The Fictional Diary: Another Way to Structure Your Novel


I wrote recently about some of the basic choices writers must make when they first begin to write their novel – tense, point of view and perspective – and another of those basic choices is the format of the book. One of the great options is writing your novel as a diary.

Diaries are great for readers because as well as telling a story, they also give a voyeuristic view into the worlds and lives of the people writing them. Diaries are great for writers because they allow for a type of novel that is more focused on the voice of the character rather than how beautiful the words of the author are (even though they are essentially the same thing).

For anyone struggling to get into writing a novel in a more straightforward narrative, a great way to exercise the writing muscles is to forget about writing the novel and to write a diary from the perspective of the main character or characters.

There are some truly terrific and memorable novels that were written as diaries:
*Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
*The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend
*Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
*The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

Perhaps the most notable thing about all of the above books is that they were the start of the books’ series of diaries, which have all been very successful (all made into films or television shows).

Another great use of diaries is as a way of exploring real historical people. There have been books written as the diaries of Anne Boleyn, Adolf Hitler and Jack the Ripper to name a few. Some have clearly been fiction, others were presented as real diaries and later declared hoaxes, others still have people debating their veracity. The Diary of Jack the Ripper: The Discovery, the Investigation and the Debate by Shirley Harrison is a great read, regardless of which side of the fence you fall on. In fact, I included it in my top ten books, writing:

“Who doesn’t love a good hoax diary? That’s to say, if it is a hoax. Paper and ink analysis experts say it’s conclusively a hoax and it probably is but that doesn’t make this book any less of a ripper (pun intended) yarn… Creativity comes in many forms and sometimes that creativity is a little bit sneaky, a little bit underhanded, a little bit malevolent. The story of the Maybrick family was already a fantastic one – patriarch James, a cotton merchant and arsenic addict, his wife Florence, an American (which in those days in England was enough said), his brother Michael, who never liked Florence, Florence’s lover Alfred, a house full of servants and two children who were ultimately left orphans. I don’t think I’m spoiling the surprise if I tell you James died from an arsenic overdose and Florence was convicted of his murder and hanged. And simply by combining the story of the Maybricks with the story of Jack the Ripper, you get this book, which is a terrific way to spend a week, particularly if you’re a Jack the Ripper conspiracy theory enthusiast (which I am).”

In the next novel I am planning to write, the book will open with a diary entry (although it won’t continue in that way) in order to give a voice to a character who will after that day spend twenty years in a coma while the world changes around her. You don’t have to write a whole novel in diary form. You can intersperse a more traditional narrative around entries or you can do as I’m planning to do and use them sparingly.

Writing a diary of your own life can also be a great way to practise. I’ve written previously about writing journals but I’m talking about something entirely more personal. Thoughts, feelings, day-to-day activities that comprise your entire life. Historians love diaries because they are primary sources, firsthand accounts of great moments in history and, even better, of how those great moments in history impacted ordinary people as well as the more normal events that make up the majority of their lives.

There are also plenty of real diaries to read in order to get a sense of how people write their own lives when they think no one is ever going to read it, although many diarists clearly intend for their diaries to be published eventually. Some of the greats include Virginia Woolf, Samuel Pepys and James Boswell. And Anne Frank is probably the most well-known diarist, although I doubt she ever realised her words would be published, let alone so cherished.

In any event, if you’re looking for a way to spice up your own writing journey, the diary – whether fictional or not – is another way to challenge yourself and mix it up.

2 thoughts on “The Fictional Diary: Another Way to Structure Your Novel

  1. I couldn’t agree more, especially when a diary is capable of adding suspense. Unlike standard third or first person narration, there can be a lot of hidden details in the “epistolary” school of narration. Kind of like finding the old archives of an ancient civilization.


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