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Epistolary writing was one of the earliest versions of reality entertainment. In the 17th century, epistolary works often started with letters between two lovers. Audiences back then were drawn to the quarrels and interpretations of the text and context between two characters the way our society gets sucked into scandals with revealing messages on social media, private texts, and the like. Epistolary writing is still used to this day for the sake of worldbuilding and characterization in roleplay video games, films, and other fictional works, proving there is still value to the way audiences see a letter, a journal entry, a news article, and other snippets of information. Bram Stoker wrote Dracula as a complex collection of documents, creating a more modified version of the epistolary form. There are essential techniques a fiction writer can reference from Stoker’s horror classic. We’ll explore those techniques after a brief history of the epistolary style’s rise and fall and Stoker’s artistic influences.
The Appeal and Decline of Epistolary Literature
Whole stories were constructed through letters and made into literature during the 17th century. Aphra Behn (Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister) pioneered the genre with other authors, like Samuel Richardson (Pamela). There was a strong focus on letters from women who were being seduced by something or someone and later evolved into more black-and-white characteristics of innocence during the Romantic and Victorian eras of literature. It was enticing to see innocence become corrupted. The villain of Stoker’s Dracula seducing and corrupting was based on the fearful rumors of vampires, which were more ominous and coincidental with other historical incidents than anything else, but it was enough to inspire.
Epistolary writing also led to the craft of letter writing. They were intimate, informative, and most importantly, secretive. Letters have always been tantalizing, but this style of writing did more than stir up drama. Epistolary writing was a moment of psychological exploration. When innocence became corrupted, there would be a change in perspective and tone. Each character will most likely reveal their true thoughts about their new situations, but when it comes to letters, being selective with word choice has greater importance, like how we write emails and text messages. Stoker upped up the ante by not just having his characters write letters, but also raw journal entries and reports. Dracula also had newspaper articles that pieced together the story's setting, all of which greatly impacted the epistolary form.
Epistolary novels ranged from being a psychological evaluation to a road trip. Audiences traveled from the depth of a character’s psyche to piecing together the details of the setting the characters lived in. It was very much like collecting puzzle pieces, but the puzzle had to be solved chronologically (because most plots, like the one in Dracula, were linear). The audience would always be reading about the experience, but never have it with the characters. The audience only deals with the impact of the event because all epistolary writing is past tense. This is one of the most appealing traits of this writing style to some audiences due to the raw confessions shared, though some authors may feel limited by the tense of writing.
Epistolary writing lost its popularity when writers like Jane Austen disliked the restraint of writing from a retrospective view. Although the epistolary form ranged from third to first-person narration, it’s always stuck in the past. Some writers and audiences wanted to be immersed in the present and just relax while the story is told to them. Letters, journal entries, documents, newspapers, and the like in Dracula were all coded pieces leaving the audience to construct the plot for themselves (similarly to how we start piecing together what is and isn’t true when a political or celebrity scandal is revealed). The audience juggling between constructing the main plot and subplots lost its edge to audiences who preferred the story just being told to them, whether the narration is third-person, first-person, past or present. Epistolary form thrives on limitation and mystery, similar to how reality shows will give you clips of the supposed drama between two characters before the great reveal. Some audiences don’t like the tease. In a regular novel, audiences know they’re either going to experience the story with the characters (present tense; first, second, or third-person narration) or they’re going to be told a complete story with either a reliable narrator (past tense; third-person narration) or with a narrator who knows they’re telling their story (past tense; first-person narration). The regular novel is a wide-open stage, whereas the epistolary novel has hidden cameras planted everywhere in a private place with limited view.
