The Epistolary Novel
is written as a series of letters from one or more of the characters. It could be all from just one character, an ongoing correspondence between two characters or letters from a variety of characters addressed to a number of different people.
Which form the novel takes can affect how information is revealed to us. If it is monologic then what we'll have is a single, possibly biased, view, and we may have to read between the lines to get the subtext or to note the characterization that comes through. When between just two characters, these novels are often love letters, or the restriction to just two characters will be used to compare the intimacy between these two compared to the rest of the world. When dealing with many characters, which could be many-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many, we can compare how one character treats two different characters, what they reveal in one case compared to another, etc. We can also return to the practice of revealing information not revealed to some of the characters and introduce Dramatic Irony
Later on, books evolved to start using other devices than just letters. This gave rise to the Scrapbook Story
format, of which this can be considered a subtrope.
An interesting case are epistolary novels that are co-written, ie have two authors. These can take the form of the two authors each adopting a character, and sending the in-character letters to the other author who responds with another in-character letter. This becomes comparable to a Roleplaying Play By Post Game
See also The Rashomon
, Literary Agent Hypothesis
(authors will occasionally credit themselves as "compiler" or similar), and Diary
- Popularised for use in English literature by Samuel Richardson with Pamela in 1740 and with Clarissa in 1748.
- Older Than Steam: The Trope Maker is Prison of Love (Cárcel de amor) (1485) by Diego de San Pedro.
- Freedom and Necessity, by Stephen Brust and Emma Bull - 100% letters exchanged between the main characters, with a few authentic excerpts from The Times mixed in for verisimilitude.
- The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.
- There's also the lesser known Letters to Malcolm; Chiefly on Prayer, which was not so much a novel (although Malcolm himself is fictional) as a discussion on various aspects of Christianity, especially prayer.
- Griffin And Sabine An Extraordinary Correspondence is presented in the form of postcards exchanged between the eponymous characters. (As one character begins to descend into insanity, the astute reader will note that the cards no longer bear postmarks.)
- The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, is entirely a collection of letters: some addressed to God (naturally never mailed); some addressed to the heroine's sister; and some from the sister to the heroine.
- Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) is composed entirely of letters.
- Dear Enemy is composed of letters written to various people, some in response to incoming letters we never see.
- Fanny Hill by John Cleland, consisting of two long letters from the title character to a woman addressed simply as "Madam."
- Jane Austen's Lady Susan, which has been compared to Les Liaisons Dangereuses above, both for its structure and the similarity between Lady Susan and the Marquise de Merteuil. Also Jane Austen's self-parody Love and Freindship (Not a misspelling: that's how she spelled the title).
- The Bible, a Scrapbook Story taken all together, contains Paul's Epistles which are just that - epistles, i.e. letters. Also, the Revelations of John of Patmos consist of letters to various Christian communities.
- We Need to Talk About Kevin is a series of letters all from one woman, concerning her son, whose disturbed personality gets slowly revealed as each letter passes.
- Anne Frank framed her journal, published as Diary Of A Young Girl, in the form of letters to her imaginary friend Kitty.
- Daddy-Long-Legs, by Jean Webster consists solely of letters written by the protagonist.
- The Newbery Medal winner Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Clearly consists entirely of the protagonist's letters to Mr. Henshaw (as well as his own diary entries).
- All of the 'letters', after the halfway point of the book, are actually diary entries; the protagonist's creative-writing teacher told him to pretend he was writing to someone to make it easier. The dropping of "Dear Mr. Henshaw" at the beginning of entries signifies his getting used to journaling.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, is ostensibly the letters of a teenage boy to a stranger.
- Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, consists entirely of letters written between two protagonists, each voiced by one of the authors. There are currently three in the series, which is set in a Regency England with magic.
- Z for Zachariah is written in the form of the main protagonist's diary.
- Dracula is written as a collection of letters, ship's logs, and diary entries.
- Its unofficial sequels, Bloodline and Bloodline: Reckoning by Kate Cary, follow suit.
- LETTERS, by John Barth, is an epistolary novel which consists of a series of letters in which Barth (or, at least, a character known as "The Author") and characters from his other books interact.
- The entirety of Frankenstein is related via a series of letters from a ship's captain to his sister.
- The Griffin and Sabine books are presented in the form of postcards sent from Griffin to his penpal Sabine and vice versa.
- As is their parody, Sheldon and Mrs. Levine, An Excruciating Correspondence by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein
- Ella Minnow Pea consists of letters written between the characters are communication becomes more and more difficult.
- Meg Cabot's The Boy Next Door is composed of emails sent between the characters.
