Epistolary Writing: Definition, Examples, Tips
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


Imagine you're in an old bookshop, and you stumble upon an age-old collection of letters. You open it and begin to read, getting pulled into a world of characters and stories communicated through these letters. You've just stepped into the realm of epistolary writing. This blog will unravel the definition of epistolary writing, its evolution, examples, and some valuable tips to pen down your own epistolary piece.

What is epistolary writing?

Epistolary writing is a unique literary style that tells a story through letters, diary entries, or other forms of documents. It's like peeping through the keyhole of a door into a character's personal world, experiencing their thoughts and feelings first-hand. Now, let's break down the definition of epistolary writing a bit more.

The Word 'Epistolary'

The term 'epistolary' is derived from 'epistle', which simply means a letter. When you hear the term 'epistolary', think 'letters'—like a chain of letters linked together to narrate a tale.

Format of Epistolary Writing

Epistolary writing isn't confined to letters alone. It can include diary entries, newspaper clippings, emails, blog posts, or even text messages. The format you choose depends on the story you want to tell and the time period it's set in. For example, a contemporary epistolary piece may use emails or text messages, while a historical piece would likely use letters or diary entries.

Character Perspective in Epistolary Writing

One of the distinguishing features of epistolary writing is its ability to present a story from the characters' perspective. It provides a close-up lens into their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. You're not just a spectator—you're an active participant in their world.

Intimacy of Epistolary Writing

By its nature, epistolary writing has an intimate quality. It's as if you've been entrusted with someone's personal diary or private letters. This intimacy can make the narrative more engaging, real, and emotionally powerful.

So, in a nutshell, the definition of epistolary writing is a literary style that uses documents—be it letters, diary entries, or digital communications—to tell a story from a character's perspective, creating an intimate narrative experience.

How did epistolary writing evolve?

Imagine a time before emails, before telephones, even before telegraphs. A time when the primary means of long-distance communication was letters. It's in this backdrop that epistolary writing was born. Let's take a quick journey to understand how epistolary writing evolved from these humble beginnings to the dynamic form we know today.

The Early Days

The concept of using letters to tell a story isn't new. It dates back to ancient civilizations, like the Romans and Greeks, who wrote letters not just for communication but also as literary works. These letters often shared philosophical ideas, political thoughts, or simply personal experiences. They laid the groundwork for what was to become the definition of epistolary writing.

The Rise of Epistolary Novels

Fast forward to the 18th century, often regarded as the 'Age of Letters'. This period saw the rise of the epistolary novel, where the entire story was told through a series of letters. These novels offered readers a unique, first-hand look into the lives and minds of the characters, making the stories more realistic and relatable.

Modern Epistolary Writing

As communication evolved, so did epistolary writing. Letters gave way to telegrams, then to phone calls, and finally to digital communication. Modern epistolary writing reflects this change, incorporating emails, text messages, blog posts, and social media updates into the narrative. Today, the definition of epistolary writing encompasses all these formats, making it a versatile and adaptable literary style.

So, just like a letter traveling from one hand to another, epistolary writing has journeyed through time, adapting to the changing modes of communication while retaining its unique narrative charm.

Examples of Epistolary Writing

Now that we have a clear understanding of the definition of epistolary writing, let's look at some examples. Seeing how different authors employed this style across different periods can help us appreciate its versatility and effectiveness.

Classic Epistolary Novels

When talking about epistolary writing, it's hard not to mention "Pamela", a novel written by Samuel Richardson in the 18th century. This novel, told entirely through letters, is often credited as the first epistolary novel in English literature.

Another classic example is "Dracula" by Bram Stoker. This chilling tale is expertly woven through a series of letters, diary entries, and news clippings, creating a sense of suspense and horror.

Contemporary Epistolary Novels

Epistolary writing is not just limited to the classics. "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chbosky uses letters to tell a heart-wrenching story of teenage struggles. Similarly, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria Semple creatively uses emails, memos, and transcripts to unfold a humorous and touching narrative.

Non-fiction Epistolary Writing

Epistolary writing is not only for fiction. "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a powerful example of a non-fiction epistolary piece. Written as a letter to his son, Coates explores the realities of being black in America, making it an intimate and impactful work.

These examples show the many ways the definition of epistolary writing can be applied, from classic novels to contemporary stories, and even to non-fiction. So, next time you pick up a book, see if you can spot the epistolary elements!

How to Write an Epistolary Piece

Having seen examples of epistolary writing in action, you might be wondering, "How do I try this myself?" Well, why not give it a shot? Writing an epistolary piece can be a fun and unique way to express yourself. Here are some steps to guide you.

Choose Your Format

First off, decide the form of your 'letters'. This could be traditional letters, diary entries, emails, or even text messages. The format you choose will shape the tone and style of your writing.

Create Your Characters

Next, think about your characters. Who are they, and why are they writing to each other? Knowing your characters well will make their letters feel authentic and engaging.

Plan Your Plot

Just like any other story, an epistolary piece should have a plot. Decide the main events and how they will be revealed through the letters. Keep in mind that the action in an epistolary story happens 'off-stage', and we only see its effect on the characters.

Start Writing

Now, you're ready to begin! Start writing your letters, bearing in mind the character's voice and the style of the letter format. Remember, it's okay if your first draft doesn't match your vision - writing is a process of refinement.

Writing an epistolary piece can be a great way to explore a new writing style and deepen your understanding of the definition of epistolary writing. So, grab your pen, or open up your laptop, and start crafting your letters!

Tips for Effective Epistolary Writing

Now that we've broken down the steps for crafting your epistolary piece, let's discuss some tips to make your letters truly shine. Here are some key pointers to keep in mind as you immerse yourself in this unique form of storytelling.

Keep It Believable

Remember to keep your letters believable. For instance, if your characters are writing emails, they should sound like they're writing emails, not formal essays. Keep the language casual and authentic to the character and the situation.

Use Time To Your Advantage

In an epistolary piece, time can be your best friend. Make use of the time gap between letters. A lot can happen in the time it takes a letter to reach its recipient, and this can create suspense and deepen your story.

Narrative Voice

One of the joys of epistolary writing is the ability to play with multiple narrative voices. Make sure each character has a distinct voice, and use this to show their unique perspectives and personalities.

Remember The Reader

Finally, remember that you're not just writing for your characters—you're writing for your readers. Make sure your letters reveal enough about the plot and characters to keep the reader engaged and invested in the story.

With these tips in mind, you're all set to create an engaging, authentic epistolary piece. Remember, the definition of epistolary writing is all about capturing the power of letters, so go forth, and let your letters tell a story!

If you enjoyed this blog post on epistolary writing and want to explore more unique writing styles, consider checking out the workshop 'Treatment Writing For Documentaries' by Reshelshah. Although it focuses on documentary treatments, you'll gain valuable insights into structuring and storytelling that can be applied to various forms of writing, including epistolary writing.