Because Stoker wrote a Victorian horror, the epistolary form was ideal. Stressed out minds trying to understand a creature they knew very little about and the moral complications that came with it was a mesmerizing read (Isn't that why we love Shelley's Frankenstein?). If Stoker wrote in the third person with an omnipotent narrator, the reader would most likely approach the story with more leisure than preparing to learn. They’d see the body language and mannerisms of each character, objective descriptions of the setting, the full dialogue of a scene rather than a fragment, and more. This is just a theory, but this may be why many of the Dracula movie adaptations aren’t up to par for the book lovers. We’re standing on the outside looking in at the mercy of the director, whereas the book gave us a front-row seat to the fluctuations between hope and fear in each character’s mind. Brooke Allen Ph.D. from Columbia University agreed:
“Dracula is not a straightforward narrative but a collection of documents that, taken together, tell the tale in its entirety: journals and letters by the principal characters, transcriptions of recordings on the newfangled phonograph, newspaper clippings, even a ship’s log. The story constructed by these fragments is a rather complex one, and dramatists and filmmakers, in adapting the novel, have usually felt free to alter the plot in drastic ways, dropping major characters or amalgamating them into one another, changing the various love interests around, and generally ignoring and upsetting Stoker’s carefully built fictional edifice. In doing so they have sacrificed layers of meaning and radically changed Stoker’s original intentions.” – (Allen 2003, xv)
The movie adaptations of Dracula showed how modern audiences prefer the story to be pieced together for them rather than construct it themselves. For those of us who loved the book, it's a shame, but objectively, it’s understandable. As stated before, the culmination of letters was juicy in the past and our society today acts similarly to reality shows and online drama, but having a storyteller run the show is in greater favor. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the way Stoker did this modified epistolary work. There are writers in many mediums who still use the epistolary form in fantastic ways.
There are several techniques from Dracula we can apply to our fictional works. Some are going to seem obvious to those who have already studied literature and are writing actively, but it's always good to review the basics. Even the most experienced writers fall back on mistakes, but what we can learn from Stoker will help us keep continuity in symbolism, perspective, and characterization in mind.
1. A Distinct Tone In Every Character's Voice
In Dracula, every character shows fear of the unknown, but each shows it differently. Jonathan spent most of his time processing the trauma of being trapped by someone or something he didn't understand, so many of his journal entries had a tone of helplessness and frustration. Mina was more fearful for those she loved even after being attacked, so her journal entries and letters to others were full of empathy and concern and she is also very detail-oriented. Lucy spoke with innocence and hope while enduring a corruption her bright personality couldn't ward off. Dr. Seward is a compassionate man with a keen eye for human behavior when it comes to his patients and his social circle. Van Helsing, though he doesn't have many entries, speaks in a cryptic and philosophical tone with strong religious and romantic undertones. Comparing the tones of each character will show you the range of perspective in the story and how their views on one thing ultimately brought them together, thus progressing the plot. When we write a story with multiple viewpoints, we can ensure a purpose for every perception through tone. Jon introduces us to the terror and the others deconstruct the villain showing how they needed one another to at least conquer their villain since there isn't much hope in fully understanding him.
Characters are created to cross paths for a certain reason. In a regular narrative, authors give their characters a specific tone to reveal their personality and how they'll respond to other elements of the story. In the epistolary form, the character's tone progresses the plot, builds the setting, and holds the secrets to the next action or situation through their own eyes. It's not the objective truth, but audiences are more concerned with how your character sees everything. As I said, it's a reality show; you want to watch the next episode because someone's personality is stirring up more drama due to how they view their situation, which they'll explain in an interview only audiences will see. In epistolary literature, the pivotal events of the story start in the character's mind, not their decisions. The audience is drawn to the thoughts and feelings first and the description of actions and their consequences later.
From Jonathan Harker's journal: "These may be the last words I ever write in this diary. I slept till just before the dawn, and when I woke threw myself on my knees, for I determined that if Death came he should find me ready," (Stoker 1897, 63). Because of Jonathan's helpless tone, you already know his mind is in a place of surrender. It's confirmed when you get to the description of his action, surrendering to death by kneeling. The story shifts in the mind of the characters and the decisions follow. The same happens in a regular first-person narration in the past tense, but remember that Jonathan isn't writing just for the sake of storytelling. It's a journal entry, a personal record not intentionally written for others to see.
