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Chances are you have been redirected to this blog because an administrator has deleted your journal/diary story and provided you with this link. If that is the case; then good, hopefully this will provide some helpful tips/advice for writing journal entries.
Unfortunately, writing in epistolary format is a talent that has recently been lost to us as writers. Tales like: Dracula, Frankenstein, and a number of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are examples of epistolary (diary/journal/letter) format done well.
The Basics: Why are Journal Entries so Effective/so Damn Scary?
- First-person terror.
Despite what many believe, first person story (I) telling is more engaging/involving than second person (You.) or third person (he, she, it) to me. First person perspective creates a more personal atmosphere. Don’t believe me? Try reading each style aloud for reference. “I” ends up focusing on the reader while pronouns like: you, he, she, it, draws attention to outside sources.
Epistolary/diary format creates a greater sense of realism (if managed correctly) than a basic story. It is, after all, being told in a semi-believable account as opposed a story being told in first person perspective that can be hit-or-miss depending on the protagonist’s fate. (How can someone write a story in present tense when they die at the end?)
- Prevalence in culture.
Show of hands, how many of you have kept a journal whether it was a school project or as a personal record? Chances are fairly good that many of you have/will do this at some point in your life. This builds a sense of connection to the protagonist as it draws a parallel between you and the main character. (Linking a shared event that both of you are familiar with.)
What to avoid
- Excessive exposition: journals are private.
These entries aren’t meant to be read by other people. Avoid exposition and giving away detail to the audience as if they were reading it. Noothgush pointed this out to me on my own story (third paragraph). Journals are typically written for the source and not for an audience. Why would the author spend time elaborating on something they already know? For example, why would the protagonist write something like this: “I met Trevor today, Trevor is my brother and I love him.”
The protagonist already knows who Trevor is and his stance on him. It pulls the audience out of the story to explain this minutia to them. Imply it like this: “I met Trevor today for lunch. Ever since we were kids, he was always worried about me, which is why he kept remarking on how haggard I looked. I guess that’s what family does…” This leaves it open for interpretation, but conveys the basic information without spoon-feeding to the audience.
- Imminent danger/i.e. the “I don’t have much time.” concept.
Here is how to effectively use this. Lovecraft’s stories worked due to a sense of hopelessness. The protagonist has no other choice but to write. There is no other option left to them, they can’t call for help; sinister forces are beating on the door, sometimes the window and they are trapped.
In more modern stories, that sense of isolation and hopelessness is gone due to our connectivity. Calls can be made, texts can be sent, etc. The protagonist has more options than to just sit down and write their final moments as a record of their life, which makes it odd when they do, as there are other options open to them.
- The magically appearing monster.
Do not have the monster appear in the first entry! I know you want to get to the horror right away, but creating an atmosphere takes precedence here. Having the monster appear in the first entry gives the story a rushed feel and can make the protagonist’s actions come off as unrealistic. Who exactly decides to keep going with their journal once they spot a gore-spattered fiend waving at them from the bushes?
- “And then I died.”/How to destroy any sense of immersion you built with the audience.
Write realistically. Treat the story like an autobiography/journal. No one ends their autobiography by describing how they are going to die at the end because they don’t know how they are going to die. (Especially if it’s sudden.)
Graphic depiction of how the protagonist dies. This is the most irksome issue with journal/diary entry stories. Who, after being torn limb-from-limb, is going to drag themselves back to their computer and type their final message (likely with their nose)? What monster, after brutalizing the protagonist is going to stand aside and let them submit their final words? What protagonist is going to be calm/focused enough to type out that even through their blood loss trauma?
Once again, Lovecraft was effective in this aspect as he left a majority of the details up to the readers’ imagination. The reader knows what is going to happen to the protagonist and they fill in the blanks for what is about to happen to them. That makes it much more effective as their imaginations will be much more graphic than any description you could ever give as they are inserting their fears into the protagonist’s fate which has a much more profound impact.
- The monster finishes the story
This gets especially ridiculous when the protagonist stresses how they’re being hunted to keep the killer’s identity a secret. Why would the killer, after murdering the protagonist, bother to sit down and write their own message?(maybe even proof-reading and looking for applicable sites to submit it to) It's comical to imagine a monster hunched over a keyboard hunting and pecking keys while thinking of a zingy one-liner to end it all on.
Instead, imply their fate. Leave it to the audience. Better yet, don’t specifically state what happened to them; have them vanish without a trace. One of the more powerful aspects of the Slenderman mythos is that the fates of characters he spirits away are never explained fully. What is happening to them? Is he forcing them to eat the children he has previously stolen away? Is he taking them to a hellish dimension where they are forced to play Parcheesi? The audience doesn’t know and forcing them to imagine that fate of the protagonist makes it that much more impactful.
- Put yourself in the narrator’s shoes/What would you do in that situation?
Injecting a bit of yourself into the character can create some believability in the story. It can also help you avoid issues where characters respond to situations ridiculously. How would you react to a stalker carving a message into the front door of your house? Most people would be concerned as opposed to writing it off as ‘kids playing pranks.’ Write it as if it were you responding to the situation.
- Writer’s workshop
Every time I suggest this when I make a writing advice blog, and every time I end up deleting a story that could have had a chance at fixing their story issues had they decided to take it there before-hand. The people who will review your story have likely read hundreds of similar stories and are familiar with the tropes and clichés that a diary-style story entails.
- Read your story to yourself aloud.
This will help you catch awkward phrasing issues and highlight inconsistencies in the tone of the story. Would a middle school student stop in the middle of their entry to describe the monster’s bifurcated tongue, nictitating haw, or serrated claws made for rending flesh? Likely not because they are more likely accustomed to using familiar words to describe unfamiliar objects. This can really help with description. While I can go in-depth about a man’s head splitting open and coating the protagonist in a spray of skeletal shrapnel, describing the head splitting open like a ripe watermelon paints a more evocative picture because most are familiar with a watermelon splitting while few know what a head exploding Scanner’s –style looks like.
There are a lot of benefits to writing a story in epistolary format. It is rooted in reality, it is relatable, and it can really build a good sense of atmosphere and tension. As long as you know what to focus on and what to avoid, you can really make an involving story.