Tuesday, July 22

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, July 22, 2014 8 comments
“Epistle” is a fancy word for letter or correspondence; coming from the Greek, it means “send news.”

Epistle brainstorming is a method in which you write imagined correspondence by a character or even between characters. Since it’s imagined, you can conceive of exchanges happening slowly, as with postal-service mail or rapid-fire, as with texting or instant messaging.

Photo: SRCHEN from morguefile.com
The goal is to get characters speaking in their own voices. It’s a great warm up for dialogue. It can also help you figure out how your protagonist would think through and interpret an event so you can narrate it in your protagonist’s voice.

Epistolary exercises might also help you brainstorm back stories. Sometimes the act of telling a story to someone else can help clarify which details are most important.

You can also use epistolary brainstorming to interact directly with your characters to develop plots that feel organic and emerge from who the characters are. Imagine you, the author, are instant messaging with your character in order to ask deeper questions.

Epistolary exercises

  • Write a letter describing a pivotal experience that changed a character’s life.
  • Write a text exchange between the protagonist and best friend explaining a major plot turn.
  • Write a text exchange in which one character tries to pump information from another.
  • Write a love letter that lists the beloved’s most loved characteristics and describes the time s/he knew that affection and admiration had become something more.
  • Write a text exchange in which one character tries to hide information.
  • Write a letter in which a character summarizes his/her entire childhood.
  • Write a letter in which a character summarizes the events that led him/her to make an important decision or life change.
  • Write a letter in which a character describes his/her family to another character who has never met them.
  • Write a text exchange in which you ask your character his/her reasons for taking a particular action or his/her feelings about events or other characters.
  • Write a text exchange in which you ask the protagonist what s/he thinks should happen in the story—how s/he would prefer to tackle the story problem.
  • Write a text exchange in which you discuss your revision ideas with the protagonist.
How might you use epistles to explore your characters and their opinions, attitudes, beliefs and voices?


  1. I love this idea. I've written texts and emails between my characters (some ended up in the manuscript and some were just an exercise), but I'll have to try some of those other ideas.

    1. Cool. I've used it mostly as a brainstorming/prewriting tool. It has been weirdly helpful to discuss revisions with my main character, though stepping back, I feel a bit like I must have latent multiple personality disorder or something. LOL.

  2. Awesome. I read a writing book once where the author talked about his prewriting process to get to know his characters, and what he did was have the character explain their past, their family, their home, everything out to 5 or ten pages--all from the character's perspective. He always said by the time he'd finished that exercise he was pretty comfortable with writing his character.

    1. It is a great way to develop character voice. And some books are written exclusively as correspondence exchanges--from The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (snail mail) to L8R G8R (texts, e-mails), so it can be fun to experiment with that form--the epistolary novel.

  3. These are awesome! Love the one about pumping for info - that might help me out with a bump in my current plot road! :)

    1. You might want to take a look at my post on negotiation in thinking through the various techniques a character might use to extract information--both positive and negative. http://laurelgarver.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-secret-to-complex-compelling.html Good luck over coming that bump!

  4. I may have to try this sometime. Maybe to get started even...
    Just downloaded your book, "Never Gone". It sounds like it will be a very interesting read.
    Thanks for visiting and commenting on Trash or Treasure.

    1. Thanks so much, Donna. Hope you enjoy it. Yes, epistles can be a great way to explore character as a prewriting exploratory exercise.