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Epistolary Novel

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The Epistolary Novel (from the Latin "epistula", meaning letter) is written as a series of in-story documents, often ones that are sent between one or more of the characters, such as letters. In the case of letters, 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.

Epistolary Novels can also involve diary entries or newspaper clippings, and since Technology Marches On, blogs or emails can be used as well.

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, i.e. 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 Role-Playing Play-by-Post Game.

See also The Rashomon and Direct Line to the Author (authors will occasionally credit themselves as "compiler" or similar). Compare Log Fic.


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     Audio Plays 
  • Big Finish Doctor Who has one in the Tenth Doctor adventure "Expiry Dating". Much of the story is told through letters written between Ten and River Song (though Five sends River a barrage of smitten letters, and we have Ten reading out an angry "stop bothering me" letter from One, and Six gets a answering-machine message) as River is trying to cajole Ten into raiding the Quantum Vatican's Apocalypse Vault with her.

     Comic Books 

    Fan Works 

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Cat's Play: A rare cinematic example. The bulk of the movie, at least two-thirds, consists of letters going back-and-forth between Giza and Erzsi. The letters are heard in voiceover, sometimes describing flashbacks, sometimes describing what is going on in the present day, like when Erzsi writes her sister a letter about how she confronted Viktor for cheating on her with Paula.

