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Old 02-12-2013, 11:47 AM   #1
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Epistolary Fantasy Novels? Yes? No?

I'm just curious about the general thought on this. The main one that comes to mind is Sorcery and Cecilia which I've been dying to read basically forever.

I'm thinking about writing one, and I'm wondering what the likely issues I'm going to have are. Is it possible to sustain sufficient tension? Are time differences due to the speed at which the letters(I'm planning to use letter format, as opposed to diary or whatever) travel going to make problems for me? Am I required to maintain a separate plot for each character? Would emotional arcs be sufficient to carry a novel-length work?


And, in general, do you as a reader like the concept, have you enjoyed any in the past, and if so, which ones? It seems hard to find good recommendations online. Are there just so few, or is there a secret trove hidden from me?
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Old 02-12-2013, 12:23 PM   #2
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At the risk of being obvious, isn't Bram Stoker's Dracula in epistolary form, at least in part? If I'm remembering correctly, I think we can safely say it was a successful move on Stoker's part.

I don't see why it wouldn't work for other authors like yourself. I think the big problem would be avoiding waffle - I know I go on tangents when writing letters, but I don't imagine that would be very interesting if it diluted the plot of a novel.
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Old 02-12-2013, 02:15 PM   #3
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I'm toying with the idea myself - maybe not doing the entire novel like this, but have the occassional chapter of letters interspersed in 3rd Person limited narration (quasi as interlude, for periods in the narrative when more time passes between chapters).

Pro's and Con's as I see them:

Pros:
Variato delectat - it might be a refreshing change from the 3rd person limited narrative situation that seems to be most popular right now in genre fiction.
The formula is tried and tested - epistolary novels used to be popular in the past (Pamela, Clarissa, Dangerous liasons, Daddy Longlegs, the Diary of Anne Frank, which might count as well, because the entries are phrased as letters addressed to a fictional penfriend). Okay, they had their high time in the 18th century, but they might be ripe for a comeback.
It's a good way to ease people into first-person narration from different points of view.
It can feel quite intimate and create a strong bond between reader and fictional letter-writer.

Cons:
It probably won't fly with people who are very religious about "Show, don't tell". Of course letters in epistolary novels are going to be less "tell-y" than ordinary letters, but letters do tend to recount events from a more (and be it only temporally) detached perspective. Authors of epistolary novels cheat at little, by employing the convention of "wirting to the moment" (when Pamela is accosted by Mr.B right in the process of writing her letter and describes the events as if happening in the very second of writing them down) to create more urgency and immediacy, but overdo this and it will seem contrived fast. It's an easy target for mockery. Naturally, there is going to be a certain degree of filtering and telling. I'm not one of those "Show, don't tell"-fanatics and I don't mind telling, if the narrator has an interesting voice. But even so, the temptation of telling too much, making things too explicit is a lot higher with epistolary novels.
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Old 02-12-2013, 10:55 PM   #4
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A couple of fantasy novels I've seen where correspondence played an important role (and in each case, created a story within a story that converged with the main story eventually) were Robin Hobb's Rain wild Chronicles and Glenda Larke's Isles of Glory Trilogy.

In both books, there were characters who were "off camera" for most of the story, but a letter from said characters appeared at the start of every chapter. Initially, I was wondering what the letters had to do with the main story, but eventually, I got caught up in the subplot and was intrigued with how they added perspective to what was happening with the "main" story.

I'm not sure I can think of a recent fantasy novel that is all this way, but if you think the approach would work for yours, I'd say give it a spin.
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Old 02-12-2013, 11:05 PM   #5
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The real question isn't "epistolary fantasy novels" - it's epistolary novels, period. It can be done and has been done; that being said, most meta-narrative devices can be wearying in long stretches unless the writer is exceptionally skilled.

Ideally, there should be some reason for adopting this framing technique in addition to the simple desire to use the technique - some reason that this story is particularly suited to this way of telling it.
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Old 02-12-2013, 11:47 PM   #6
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Ideally, there should be some reason for adopting this framing technique in addition to the simple desire to use the technique - some reason that this story is particularly suited to this way of telling it.
What might be a good enough reason though?

