonders with it (I just haven't discovered them yet!)

Min K (March 28, 2020 6:38 am)

I enjoyed reading this!

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