  • Kathrine Kressman Taylor's short story "Addressee Unknown" is a series of letters between Max Eisenstein, a Jewish art gallery owner, and his friend and business partner, Martin Schulze, a gentile German who has returned with his family to the Fatherland. The letters span the period of 1932-33, and detail the split between the two partners: Max is first alarmed, then horrified at the rumors of what is happening to Jews in Germany, but Martin (and his family) gets swept up in the current of the rise of the Third Reich.
  • 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.
  • Jane Austen:
    • Lady Susan is composed entirely of letters between Lady Susan and the Marquise de Merteuil.
    • Love and Freindship (not a misspelling: that's how she spelled the title) was a self-parody written as a series of letters.
    • Early drafts of Sense and Sensibility were written as letters, under the name Elinor and Marianne.
  • Beautiful Losers: The second part of the book is in the form of a letter written by F. to the narrator of the first part.
  • The Bible, a Scrapbook Story taken all together:
    • Paul's Epistles which are just that - epistles, i.e. letters.
    • The Revelations of John of Patmos consist of letters to various Christian communities.
  • Bruce Coville's Book of... Spine Tinglers: Letters From Camp is exactly what it sounds like, with the narrator's letters to his parents. The final letter is from the camp staff, informing them of the conclusion of their son's stay at camp.
  • Kate Cary wrote Bloodline and Bloodline: Reckoning, stories that continue the letters and diary entries used by Dracula.
  • Meg Cabot's The Boy Next Door is composed of emails sent between the characters.
  • Cloud Atlas: The Letters from Zedelghem segment is formatted as a series of letters from Robert Frobisher to his good friend Rufus Sixsmith.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Daddy-Long-Legs, by Jean Webster, consists (apart from a prologue setting up the premise) solely of letters written by the protagonist, Judy Abbott to the title character, who is sponsoring her college education. The sequel, Dear Enemy, is comprised of letters from Judy's friend, Sallie; most of these are to Judy, but some are to other characters as well.
  • Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) is composed entirely of letters.
  • The Dead Zone has several sections which consist of letters written by main characters, along with occasional excerpts from newspaper and magazine articles.
  • Dear Cinderella is a picture book written as letters between pen pals Cinderella and Snow White, with the two describing the events of their respectable fairy tales to each other.
  • Dear Mr. Henshaw is partially a diary written in the form of letters. The first several letters are really sent by the writer, a boy named Leigh, to his favorite author, the eponymous Mr. Henshaw. Eventually, as Leigh starts pouring out his heart more and more, Mr. Henshaw suggests that he keep a journal. Leigh originally addresses his journal entries to Mr. Henshaw, but gradually drops the habit as he gets used to journaling.
  • Anne Frank framed her journal, published as The Diary of a Young Girl, in the form of letters to her imaginary friend Kitty.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers' The Documents in the Case.
  • Dracula, by Bram Stoker, is written as a collection of letters, ship's logs, and diary entries.
  • e by Matt Beaumont is told through a series of e-mails. The second sequel e Squared also contained text messages.
  • Ella Minnow Pea consists of letters written between the characters, demonstrating the effects of the increasingly stringent and hard-to-follow laws forbidding the use of certain letters of the alphabet. Some copies of the book feature the subtitle "A Novel in Letters".
  • The books of Emily the Strange are written by Emily in diary form.
  • A modern version: exegesis is mostly composed of e-mails.
  • Fanny Hill by John Cleland, consists of two long letters from the title character to a woman addressed simply as "Madam."
  • The entirety of Frankenstein is related via a series of letters from a ship's captain to his sister.
  • 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.
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: The entire book is a single long letter from the titular Mrs. Frankweiler to her long-time lawyer, Saxonberg.
  • The Further Adventures of Batman: "The Batman Memos" is written as a set of memos internal to Selznick International Studios during 1942, as they attempt to create a Batman film with the support of Wayne Enterprises.
  • Gilead is a single, 260-page letter. The Rev. John Ames, who fathered a son at age 70 and is now dying of heart disease, is writing a testament to the boy who otherwise will have few memories of him, sharing memories of their family and his own life in the town of Gilead.
  • The satirical novel Gog, besides the first chapter, is comprised of Gog's diary entries.
  • 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 Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Ann Barrows (the latter finished the book after Shaffer passed away) is the collected correspondence between a London writer and the natives of the island of Guernsey, who started a book club to keep morale up during the German occupation of WWII.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. He uses letters, newspaper and magazine articles, court transcripts and police reports in Carrie, giving the story a strong sense of immediacy.
  • 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.
  • Mark Twain's "Letters from the Earth"
  • The Letters From Nicodemus are twenty five letters from the titular Nicodemus to his old mentor.
  • 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.
  • C. S. Lewis:
    • The Screwtape Letters is written from the Point of View of a mid-level devil who is trying to advise someone's shoulder demon.
    • 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.
  • "Love from Your Friend, Hannah" is a historical fiction book in the format of letters dated 1937 and 1938 to and from schoolgirl Hannah Diamond, whose correspondents include family, friends, and pen pals, including both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.
  • Love Letters to the Dead is made up of letters protagonist Laurel writes to various public figures who have died, including Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, and Amelia Earhart.
  • A Memoir by Lady Trent: Turning Darkness Into Light is presented as a collection of letters, diary entries, and articles, though they include far more dialogue and detail than most diaries and letters.
  • 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.
  • Steve Kluger's My Most Excellent Year, told in school assignments, websites (Augie updates his to include "Diva of the Month"), emails - the works.
  • Susanna Fogel's Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters is a series of letters to Julie, an aspiring writer, from her family, inanimate objects, and other unlikely sources. Or possibly, it's the epistolary novel that Julie wrote about her family.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, is ostensibly the letters of a teenage boy to a stranger.
  • Eric LaRocca's horror novella Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke consists entirely of emails and chat logs between the two central characters.
  • A.S. Byatt's Possession revolves around a pair of modern day scholars discovering the letters of two fictional Victorian poets. Various diaries are also quoted at length.
  • Prison Of Love (Cárcel de amor) by Diego De San Pedro is the Trope Maker, having written it in 1485, this trope is Older Than Steam.
  • P.S. Longer Letter Later: Two best friends sending letters to each other after one of them moves away.
    • In the sequel "Snail Mail No More", the friends are now sending e-mails.
  • Isaac Asimov:
    • "Blind Alley": This story mixes internal government memos between BuOuProv (Bureau for the Outer Provinces) and Loodun Antyok with a cinematic third-person perspective of events. The memo format was inspired by Dr Asimov's time writing memos in service to the Naval Aviation Experimental Station.
    • "Rejection Slips": The poem is actually three letters, each rejecting one of Isaac Asimov's manuscripts. Each letter uses its own style of poetry and personal address as a Homage to his most frequent publication editors.
  • James Mills' "Report to the Commissioner" consists entirely of official documents and transcripts
  • Samuel Richardson popularized the use of "characters writing letters" in English literature with two novels:
    • Pamela (1740)
    • Clarissa (1748)
      • Upton Sinclair wrote "Another Pamela," a modern adaptation of "Pamela".
  • The Sorcery and Cecelia series, 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 books in the series, which is set in a Regency England with magic.
  • "Stringbean's Trip to the Shining Sea" is a picture book in the form of an album of postcards and snapshots sent by a boy on a cross-country trip.
  • Except for opening and closing scenes told purely through dialogue, all of Up the Down Staircase is told through letters, memos and schoolwork assignments.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Cecilia Ahern's Where Rainbows End is written almost solely in letters and e-mails.
  • The first half of H. P. Lovecraft's novella The Whisperer in Darkness consists largely of a correspondence of letters exchanged between Professor Wilmarth and Henry Akeley, with some bridging narration by Wilmarth, until Wilmarth decides to visit his penfriend in person.
  • Lucy Kellaway's Who Moved My Black Berry? is told through emails.
  • "Who's Cribbing?" by Jack Lewis tells the story of an unusual case of plagiarism through the letters between an author and various colleagues.
  • The Woman Of Colour is divided into “packets” of letters, sent from the protagonist as she travels to England to her former governess in Jamaica.
  • Z for Zachariah is written in the form of the main protagonist's diary.
  • Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! consists of letters between a young baseball player and her favorite pitcher.
  • The Regarding The... series is told entirely in letters, official documents, transcripts, newspaper clippings, and the like.
  • North With Franklin tells the story of James Fitzjames, third-in-command of the lost Franklin Expedition. The novel is written as a series of a letters Fitzjames sends to his sister-in-law, based on the letters the real Fitzjames sent before the expedition disappeared.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • M*A*S*H had numerous episodes in which a character writes a letter to somebody (narrated in voiceover) and relates various anecdotes shown in flashback.
    • "Dear Dad", "Dear Dad... Again", "Dear Dad... Three", and "A Full Rich Day" all have Hawkeye writing a letter (or, in the case of the latter episode, tape-recording a message) to his father in Maine.
    • Not the entire episode, but "Bulletin Board" has a scene of Trapper John writing to his daughter in this manner.
    • "Radar's Report" has Radar writing a weekly report to HQ.
    • "Dear Mildred" has Colonel Potter writing to his wife.
    • "Dear Peggy" has B.J. writing to his wife.
    • "Dear Ma" has Radar writing to his mother.
    • "Dear Sigmund" has Sidney Freedman writing a fanciful letter to Sigmund Freud while visiting the 4077.
    • "The Most Unforgettable Characters" has Radar jotting down anecdotes for a creative writing course.
    • "The Winchester Tapes" has Charles tape-recording a letter to his parents.
    • "Dear Comrade" has a North Korean spy (serving as a houseboy to Charles) writing to his superiors.
    • "Dear Sis" has Father Mulcahy writing to his sister the nun.
    • "Dear Uncle Abdul" has Klinger writing to his uncle.
    • "Letters" has all the characters writing to schoolchildren in Hawkeye's hometown.
    • "Give 'Em Hell, Hawkeye" has Hawkeye writing to President Truman.
  • A Saturday Night Live sketch has a soldier write letters back and forth with his wife during World War I, only to discover all the questionable things she's been doing.