- Mark Twain's "Letters from the Earth"
- The Whalestoe Letters, by Mark Z. Danielewski consists of letters from Pelafina H. Lievre to her son, Johnny and is a companion piece to House of Leaves.
- Dorothy L. Sayers' The Documents in the Case.
- Jaclyn Moriarty's Ashbury/Brookfield books are possibly the most creative example of epistolary narration. In order of publication, the books are Feeling Sorry for Celia, The Year of Secret Assignments, The Murder Of Bindy Mackenzie, and The Ghosts Of Ashbury High.
- One of the stories in Bret Easton Ellis's collection The Informers is a series of letters written from a girl to Sean, the protagonist of his novel The Rules of Attraction. He never replies to any of them.
- A modern version: exegesis is mostly composed of e-mails.
- Douglas Coupland's The Gum Thief is comprised of letters between two employees at an office supply store mixed with passages from one of their in-progress novel.
- Steve Kluger's My Most Excellent Year, told in school assignments, websites (Augie updates his to include "Diva of the Month"), emails - the works.
- Count and Countess by Rose Christo is a series of letters that Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Bathory secretly send to one another despite living one hundred years apart in time.
- The first half of H.P. Lovecraft's novella, The Whisperer in Darkness consists almost entirely of a correspondence of letters exchanged between the first-person narrator and another character, until the protagonist decides to visit his penfriend in person.
- Cecilia Ahern's Where Rainbows End is written almost solely in letters and e-mails.
- James Mills' "Report to the Commissioner" consists entirely of official documents and transcripts
- e by Matt Beaumont is told through a series of e-mails. The second sequel e Squared also contained text messages.
- Anne of Windy Poplars, chronologically the fourth book of the Anne of Green Gables series, is composed of Anne's letters to Gilbert while she is teaching at Summerside High School and he is attending med school.
- Letters to His Son is one made up of real letters, unlike most of the other examples. Of course, the Earl of Chesterfield had not exactly planned to publish them.
- Stephen King 's short story "Jerusalem's Lot" (published in Night Shift) is a series of letters from the narrator to a colleague of his.
- While not a novel, Ovid's Heroides is a collection of letters from famous women to men they loved. Quite a few are addressed to men who abandoned them, the heroes of Classical Mythology frequently being a pack of Jerkasses; two of this type are intended for Jason of the Argonauts.
- Correspondence From The Goddess is an ongoing Web Serial Novel published as a series of letters from Lydia Devin, a seemingly normal woman who unexpectedly became all-powerful, to humanity, with introductions from Elana Devin, her sister and conscience - at least, at first.
- "Stan" by Eminem is framed as a correspondence between a psycho fan ("Stan") and his favorite rapper.
- Christian rapper KJ-52 then wrote "Dear Slim" parts 1 and 2, which were a respectful call to Eminem to be careful with the great influence he has over his fanbase, also letting him know he was praying for him (this was all taken by much of the music industry as an insult, but not by Eminem himself). Eminem later wrote "Careful What You Wish For," in which he talks about how someone told him he was praying for him, and says that he's thankful but he believes he's already got God on his side.
- "Adam's Song" by Blink182 is a suicide note.
- "A Letter To Elise" by The Cure is, presumably, a letter to Elise.
- For that matter, there's also Tom Waits' "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis."
- "I'm All Right" by Twizted is a suicide note asking the reader not to mourn.
- "Boots of Spanish Leather" by Bob Dylan alternates each verse between letters sent by two lovers temporarily separated across the Atlantic.
- "Strawberry Letter 23" by Shuggie Otis and covered up by The Brothers Johnson is a reply to a much anticipated love letter from the singer's girlfriend.
- Northern Exposure had a tie-in book called Letters From Cicely, which was Exactly What It Says on the Tin. Highlights included Joel thanking his parents for sending him lox from New York and asking for a recipe, it being smoked salmon and all.
- The radio drama Beethoven Lives Upstairs is a series of letters between a young boy whose family has taken Beethoven in as a lodger and his uncle, a student of music.
- The BBC Radio 4 (and later ITV) series Ladies of Letters.
- The BBC Radio 4 series Warhorses Of Letters, about the love letters sent between Napoleon's horse and Wellington's.
- Shadowrun and Cyberpunk have many sourcebooks that read this way, using combinations of internet postings, news article commentary, and chat room transcripts to advance the background stories.
- The play Love Letters by A.R. Gurney is the correspondence between two characters; Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III over 50 years.
- Passion and the musical version of Daddy-Long-Legs are both epistolary musicals.