From Mind to Pen

So, how does one write a short story through letters? What are some things to keep in mind when writing in epistolary format? How do you write in letters?

This past project for my FYS discussed and tested the class how to write in a creative story format. Unlike the previous assignments, there was no analyzing or asking for comprehension of how letter writing is handled. From using SOAPSTone to studying language and subtext, it was all built up to prepare the class to independently write and improve writing. In theory, at least. Now, we the students ourselves had to put those lessons to use and utilize them. And that was very scary, considering that most of the letters we studied were either pulled from history or created by pretty distinguished authors who were experienced. Additionally, so many factors are in a creative writing piece: characters, plot, development, conflict. All of these culminated into something that hopefully entertains someone and suspends their belief for a while. So, how does one write a short story through letters?

While writing my short story, the largest thing that struck me was story pacing and development. Letters are sent between people, and naturally, it’s going to take time for that to occur. Time passing and it’s effect on a person can be written in two or three sentences while in a letter writing format, it’s just one line of the date and language within the letter perhaps. Approaching a creative fictional story is difficult keeping this in mind because a writer is likely going to have conflict, key events, and gradual character growth till the end. Tracking these events as one goes along was difficult, and planning how the events would happen as I wrote would be too chaotic and confusing.

However, laying out the events in a timeline format made it much easier to see what would happen. I originally planned for everything to happen in the span of a month, so timing of events and development was key. For example, one character would be motivated by fear of death to await his companion’s letters. Thus, this character would write immediately to his companion upon receiving the letter because he is on a time limit and wants to keep his life. Additionally, how physically close are the two letter writers? If the one person was just up the road from the other, then it’s likely that the postal service would deliver the letters in the same day as it was sent out. Having notes, or even a planner with little annotations, with everything spaced out made it easier in this way to approach writing. It also showed me areas of writing that could be slower paced, or even making me consider, “Hmm…I should move this character back so that events don’t jumble together.” It also gave me more time for developing my characters!

Events are set into stone: now what? You need people to cause and fix those events that you planned. So, how do you develop them through letters?

Character development and what I chose to reveal about them was another difficulty I faced while writing. Because of old history and lack of foresight, letters can get lost or destroyed due to mishandling, or the letters are simply too boring for editors to include, so they are cut out completely. Likewise, I didn’t want to include every single letter between the characters in my writing to constantly be shown. To me, it would’ve been too repetitive and would’ve fallen into a question and answer format. It also felt flat to read and tedious to write, so my solution was to not include every single letter. By excluding some letters, readers themselves would be forced to look for clues and see how characters are reacting to each other. Additionally, since I was writing a story with mystery and horror elements, not revealing every single thing about the story would leave it up to the reader’s imagination and add to the ambiguity of the plot and characters.

In my story, there was a murderer and the ghost of the victim coming back to haunt him. Initially, the murderer doesn’t buy that his victim is coming back to haunt him, as so he writes a scathing letter to put an end to this ‘prank’ as he believes. After the ghost writes back detailing how they were murdered, the murderer’s reply to said letter isn’t shown, but we know that he definitely did reply in an urgent fashion because the ghost’s letter afterwards makes jokes and mocks the murderer’s writing and words. This was how I personally showed character development of both characters: the power shift to the ghost and their mercilessness, and the breaking of the murderer’s pride.

But like all things, moderation is key. If a writer were completely depend on missing context from both sides, the reader can get confused, and the readings become nonsensical. Overexplaining and detailing something has the same effects too. I had originally planned for the story to be drawn out more by including letters from the murderer. It included abstract writing, like concrete poetry, in order to express the desperation and lengths he would go to keep his life. Although in theory it sounded great, after having peers and friends read through it, they thought otherwise. Not only did it become hard to read and repeated themes and ideas they already knew, but they didn’t find it ‘realistic’ to the character. It really shed some light on how he should’ve developed, and I eventually used some of their ideas and put old tactics aside. Having someone there to honestly critique and brainstorm with you is really insightful, and it can honestly push one’s writing further to explore new concepts and plotlines that one could have.

If there’s anything this assignment taught me, it was to definitely experiment. Letter writing as a medium has it’s benefits and downsides, but the perfect blend of utilizing these to develop one’s story creates an effective story.

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