Tips for Epistolary Writing
Formatting: Your letter should look like a letter (or whatever medium you choose). Include a header with the address and a date, a salutation, and an appropriate closing. Also, make sure these elements are appropriate for the style of letter you’re writing. A business letter will look different from a personal letter which will look different from an email.
Point of view: You’re still telling a story, even though the form is epistolary. Probably you’ll write in a mix of first and second person points of view. Also remember that this is one time when you (your character) is actually writing to another character. So it’s OK to use “you.”
Story elements: Make sure you include well developed characters, tension, a resolution to the conflict, dialog, subplot. You can assume the reader will pick up some subtext, but it’s not like a real letter in which the reader already knows the letter writer and his or her history. You’re bending a genre to fit your purposes.
Tense: Often you will want to open the letter in the present tense, and then move to past tense. For example, “I am writing to you to tell you…..” Then move on to what happened that the letter writer wants to share. Remember in Ketchup Clouds, the girl starts with the jam that isn’t blood and what she wants the prisoner to know about that and then moves into what happened a year ago when she killed a boy. It’s easy if the letter-writer is writing about something that happened a year ago. If the events happened in the recent past though, make sure you don’t slip back into present tense. The end of the letter and the closing should move back into present tense. “I hope this letter finds you well. Your friend, Jane.”
Characters: Make sure you know your characters well. You don’t need to give all the information about them in the first letter or two. Reveal information as the letter writer unveils the story. Also, remember that characters are developed through experiences and behaviors, what they do, not who they say they are. So don’t have your characters tell about themselves as much as they tell about the things they do, which show who they are. An exception might be if your character is an unreliable witness to events or tends to lie about her own character in relation to how she or he actually behaves. In that case, having her tell something about herself that’s in conflict with how she acts shows something about her reliability in describing herself.
Plot and subplots: People rarely write letters about just one topic. They include mundane details from their lives, information about more than one event or person. They include details to invite the reader into their world. You need to do that too, or you’ll end up with nothing but a concept for one storyline instead of a complete, complex story about a character’s life.
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