A character writes a letter, every word chosen with care, full of enough heart to make a strong man weep... And drops it into a drawer, never to be seen again.
This is a message (a letter, a recording, an e-mail) to someone the sender knows will never receive it. This is often a hand-written letter, for a more personal note and since speed obviously isn't of the essence.
This can be used to present a first-person narrative in an interesting way, making it very often a sub-trope of Surrogate Soliloquy
. For Bonus Poignancy Points, the would-be recipient is often dead, in which case this is a sub-trope of Talking to the Dead
. In-universe, it can be used to collect one's thoughts by using an imaginary sounding board, a way to cheat Never Got to Say Goodbye
(take that, Death!), or it can be used if you really, really need to say something, and there's no one (alive) to say it to.
It is certainly not unknown to happen in real life, of course. And, being a well-established trope, it is definitely capable of being subverted.
If this is a message that was never intended to be sent, but is sent anyway, and there is a (presumably non-dead) recipient for it, this becomes an Irrevocable Message
On TV or in a movie, expect a Voiceover Letter
Not the case of the sender expecting to be dead by the time the message is received (which is nearer Dead Man Writing
). Also not the case in which a message is written to be sent, but ends up not sent for one reason or another.
Anime & Manga
- Yu-Gi-Oh!: Bakura is seen writing a letter to his late sister.
- Kurau Phantom Memory: After Kurau receives her powers in the lab accident, her father's Mad Scientist boss keeps subjecting her to tests For Science, without regard for her safety or comfort until her father has her smuggled out of the facility to be raised by foster parents. Despite his command that she must cut off all contact with him, she is shown writing letters to him as she grows up. The last scene of this montage shows her releasing her latest letter to fly away in the wind out to sea...
- Fairy Tail: One chapter reveals that Lucy has been writing letters to her deceased mother about her adventures with the True Companions. She stored them in a small drawer in her house.
- Spider-Man: Blue has a tape recorder variant. Peter records a message to the deceased Gwen Stacy, reflecting on his time with her and explaining she's the reason he's always a bit blue around Valentine's Day. When his wife Mary Jane hears him, rather than be upset that he's talking to his lost love, she understands and asks him to say hello for her.
- Gen 13: At least one story (written by Adam Warren) had Caitlin Fairchild 'narrate' the events of the issue after the fact through writing an e-mail to her recently-deceased father. The final panel of the story is her hitting the 'Delete' button once she's done.
- Infernal Devices: In Clockwork Angel, while Tessa is imprisoned by the Dark Sisters, she writes letters to Nate for comfort, knowing she most likely would not be able to send them.
- Like a Bone in the Throat by Lawrence Block: A condemned murderer writes a letter to his victim's brother gloating about how much he enjoyed the crime in excruciating detail—then keeps it aside as he mails a much more repentant letter as part of a scheme to reduce his sentence. It works, because the brother wants him released to kill him personally, but that's not quite the end of the story.
- Dear Mr Henshaw by Beverly Cleary: He's not dead, but the second half is actually a diary rather than letters to Mr Henshaw. Leigh keeps beginning the entries "Dear Mr (Pretend) Henshaw" because he's used to it.
- The Diamond Chariot: In the end of part 1, the captured spy writes a letter to his long-lost-but-recently-found father, then burns it and commits suicide.
- Magnum, P.I.: The title character writes a letter to the daughter he thinks is dead, in a plot about why he doesn't kill her murderer.
- M*A*S*H: In the episode "Dear Sigmund", Sidney Freedman feels down in the dumps after a psychiatrict patient of his commits suicide because of voices in his head. Wanting a "vacation", Sidney retreats to the 4077th for a couple of weeks; while there, he writes a letter about the people and the hijinx of the 4077th to none other than Sigmund Freud. B.J. even remarks,
B.J.: Sidney... you're a phychiatrist, don't you think writing a letter to Sigmund Freud is a little crazy?
Sidney: Who better than he would understand?
- Smallville: In one episode, Chloe writes a letter to Clark telling him how much she loves him, never planning to send it. Several seasons later, after Chloe has hooked up with Jimmy Olsen, Clark happens to find the letter.
- The Suite Life of Zack and Cody: Maddie writes an insulting email to Mr. Moseby to vent her frustrations about his treatment of her. London sends it, and the group tries to break into Mr. Moseby's office to delete it before he reads it. They delete the email, but Mr. Moseby has already read it on his smartphone.
- Big Lie, Small World by Sting is about a man who accidentally posts such a letter, then goes to increasingly insane lengths (to the point of holding the postman at gunpoint) to intercept it.
- The Vocaloid song A Clingy Boy Sticking for 15 Years has an ending that reveals that the girl the singer has been writing letters to for 15 years had been Dead All Along. Quite a Mood Whiplash compared to the goofy lyrics of the rest of the song...
- Get Fuzzy: Satchel writes a letter to Ray Charles, thanking him for this music, because listening to it makes him happy. Rob then takes Satchel to the edge of a cliff overlooking water for him to mail it by folding it into a paper plane and sending it into the air.
- Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life: The framing device is the player's mentor figure/farm hand writing a letter to the player's deceased father about the farm's progress, the player's growing family, and how much has changed over time.
- Family Guy: Parodies this in one episode. A family therapist tells the whole family to write angry letters addressed to the other family members, but not send them. Naturally, Peter missed that last part of the instructions.
- The creator of Hey Arnold! proposed a Spin-Off called The Patakis, which would have centered on a teenage Helga after Arnold, her boyfriend of several years, moved away. Had it been made, Word of God says that each episode would have featured her writing him a letter and then saving it in a binder rather than mailing it.
- Abraham Lincoln once advised a friend to write a vitriolic letter to an enemy, and then not send it, to get the anger out without making things worse.
- Richard Feynman, noted physicist (How noted? He has a page here), wrote a love letter to his wife 16 months after she died. It remained sealed until after his death, making it perhaps a rare real-life case of both this and Dead Man Writing.