Writing Formats - Diaries and Letters by Allison Symes

Image Credit: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos.

I love reading books of letters and diaries. I was a fan of Adrian Mole and the letters of P.G. Wodehouse are an interesting and often humorous read (as you’d expect). One of my favourite quotes comes from a Wodehouse letter.  

“God may have forgiven Herbert Jenkins Limited for the jacket of Meet Mr Mulliner but I never shall!”

Dodgy book covers are nothing new then!

I also have a fascinating collection of letters between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. Reading this is like peeping in on a private world, which is a great reason to read books of letters and diaries!

Have you written in letter and/or diary format?

I’ve done both though for flash fiction I have needed to use close to the upper limit of 1000 words for these. They are an interesting challenge and I find they make a nice change from “straight prose”. 

Having said that, I wouldn’t want to always use these formats. It can look gimmicky. Besides the story format should be appropriate to the characters and diaries/letters would not suit all of my creations. I have written a story from the viewpoint of a mother dragon. Neither format would suit her!

For my diary story, I used the dates of each entry as mini scene breaks and ended each scene on its own cliffhanger. To conclude the diary, another character filled in a message they wanted the diarist to see.

For my letter story, I had a distraught mother write to her daughter insisting she carry on the “fight” the parent started to get justice. I showed the mother’s anguish through her choice of words and, yes, emotional blackmail is a key element. That was another reason to use the letter format. This had to be personal and letters are.

All stories must be well edited of course but in these formats, I was acting as the character would do - choosing what to share in the diary and/or letter and leaving much to be implied (which is why these forms can work well for flash fiction given that uses inference). 

Mind you, that can work the other way. Another character in the story could work out what is not being shared, especially if they are the recipient of the letter, and the tale could hinge around that.

The language used for the letters and diaries can also reveal much about your character, such as how well educated they are/likely social background. Readers pick that up on inference too.

A useful writing exercise I’ve come across is to write diary extracts from the viewpoint of your character so you as their creator get to know them before you write their story up. I tend to use a few pointed questions instead so I can work out what my character would be like and why but I can see how a diary extract would work here. 

Worth a go, maybe?


Peter Leyland said…
I think letters and diaries are great methods for storytelling in writing Allison and you have really gone into detail here as to how you yourself and other writers do it. It made me think of Pamela, the first English novel, although this title is disputed in favour of Defoe or Aphra Benn. A story told in letters that I have read recently which is really funny is Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. Although this book is based on real life, it probably belongs more to the Adrian Mole tradition. Thanks for the post.
Allison Symes said…
Many thanks, Peter. I like the sound of Love, Nina. May well check that out.

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