In high school, I picked up Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and was quickly smitten by the method of the storytelling, rendered through characters’ journals, letters, ship’s log entries, telegrams, and even wax cylinder recordings on that newfangled invention, the phonograph.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Dracula represents a great example of the epistolary novel. Documents. It’s all about using documents to tell the story. An example is this log entry jotted by the troubled captain of the Russian sailing ship Demeter:
16 July: Mate reported in the morning that one of crew, Petrofsky, was missing. Could not account for it. Took larboard watch eight bells last night; was relieved by Abramoff, but did not go to bunk. Men more downcast than ever. All said they expected something of the kind, but would not say more than there was something aboard. Mate getting very impatient with them; feared some trouble ahead.
It’s a sketchy sort of shorthand, just what would be expected of a troubled sea captain. But it moves the story forward with economy and gives an inkling of the captain’s character. What’s more, it offers an effective change from the Victorian prose in the letters of Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra.
Again, epistolary is all about “documents,” but bear in mind that communications have changed a wee bit since Stoker’s day. Documents now include emails, blog posts, text messages, video blogs, podcasts, Twitter messages, Facebook posts, message board lunatic rants, Instagram pics, you name it.
Memoirs, diaries, letters, and such will most likely be in first-person. For obvious reasons. When writing a letter, you don’t typically refer to yourself in the third-person. If you do, we need to talk. But epistolary viewpoints don’t have to be in the first-person. A newspaper account in which the reporter doesn’t involve herself would typically be in omniscient third-person. In Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, there are newspaper accounts, post-event memoirs by eyewitnesses, and academic treatises by faraway eggheads and beard-tuggers. Some are first-person, some are third-person, but the format accommodates multiple viewpoints exceedingly well.
In my novel Brigands Key, I needed to slip in some explanatory text. But it’s important to avoid the dreaded info dump, which is usually a killer of story, and almost always a killer of pace. They’re to be shunned. So I went with revealing vital info in epistolary fashion, plugging it into the blog of teen misfit Charley Fawcett and in the memoir of a dead man. Overall, the novel is written in third-person subjective viewpoints of multiple characters, but these epistolary passages gave it a nice first-person change of pace, on top of delivering the info I intended.
Regarding length, the novel format seems an ideal way to introduce multiple viewpoints in epistolary structure. I generally recommend sticking with a single viewpoint character in short stories, and that advice extends to epistolary short stories, as in Daniel Keyes’s, “Flowers for Algernon” (1959). Epistolary mode in the first-person is exactly what gives “Algernon” its emotional wallop, as the narrator’s mental capacity goes on an arc over the course of the story. Deftly handled, though, multiple viewpoints can succeed in short epistolaries. Charles A. Cornell’s 2014 novella, Die Fabrik (The Factory), opens with a conventional third-person narrative of World War II, then shifts gears into a series of translated documents smuggled from inside the Third Reich, told through multiple viewpoints and painting a nightmarish canvas of Nazi science.
Epistolary storytelling, though hugely popular as a prose vehicle in the 18th and 19th centuries, drifts in and out of fashion. One hears whispers that epistolary structure isn’t what editors and publishers want these days, yet books in this format still become critical and commercial hits. Google ‘em. And don’t be shy about giving it a go.
For a quick look at the epistolary narrative of Dracula, check out the public domain download, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.