What Is an Epistolary Novel?

Definition & Examples of an Epistolary Novel

A woman sitting against a tree writing a letter
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An epistolary novel is a novel in which the story isn't directly told to the reader, but rather, gleaned through a series of documents. For example, instead of telling a love story in a traditional expository style, an epistolary novel would tell that same story through love letters that the two lovebirds wrote to each other.

Learn more about epistolary novels and the effect they have on readers compared to other styles.

What Is an Epistolary Novel?

An epistolary novel is one that's almost entirely comprised of correspondence between the characters. Instead of having the plot and characters described to the reader in the third person, the reader learns about the characters and plot by reading the characters' written interactions with each other.

The correspondence in an epistolary novel doesn't have to explicitly be between the two main characters. Various documents, such as diary entries and news clippings, can also be used to help tell the story in an epistolary novel.

Epistolary novels and passages have a similar effect as the monologue does in stage and cinema. It's an intimate look into what a character is thinking. The thoughts and feelings are delivered directly to the audience in a first-person style.

How Does an Epistolary Novel Work?

The first epistolary novels centered around written letters. In a novel otherwise told in the third person, letters allow the reader to hear the characters' voices more intimately. They also give an impression of immediacy and authenticity, helping to ground the story in realism.

This effect is informed by the way we read nonfiction and learn history. It's common to study the correspondence between leaders—as well as average citizens—to better understand historical events. One of the best-known examples of this is Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl." Through the daily writings of a young girl in Amsterdam, the reader gets a detailed and authentic sense of how Jewish people in Europe suffered under Nazi rule. Introducing this style of writing into a fictional novel can give the reader the experience of reading a nonfiction piece. When used effectively, this can make the novel's story more engaging and powerful.

As technology phased out letter writing, other types of correspondence became more common in epistolary novels, such as email or text messages. The medium is less important than the style of writing—intimate, first-person passages that are delivered with a sense of direct rawness.

As with most literary styles, it's possible to combine elements of the epistolary novel with other styles. It can be used to further develop a reader's understanding of characters. An epistolary passage helps the reader get into a character's head, providing more context before the novel returns to the literary style that had been used before the epistolary passage.

Examples of Epistolary Novels

Epistolary novels have been written for hundreds of years, so there are plenty of examples to draw from. Here are a few of the more popular examples.

The classic vampire tale "Dracula," by Bram Stoker, is an example of an epistolary novel. Stoker compiles newspaper clippings, letters, doctor's notes, and other written documents to tell the story of a vampire who moves into a British town and terrorizes residents.

More recently, Stephen King used the epistolary style for his first published novel, "Carrie." The novel compiles various clippings and letters to tell the story of a high school girl who uses supernatural powers to exact revenge on classmates who wronged her.

Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" is an epistolary novel. Characters reveal themselves and tell their stories through their letters.

One common example of an epistolary novel in recent decades is that which makes extensive use of diary entries. Novels like Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones's Diary" and Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" both use diary entries to tell fictional stories.

Key Takeaways

  • An epistolary novel is one that tells a story through documents and written correspondence between characters.
  • Epistolary novels can use letters, emails, diary entries, news clippings, or any other kind of document.
  • The use of documents in epistolary novels provides an intimate insight into the characters that can feel more authentic than through traditional exposition.