Epistolary storytelling is undergoing a revival in an age of messaging apps and video games.
From CS Lewis' The Screwtape Letters to the teenage must-read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, through to recent cult favourite I Love Dick, most of us have come across the epistolary novel: a story told through a series of documents such as letters, articles or diary entries.
As technology has evolved, however, so have our methods of communicating. Suggesting 21st-century characters write letters to each other requires more suspension of disbelief than most readers are willing to offer. On the other hand, typing up emails, text messages or Twitter DMs into a novel often feels disjointed and out of touch.
For many modern writers, one of the greatest challenges is incorporating day-to-day technology into the plots they're writing, but a new generation of authors, engineers and storytellers are changing the way we consume the traditional novel, finding new ways to incorporate technology in a seamless way, adding to the stories rather than detracting from them.
Last Seen Online is a project that, on the face of it, may look like a gaming app. In substance, however, it's much closer to a traditional mystery novel. When you download the app, you're shown an interface that looks just like a messaging service. The premise is that the phone belongs to Amy, who goes missing the night of her 26th birthday party. Through the app, you can look back over her previous messages with family, friends and unexpected romantic interests, which allows you to come to your own conclusions about what happened to her. The following morning, messages start coming in, and you're left to piece together the mystery.
"If you look through someone's texts you'd be able to find out who they are"
“Your phone is your most personal device,” said Adam Lowe, co-founder of Last Seen Online. “If you look through someone's texts you'd be able to find out who they are as a person, you'd get an idea of their relationships and you'd probably uncover some of their secrets.
“It's not just about the messages, it's about the whole world you're immersed in. For example, if you get a message at 9pm, we'll make sure it's dark outside [in pictures]. If you click on the link to the newspaper article [about her disappearance], you can reach a real page, see the website for the bar they went to, and the characters have Instagram and Twitter accounts. It's taking it to the next level by using all these different mediums.”
The crucial element for the reader is that they can be as involved as they like. By delivering stories straight to their phone, they don't need to commit to sitting down to read an entire chapter. They can check in while they wait in line at the supermarket to see what the latest updates are, and then scroll through all the backstory while they're waiting for the bus.
Many similar projects, such as Hooked or A Normal Lost Phone, also use mystery- or crime-based plots to entice an audience, and then offer an interactive platform in which to solve the central enigma. The difficulty can come in identifying the difference between a highly interactive novel, and a game with a great story.
Immersive epistolary storytelling often requires putting the reader in the shoes of one of the characters, losing the third-person narration of many traditional novels. And once the reader can choose what to read when in which order, and even what will happen next, have we taken the format innovation too far to reasonably call this a novel?
Matt Thorne is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University. He's also published various books and is currently working with Oolipo on a multimedia novel that will be delivered via an app. He doesn't see our current distinctions between what is and isn't a novel as relevant in a world where content can be delivered in so many new, unique ways.
“Video games are really ripe for further exploration,” he said. “At Brunel, we have students doing games design courses along with creative writing together and that's something that's going to keep developing.
"We have students doing games design courses along with creative writing"
“In the past, the frustrations with narrative in games is that you have to stop the game-playing element to get to the next part of the story. They don't fit together in a way that satisfies both sides. With a novel like the ones that are being created at the moment, there's a degree of interactivity, but essentially it's still about the relationship between the reader and the author.”
(Above: The Witcher 3 – which has been lauded for its dialogue and storytelling)
Thorne is a staunch advocate of prioritising the experience over the medium, which is why he's indiscriminately written novels, non-fiction, screenplays, and now stories told via an app. He agrees that the merging of technology and literature has made it easier for writers to include the new ways we communicate into their work.
“With my novel, I want to take full advantage of the technology. The characters communicate via WhatsApp, text messages and chat rooms. There's definitely an epistolary element. I love that form and it lends itself perfectly to new technology,” said Thorne.
New ways to think about publishing
Technology hasn't just been instrumental in the revival of the epistolary genre because of the new format options it offers, but also by opening the market up to new concepts which traditional publishing may have eschewed.
Emmanuel Nataf is the co-founder of Reedsy, a website that allows people looking to self-publish the opportunity to connect to some of the best freelancers in the industry. He's also seen an evolution in the types of stories that people are looking to write, and regularly comes across epistolary novels told via new technology, but he thinks we can go much further than just an app with a character's messages on it.
“The most interesting products I see are often aimed at children, and the story isn't set in stone. It's still a great story, but there are all these additional bits to it, such as artificial intelligence, voice recognition, virtual reality and so on,” he said.
(HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Your next storyteller?)
The advances in consumer technology we've seen over the past decades have changed the way we understand and interact with art and content. While the music, games, film and media industries have shifted accordingly, publishing has thus far remained staunchly stagnant. Now, more and more novelists are realising that, in order to create great epistolary stories, the format in which they're delivered needs to evolve.
Perhaps more importantly, these techniques are giving readers another way to discover the joy of a great novel, which has never been about the paper it's printed on but rather the story it tells.
Lead image: A Normal Lost Phone by Accidental Queens