2. Limitations and The Unknown
How anxious do we become when we send a text or email and wait for a reply? If it isn't instant, our imagination goes haywire. The majority of Dracula is journal entries, but there are letters, telegrams, and reports too. One letter wasn't even read, another wasn't delivered. Many of the characters had to deal with uncertainty just through waiting for messages, but that uncertainty snowballs with their fear when Dracula's influence becomes more prominent. The epistolary narrative wonderfully captures how many of us deal with what is and isn't within our control. The characters recorded their anxieties in their journals and wrote what was necessary for the letters. Additionally, news and reports from sources who weren't aware of Dracula delivered what information they had not being able to confirm the truth. Stoker lived during a time when rumors of vampires were rampant in Eastern Europe. Coping with that must have been discomforting since the rumors were just rumors and the gory events surrounding those rumors were most likely circumstantial, but how could anyone confirm that?
Dealing with what we don't fully understand is Storytelling 101. When we reach our limits within a mystery, we often return to what we know to regain control. Death, violence, and entrapment are so prominent in Dracula. When experiencing such things we want to understand why it happened, how we can stop it, and if we must accept it. Plots progress once the unknown is ventured and the characters evolve into someone they weren't at the beginning of the story. Let's take Lucy for example; she was alive and eager to be married. She got sick. She died. She became undead. Then died again. That's a clear contrast right there: alive then, now dead. But of course, there's more to it. The mystery starts with her sickness and peaks when she rises after her first death. How did she conquer death? Why is she now violent? Will she forever be trapped as a vampire? Dr. Seward, Van Helsing, and her fiancé Arthur dealt with these mysteries and evolved from there.
Remembering that the characters must have a distinct tone, the story is told through the characters' reflections on their limitations. It makes the story more symbolic. The characters evaluate one another and themselves. The personal revelation of a character's experiences is deconstructed on their own. As an example, Dr. Seward knew little to nothing about vampires, even though he had a patient experiencing vampirism, until Lucy's illness happened. After Lucy's second death, he's aware of something he can't fully comprehend or deny. Simultaneously, he is acknowledging the unknown and his own limitations, but through his evolution as a character, he confronts the mysteries later with what he does know.
Here is a retrospective entry from Dr. Seward who already went through dealing with Lucy's vampirism and learned about what Jonathan experiences with Dracula:
"Mr. Harker arrived at nine o'clock. He had got his wife's wire just before starting. He is uncommonly clever, if one can judge from his face, and full of energy. If his journal be true–and judging by one's own wonderful experiences, it must be–he is also a man of great nerve. That going down to the vault a second time was a remarkable piece of daring. After reading his account of it I was prepared to meet a good specimen of manhood, but hardly the quiet, business-like gentleman who came here today." - (Stoker 1897, 266)
Dr. Seward compared his experiences with Jonathan's and in the context of their trauma, he's grateful he's not alone in his fear of Dracula while trying to unravel the truth about their antagonist and also how Dracula affected Jonathan. This is the essence of epistolary writing: a retrospection on personal revelation.
3. The Disruption of Setting and Personal Realties
From Mina Harker's journal after being attacked by Dracula, she said:
"It is strange to me to be kept in the dark as I am today; after Jonathan's full confidence for so many years, to see him manifestly avoid certain matters, and those the most vital of all...Last night I went to bed when the men had gone, simply because they told me to. I didn't feel sleepy, and I did feel full of devouring anxiety. I kept thinking over everything that has been ever since Jonathan came to see me in London, and it all seems like a horrible tragedy, with fate pressing on relentlessly to some destined end. Everything that one does seems, no matter how right it may be, to bring on the very thing which is most to be deplored." - (Stoker 1897, 303)
The last line is an insightful way of stating that the unwanted chaos in life is inevitable. This whole novel focuses on internal and external disruption. The physical reality and personal realities in the story are disrupted or invaded in some way. Lucy and Mina are the ones who take the hardest hits from Dracula. Both of them were attacked in settings that were expected to be safe and secure, Lucy's home and the asylum. When writers create settings or build worlds, they often have the means to bring change and have our characters respond to it. This is where we're bombarded with critiques that tell us to "show, don't tell."