Personally, I'm toying with the idea for the following reasons

1) My setting will be modelled after continental Europe in the 18th century. That's the high time of epistolary novels, so I thought it might be fitting to have some epistolary novel elements. People in a society at that level of technology and infrastructure would conceiveably write a lot of letters.

2) Right now my outline has the narrative occasionaly skip large chunks of time (seasons at least, on two occasions full years) in irregular intervals. There are going to be parts where the action is concentrated and things happen in short order, and there are going to be parts in-between where the events to be reported are rather sparse. I hope letters might be a good way to cover these periods and get characters and readers up-to-date for the next set-piece.
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Old 02-13-2013, 03:32 AM   #7
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What might be a good enough reason though?

Personally, I'm toying with the idea for the following reasons

1) My setting will be modelled after continental Europe in the 18th century. That's the high time of epistolary novels, so I thought it might be fitting to have some epistolary novel elements. People in a society at that level of technology and infrastructure would conceiveably write a lot of letters.

2) Right now my outline has the narrative occasionaly skip large chunks of time (seasons at least, on two occasions full years) in irregular intervals. There are going to be parts where the action is concentrated and things happen in short order, and there are going to be parts in-between where the events to be reported are rather sparse. I hope letters might be a good way to cover these periods and get characters and readers up-to-date for the next set-piece.
Number 1 is a good reason - if you maintain believable voices for your 18th Century characters. I don't think Number 2, time gaps, is as compelling. There are plenty of immediate narratives with large, even enormous time gaps (my favorite example these days is A Deepness in the Sky.) In fact, an epistolary form might make it even more difficult to deal with these gaps, since the natural tendency of a letter writer would be to sum up lots of these events, making the immediate distant.

And that's the big danger of epistolary in general, as with any second-hand narrative - it distances the reader from the immediate story. That's okay, if you're giving up the immediacy to get something else. For instance, epistolaries have often been used to introduce unreliable and biased narrators and comment on the attitudes of the world of the story.
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Old 02-13-2013, 03:44 AM   #8
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My reasons for thinking about an epistolary fantasy novel include sohalt's #1, and also the fact that the main character relationship in the story is between two people separated by large distances whose only means of communication involves letters that take at least a week to travel between them. The story itself revolves around reason the characters find themselves in these circumstances.
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Old 02-13-2013, 03:45 AM   #9
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I often find there's a tension between the form and the content, in that letters and narrative/dialogue structures are very different and don't accommodate each other well. Usually the form ends up being too constraining and stretches credulity the nearer it approaches to conventional narrative. The same often happens with novels in diary form, ie either they're not much like novels or they're not much like diaries.
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Old 02-13-2013, 03:50 AM   #10
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Lots of ER Burroughs work starts and ends with someone reading a letter or journal by the MC of the story.

Once the story starts, the reader is not heard from again until the end as he wonders about the story or gives his view about the MC.

This type of story telling was very popular in the early 1900 with many pulp fiction magazines and novels and they are still popular today.
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Old 02-13-2013, 04:20 AM   #11
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Number 1 is a good reason - if you maintain believable voices for your 18th Century characters. I don't think Number 2, time gaps, is as compelling. There are plenty of immediate narratives with large, even enormous time gaps (my favorite example these days is A Deepness in the Sky.) In fact, an epistolary form might make it even more difficult to deal with these gaps, since the natural tendency of a letter writer would be to sum up lots of these events, making the immediate distant.

And that's the big danger of epistolary in general, as with any second-hand narrative - it distances the reader from the immediate story. That's okay, if you're giving up the immediacy to get something else. For instance, epistolaries have often been used to introduce unreliable and biased narrators and comment on the attitudes of the world of the story.
Thanks for the reply! I think it might be quite interesting to alternate between involved and detached perspectives - the character in the heat of the moment, and the character in retrospection. Letters are a good way to give a character some space for reflection. And, an easy way to expose unreliable narrators (leg. letters to different people recounting the same event in different versions, depending on the intended adressee)

