Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedinShare via emailShare via Facebook Messenger

What Is an Epistolary Novel? Definition and Examples

Updated on April 8, 2024Writing Tips

An epistolary novel entails a type of writing that tells stories through letters and other documentation, putting the reader into the head of one or more characters. This technique allows for a creative approach to developing plot, allows the author to adopt multiple perspectives, and sets the stage for innovative characterization.

Work smarter with Grammarly
The AI writing partner for anyone with work to do

What is an epistolary novel?

An epistolary (pronounced eh-PI-stuh-lair-ee) novel is one where the story is told through written communication. Usually this means letters, but it can also include documents, diary entries, newspaper clippings, and any other form of written communication. “Epistolary” comes from the Latin word “epistola,” meaning “letter.” This form of narrative writing gained popularity in the 18th century, and it includes some famous novels such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Color Purple. The epistolary style is still used in literature, but oftentimes through text messages, email chains, blogs, notes, and social media posts rather than letters.

The history of epistolary novels

Since the letter predates the novel, it was common for writers to include letters as part of their narratives when novels first emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. One of the first notable epistolary novels was called Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, which was published anonymously beginning in 1684 and which has been attributed to Aphra Behn, a groundbreaking woman writer. This narrative explored historical events and themes of love, scandal, and politics through letters.

The word “epistolary” appeared in English around the 1740s to describe literary works composed of letters, which coincided with the surge in popularity of epistolary novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, published in 1740. Often considered one of the most influential epistolary novels, Pamela explores themes of ethics and psychology through stream-of-consciousness-style writing in letters.

The epistolary form continued to thrive during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with notable examples including Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, published beginning in 1782, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774. In the 19th century, epistolary novels decreased in popularity, but out of this time period came the famous stories of Frankenstein, first published in 1818, and Dracula, in 1897.

Elements of epistolary writing are still widely used today. They incorporate documentation and intimate diary entries into storylines to give readers new perspectives on the characters and plot.

Why do authors write epistolary novels?

There are a few reasons an author might use epistolary writing to tell their story:

  • Epistolary novels offer multiple first-person points of view.
  • Readers are given a deep sense of intimacy and authenticity through exposure to the characters’ innermost thoughts.
  • Readers must be actively engaged in the story to understand how the characters’ communications—and the supporting documents when those are presented—are building a plot.
  • Epistolary novels are great for exploring historical and cultural events in a narrative through firsthand accounts.

How do you write an epistolary novel?

Writing a book is not an easy feat, and writing an epistolary novel can be especially challenging. It requires careful word choice, a deep understanding of character building, and substantial historical and cultural knowledge. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Explore formats

To write an epistolary novel, experiment with different formats. If your story involves a crime, you could consider using police reports and court documents to develop its characters and scenes. If you want to explore a character’s emotional state in more depth, you could try writing journal entries or email exchanges between close friends. If you want to emphasize pop culture in your book, you could use a combination of blogs, social media posts, reviews, and text messages to string together a story. If you’re writing about a scientist’s latest discovery, you could include footnotes, reports, and field notes among your means of storytelling. Maybe letter writing is perfect for the plot you’re building. If that’s the case, you should experiment with a combination of short- and long-form letters from all of the different characters you plan to include.

Give every character a unique voice

In order to pull off a narrative that relies heavily on the point of view of various characters, it is imperative that each character bring a distinctive voice to the story. Focus on making their unique personalities shine through in their communication with other characters. Be descriptive:

  • Do they use any specific phrases, references, or sign-offs in their letters?
  • What is their personal background?

As you build your characters, you can start developing a voice that is unique to each.

Make it feel authentic

Make your epistolary novel feel authentic by ensuring that your characters are distinctive, flawed, and expressive in ways that are particular to them. Incorporate references to historical events, societal norms, and cultural practices to ground the narrative and immerse your readers in a specific setting or time period. Maybe your story takes place in a time before Grammarly existed, and they have a few grammatical errors in their letters to others. All these distinctions can bring your characters to life and make them feel more real.

Epistolary novel examples

There are a few notable classics that are written as epistolary novels. Below are a few.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818)

The story unfolds through letters exchanged, as well as the personal accounts of Dr. Frankenstein and the monster he creates.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1897)

Stoker’s classic novel is presented in the form of letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles. The varied perspectives build suspense as characters chronicle their experiences with the iconic Count Dracula.

84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff (1970)

In this book, letters are exchanged between the author, Helene Hanff, a writer in New York, and the staff of a London bookshop. The letters cover a period of twenty years, creating an endearing story about a friendship that develops through a shared love for books.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (1982)

This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel unfolds through letters written by the main character to God and later her sister. The letters reveal the main character’s struggles and personal evolution, exploring topics of race, gender, love, and resilience.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky (1999)

This emotional, contemporary novel is told in a series of letters addressed to “Dear friend,” an unnamed character to whom Charlie, the main character, confesses his most private insecurities.


Many popular contemporary novels use epistolary elements, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and The Silent Patient, by Alex Michaelides. While they are not written in the traditional epistolary fashion, they include personal accounts through documents or scripts that bring authentic and nuanced perspectives to them.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, readers are led to believe that they’re reading a novel written in first person, as the main character, Offred, recounts her thoughts, feelings, and experiences. However, you discover in the epilogue that the entire novel is a transcript of an audio recording Offred created long ago that is being analyzed by scholars at an annual conference who are trying to understand the era of the handmaids. This is an epistolary novel, but as a reader, you don’t know that until the very end.

Similarly, in Daisy Jones & the Six, the novel is actually written as a transcript from a documentary, which aims to understand each character’s perspective on how their band rose to fame and what happened in the end.

In The Silent Patient, we get glimpses of a character’s thoughts and perspectives through journal entries that her psychiatrist reads. These entries piece together a story that would otherwise be unknown, since that character is choosing to remain silent about events her psychiatrist is attempting to learn about. The novel is mostly a first-person account of the psychiatrist’s perspective with these journal entries sprinkled throughout, so it doesn’t necessarily qualify as an epistolary novel but certainly explores elements of one.

As those examples show, many books use epistolary novel elements to add complex layers of storytelling to a plot and introduce new perspectives to readers.

Epistolary novel FAQs

What is an epistolary novel?

An epistolary novel is a literary work consisting typically of letters, but sometimes including documents, newspaper articles, diary entries, and other forms of written communication. The plot of an epistolary novel unfolds through written exchanges between the characters, giving readers a uniquely intimate and authentic perspective.

What are the benefits of an epistolary novel?

Epistolary novels provide an immersive experience for the reader, forcing them to piece the story together as it unfolds through various perspectives. Epistolary novels can be particularly illuminating when they deal with historical events, because the reader gets a firsthand account of the language and societal norms of that time period.

What are some examples of epistolary novels?

Some famous examples of epistolary novels are Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley; Dracula, by Bram Stoker; and The Color Purple, by Alice Walker.

Your writing, at its best.
Works on all your favorite websites
iPhone and iPad KeyboardAndroid KeyboardChrome BrowserSafari BrowserFirefox BrowserEdge BrowserWindows OSMicrosoft Office
Related Articles
Writing, grammar, and communication tips for your inbox.