Friday, 17 February 2012

Guest Post: Epistolary Writing

Hey all you beautiful people from around the interwebs, today I have a guest post from fellow Absolute Write member Diane Carlisle. I've been lucky to converse with Diane over the last couple of days and come up with a topic for today's posting - epistolary writing! 
Diane Carlisle is a software developer and the author of Are We There Yet?, a blog which focuses primarily on making progress, whether in her own life, her writing career or in the fast growing industry we know as technology.
She's here today to share her opinion on the topic of epistolary form. We ask her, does it work? And if so, where and when? 
When asked to post as a guest on the topic of epistolary writing, first, I looked it up because I wanted to be sure that I understood the topic. Come to find out, I understand the topic very well; I just wasn’t familiar with the term. Shows how long I’ve been out of academia.
As an avid reader of everything from genre to literary and creative non-fiction titles, I bring my enthusiasm to this post. But, as a gaming veteran with over 20 years of experience, I also bring a bit of a twist to it as well.
Epistolary story-telling takes the reader on a journey into the world of the journalist via back-story. The journalist might present letters, diary entries, and a number of other evidentiary documents that will help unfold the story or produce what we might alternatively recognize as plot points in fiction.
There are two examples I’d like to share, one where this form works and another where it doesn’t. In all attempts to write with this technique in mind, whether you should or shouldn’t is up to you, but in all cases, be sure that you realize these stories have already occurred. The epistolary form is the technique used to resurface the story. That’s what gives it that nostalgic feel, if that’s what you’re going for; it gives us those slices of life with missing chunks.
In role-playing games, this works because books (documents) discovered during game-play give the player some back-story and introduce them to the wonderful world of [insert name of the fantastical game within which you find yourself]. Also, the discovery of scrolls, letters, and ancient prose help guide the player along their journey and at the same time enrich the game-play with a mystical ambiance, thereby increasing the effectiveness of immersion. This works and is very useful when implemented in small doses to further a story or to flesh out your world.
If you ever have a chance to play Myst, a game developed by Cyan, Inc. in 1993, you will see a similar technique which I enjoyed very much. Peppered throughout this game are blatant inserts of the epistolary form, whether video logs or written notes. Each phase of the unfolding story is met with inter-linking journal pages which leave clues as to what happened along the way. It is truly a magical experience.
What happens when this technique is used in complete novels? Personally, I don’t like it. It’s too passive and boring for my taste. But it can be done beautifully when done well. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written in the epistolary form, is one if you enjoy horror fiction and the melodramatic feel of the spoken word in your head. To me, it sounds “somber” because I can’t think of any other word to use to describe how I feel when I start reading any words that remind me of, “Dear Diary.” See what I mean?
I also don’t expect to read dialogue if a work is truly to be a creation entirely in the epistolary form. Why would anyone write a dialogue scene in a letter? To me it doesn’t make sense and so the story is entirely misdirected.
So what about your reading or gaming experiences? Do you have any likes or dislikes toward this form of story-telling?
I love Diane's take on this topic. Why? Not only did she show us what epistolary writing is and define it's parameters, she also gave us an example of where it worked and where it didn't, and brought in a new aspect - gaming- to show us a better example.

Thanks Diane for your fantastic input, I feel lucky to have you as a guest on my blog! Be sure to check out Diane's blog 'Are We There Yet?'.

JP xx


  1. It is common in today's WRPGs (Wester RPGs) to use so called Apocalyptic Logs, letters and audio left behind by others. The best use of this I've seen is in Fallout 3. You can get a taste of what life was just before the bombs fell on the Washington D.C. area as well as those who tried to survive the devastation.

    1. I know newer games use this technique now, and we have so much more better graphics than we did years ago! When Myst was released, rarely did we even see video logs (well, not to my knowledge). :D

  2. Thanks for having me as a guest, Julz! I enjoyed the visit.

    1. Thank you for this insightful posts. I was an English teacher in my former life and did not know HALF of what you spoke about here. I think I may need to find a new career path...
      I found you [both] on the weekend blog hop and look forward to following, reading, and learning more!

    2. I'm glad you stopped by! I've met many new bloggers on the hops. I'd never known there was an official term for this technique used in stories, but I've read many instances in different places. One major part of my life, gaming and RPGs, I've noticed it a lot.

  3. Great post! Yeah, I would have said that I don't often care for the epistolary style, but I just re-read Dracula and it's amazing. I didn't like the book when I was younger (no clue why). And I never would have thought to apply to term to RPGs (which I love). :)

    1. It's funny when you think of storytelling, you sort of leave out RPGs, which are stories within themselves. Notice how most RPGs focus on what your character is doing? They write in the 2nd person POV as well (well, most I think). You found a magic potion! You healed the forest! You cast a spell and killed the giant scorpion! You gained 22000000000 experience points!

      I think I get carried away with my RPGs, but oh well. :)

  4. As others have mentioned, epistolary writing can be quite tricky to pull off, but when it works, it works well! I don't know if I have the patience to try it out myself - I still sometimes fight the urge to rush right to the end and expose all my plot secrets right off the bat! ;)