But of course, it also probably involves embracing telling instead of showing, at least occasionally (because Buffeysquirrel is very right; tricksing by "writing to the moment"/making the letter sound too much like conventional modern story-telling could make it seem contrived fast) and that will make the experience of reading the novel less immersive.
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Old 02-13-2013, 04:24 AM   #12
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and the key thing is probably indeed to get the voices right. The letter thing can only ever pay off if you have interesting, consistent voices; with this you really can't just rely on the strenght of the plot alone. The discourse becomes the main event. (You don't replace showing with telling; you show something about the character by the way in which you have them tell the story)
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Old 02-13-2013, 04:28 AM   #13
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I'm currently reading a preview of Sorcery and Cecilia, and while still very obviously writing letters, the two main characters manage to give a very entertaining narrative. They also have quite excellent voices, of course, and were written by two different authors, so maybe that has something to do with it.
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Old 02-13-2013, 08:54 AM   #14
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I'd recommend Purple and Black by KJ Parker. It's 100% letters, and the fact that you get the story through letters is critical to the narrative.

I think epistolary novels are fun, but only for the right kind of story. They're not well-suited to most high tension books; the tension needs to be about broader slower-moving situations like politics for it to work at all. You can take advantage of the format, though, since readers are more like people in the world: if you haven't heard from someone, you don't know anything about what's happened to them. That has potential to throw in surprises that will hook readers further into the plot.
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Old 02-13-2013, 05:53 PM   #15
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Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull is another epistolary fantasy that's worth looking at. It's not everybody's cup of tea (there's plenty of action, but as the title suggests it's more about the ideas) but definitely an interesting take on the form.
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Old 02-13-2013, 06:36 PM   #16
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Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull is another epistolary fantasy that's worth looking at. It's not everybody's cup of tea (there's plenty of action, but as the title suggests it's more about the ideas) but definitely an interesting take on the form.
Thanks for the recommendation! This sounds awesome.
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Old 02-13-2013, 06:40 PM   #17
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It's important to remember that a novel doesn't have to be purely epistolary. In fact, it doesn't have to be purely anything. One of my professors in college referred to the novel as "the most anarchic form in literature," and I think he was right. For a good example of an F/SF novel that uses every form from video scripts to straight narrative to quotes from other (non-existent) books, check out John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. A little dated today (very '60s) but still well worth reading.
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Old 02-13-2013, 07:53 PM   #18
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Thanks for the reply! I think it might be quite interesting to alternate between involved and detached perspectives - the character in the heat of the moment, and the character in retrospection. Letters are a good way to give a character some space for reflection. And, an easy way to expose unreliable narrators (leg. letters to different people recounting the same event in different versions, depending on the intended adressee)
That is a really interesting idea! I have to say, my favorite epistolary novels are the ones that aren't purely epistolary, like Dracula. Mixing letters with diary entries, doctor's notes, etc. gives the format a little more variety, I think. You could even have the same character write a diary entry describing an event, and then write a letter describing the same event in a totally different fashion, to give that unreliable narrator effect you mentioned.
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Old 02-17-2013, 07:00 AM   #19
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Stephen King wrote a short story in this fashion called "Jerusalem's Lot" and I liked it...but I'm not sure how I'd feel about an entire novel done in this fashion. How many times can you read, "My dearest Mildred" before you become annoyed? =p
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Old 02-18-2013, 03:43 AM   #20
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I've done a lot of searching and reading of lists, and I've come up with this set of modernish epistolary novels across various genres:

The White Tiger
Love, Rosie/Where Rainbows End
Nothing but the Truth
So Long a Letter
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
House of Leaves
Up the Down Staircase
Last Days of Summer
Almost Like Being in Love
Eleven
Letters from the Inside
Letters of Insurgents
Super Sad True Love Story
The Key
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Upstate
The Communist's Daughter
Sorcery and Cecilia
The Nobodies Album
Which Brings Me To You
The Boy Next Door
Dear Everybody
Freedom and Necessity
Purple and Black


Maybe three or four of them are fantasy, and none in science fiction. I think I'm going to end up reading the majority of them, since they seem pretty interesting.

I wonder if there are any that people have read that aren't in that list that they liked? Particularly in sf/mystery?
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