With epistolary writing, you can do some telling with letters, news articles, and reports, but your characters' responses are what will keep the audience engaged. The journals show how the two previous writing techniques work hand in hand because they hold such personal information. Near the end of the novel, Stoker shows how invasive Dracula's actions became through the tension between Jonathan and Mina. Not only did Dracula make secure places dangerous, but now Jonathan has to deliberately keep his distance from Mina. Jonathan and Mina were your average Victorian couple and the invasion of a vampire made even dinner an anxiety-inducing moment. Here's an example from Jonathan's journal:
"I could not tell the others of the day's discovery til we were alone; so after dinner–followed by a little music to save appearances even amongst ourselves–I took Mina to her room and left her to go to bed. The dear girl was more affectionate with me than ever, and clung to me as though she would detain me; but there was much to be talked of and I came away. Thank God, the ceasing of telling things had made no difference between us," (Stoker 1897, 315).
Jonathan says there's no difference in the intensity of their relationship, but the stress of defeating Dracula does strain them emotionally. Although both of them knew what was at stake if Mina knew what the men were planning while she was still connected to Dracula, they were clearly distressed by the distance. Stoker used the continuity of Jonathan and Mina's tone with unwanted limitations to portray the impact of the disruption in their lives through their journal entries because that is when they were most honest. A regular novel would rather show this through dialogue between the characters dealing with the tension, but if one character had to keep a secret due to lives being at stake, they would have to express or repress their feelings in secretive ways. The epistolary novel isn't just a compilation of information, it's a compilation of confessions. That's why they're so juicy.
The disruption of physical reality and personal reality is not just a one-sided matter. The castle was Dracula's stable refuge, but the protagonists learned how to fight fire with fire. Van Helsing used Mina's connection to gain more information on Dracula and then went even further with his own invasion by marching into the count's home, cleansing his castle, and killing his vampires. The personal revelations the characters' have often lead to the realization of their own power over the physical reality and their personal reality. The chaos that ensues doesn't always inevitably end in tragedy. Especially if the protagonist is going through the "hero's journey", the writer must show how the disruption in their lives can inspire them to press onward and fight for the order they believe or believed in while knowing that nothing will be same when the battle ends. Stoker had Jonathan write the last note of the novel with a changed tone, but still in retrospection:
"Seven years ago we all went through the flames; and the happiness of some of us since then is, we think, well worth the pain we endured. It is an added joy to Mina and to me that our boy's birthday is the same day as that on which Quincey Morris died. His mother holds, I know, the secret belief that some of our brave friend's spirit has passed into him," (Stoker 1897, 443).
The epistolary style is perfect for stories with paradoxical revelations like these. The craft of writing a letter or a journal is always a personal reflection, but when this craft is infused with a story, the reflections are shards of a mirror coming together to show a greater transformation within the characters. Jonathan is no longer helpless in the end, but content with his resolve and those who helped him along the way. This is where Stoker's writing style is less alluring drama like the junk we see online and more engaging literature.
Dracula wasn't just pieces of a puzzle to a volatile mystery. Dracula is a giant psychological reflection of how many people discern good and evil, moral and immoral, and the like. It's a more modernist view on the psyche, yes, but you have to give Stoker props for taking the dive into every character's minds and writing out their pleasure and their pain down to the point of an existential fret. That's what horror writers truly hope to portray and I think that's why many of us see Bram Stoker as a gothic horror icon. My analysis leaves readers to keep the three techniques in mind for future writing.
- Make sure your characters have distinct and symbolic voices
- Challenge your characters resolve within their limitations and response to the unknown
- Let internal and external conflicts disrupt internal and external realities to enhance the story's themes
Allen, Brooke. 2003. "Introduction." Dracula. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Classics.
BBC Podcasts. 2018. "Epistolary Literature." In Our Time. August 12, 2018. Video podcast, 42:20. https://youtu.be/iHDN0sBpPkQ.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula, 1897. Reprint 2003. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Classics.