  • "Stan" by Eminem is framed as a correspondence between a fan ("Stan") and his favorite rapper. The letters Stan sends become increasingly psychotic, as he has never received a reply and is becoming convinced that the rapper believes himself to be too important to answer his fans' letters. In the last verse, the rapper finally gets round to replying, begging Stan not to do anything stupid, but it's too late because Stan has drowned himself along with his girlfriend and unborn child to teach the rapper a lesson. note 
    • 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.
  • "Care of Cell 44" by The Zombies is addressed to the narrator's lover who's awaiting release from prison.
  • "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.
  • Two different songs called "P.S. I Love You". One is an old Johnny Mercer standard, the other is by The Beatles.
  • "Dear Eloise" by The Hollies has the narrator writing to console his ex-girlfriend, who's been abandoned by her newer lover, and in the hopes that they can get back together.
  • "Indiana Wants Me" by R. Dean Taylor is a letter from the narrator, who's on the run from police for a murder he committed, to his wife/girlfriend.
  • "One Love" by Nas is composed as a series of letters written by Nas to his incarcerated friends, describing events that have occurred prior to and after the receivers' imprisonment:
    Dear born, you'll be out soon, stay strong
    Out in New York the same shit is going on
    The crack-heads talking
    Check out the story yesterday when I was walking
    The kid that you shot last year tried to appear like he hurtin' something
    Word to mother, I heard him fronting
    And he be pumping on your block
    Your man gave him your glock
    And now they run together, what up son, whatever
  • The Donovan song "To Susan on the West Coast Waiting [From Andy in Viet Nam Fighting]" is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • El-P's "Dear Sirs" is a letter addressed to men in power, complete with typewriter sounds. He outlines a variety of surreal situations ranging from utopian ("food stamps can be planted and childhoods can't be damaged") to vengeful ("if all the coke and crack in the nation is...force-fed to the children of every CIA agent"), before stating that all aforementioned situations were still far likelier to occur than El fighting in these men's wars.
  • The song "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp)" by Allan Sherman has the Framing Device of a kid writing a letter home to his parents about how terrible his summer camp is. By the end of the song he's changed his mind and says "Mother, Father, kindly disregard this letter."

  • Though the podcast Alice Isn't Dead takes the form of a Captain's Log recorded by a driver in the cabin of her truck, it's also a monologic epistolary. In her logs, the narrator speaks throughout as though she's addressing her wife, Alice, occasionally adding commentary that implies she expects Alice to listen through them if they reunite.
    Narrator: I know what you're thinking, Alice. "This is intentional avoidance." I don't have to explain myself to you. But I will.

  • 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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.

    Video Games 
  • The narration of Dear Esther consists of snippets of letters addressed to someone called Esther, voiced out by a male character as the player wanders around a haunted island.
    "Dear Esther, I sometimes feel as if I've given birth to this island..."
  • A Normal Lost Phone has the player investigating the contents of Sam's phone to find out why they left.
  • While Sticky Business is a sticker shop simulator, you follow the stories of your regulars through their text messages.

    Web Animation 
  • Red vs. Blue: Season six begins each episode with a dramatic reading of a memo from the Director of Project Freelancer to the Chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee, or vice-versa. Who writes to whom alternates between episodes, so each episode begins with a reply to the memo sent in the previous episode.

    Web Comics 
  • Homestuck: Most dialogue between characters is delivered via online chatlogs.

    Web Originals