Are letters an effective way for drawing the reader into a narrative?
The use of correspondence, fake or authentic, as a literary device has a long history in literature. “Epistolary novels” have been published for hundreds of years, and provided the structure for the two most famous, and enduring, horror stories of all time, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Both of these classics of gothic literature employed the epistolary style to great effect, with the correspondence, respectively, of Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein in the former and Jonathan Harker, Abraham Van Helsing and other characters in the latter, all providing the necessary detail and continuity to propel the stories forward to their ultimate conclusions. Shelly’s novel begins with correspondence of Robert Walton, an explorer attempting to discover a maritime passage to the North Pole, to his sister, Margaret, back home in England. From its opening paragraph, Walton’s letter suggests the dangers yet to come:
“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”
It is not until Walton’s fourth letter to Margaret, however, that Shelly’s story begins its transition from perilous travelogue to one fraught with mystery and possibly menace. It is in this letter that Walton relates the sighting of an as-yet unexplainable apparition:
“We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the north, at the distance of half a mile; a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge and guided the dogs.”
This sighting of what would turn out to be the hideous creation of Dr. Victor Frankenstein would soon be followed by the introduction of Frankenstein himself and the initiation of the tale that would result in this chance encounter in the frozen and isolated atmosphere near the top of the world. While the reader would be around 16 pages into Frankenstein before reaching this point, the passage does succeed in drawing in the reader.
In a considerably lighter vein, consider the use of the epistolary style in Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, the story of single woman’s efforts at finding happiness as told through her diary entries. A romantic comedy, Fielding’s novel is structured according to the calendar year, and begins with Bridget’s diary entry for January 1, appropriately titled “New Year’s Resolution.” The very first sentence in the diary/novel is Bridget’s declaration that she will, henceforth, eschew “heavy” drinking, as noted in her list of what she will not do in the coming year, including drinking “more than fourteen alcohol units a week,” and committing to not behaving “sluttishly around the house, but instead imagine others are watching.” Whether this use of correspondence (to one’s self) draws the reader in is entirely subjective, but the popularity of Fielding’s novel certainly suggests she was on to something.
Alice Walker’s 1982 classic of American literature, The Color Purple, similarly, if considerably more dramatically, utilizes correspondence and diary entries as the method of conveying the story of Celie, a black girl subjected to incest, an abusive arranged marriage, the typical indignities of existing in the racist American South, and the heart-wrenching revelation that correspondence addressed to her by her sister had been intercepted and concealed by the aforementioned husband. Walker’s novel opens with Celie’s letter to God, and immediately draws the reader into the story with Celie’s description of the horrors to which is subjected on a daily basis. In that opening letter, Celie relates the first time her father rapes her and warns that this will be only the first such instance of sexual abuse to come:
“She went to visit her sister doctor over Macon. Left me to see after the others. He never had a kine word to say to me. Just say You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t. First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it.
“But I don’t never git used to it.”
Whether letters are an effective way of drawing readers into a story is entirely subjective. Some readers disdain epistolary novels; millions of others, however, are avid readers of such books. That so many of this genre of literature are considered classics certainly portends a positive response to a question regarding the effectiveness of this particular style of writing. One can easily conclude, however, that correspondence is, in fact, effective at engaging the reader’s attention.
I think this is a matter of opinion and what a reader looks for. Personally, I think letters are a great way to draw attention to a narrative. Letters between characters are interesting while still giving necessary information for the plot of the story. They can give background info or just share the thoughts of a certain character. Dracula by Bram Stoker uses this style of writing and it happens to work very well (it is actually one of my favorite books too lol).