Challenges of the Diary Format for a Novel Writer

9th March

Challenges of the Diary Format for a Novel Writer

Usually we write up a diary in the evening after the event we want to record. It is natural to select the past tense for this. For example, Sister Muriel Wakeford wrote in her 1915 Gallipoli diary:

“Tue 9 March

Had a camel ride. Didn’t enjoy it.”

However, in my novel Gallipoli: Year of Love and Duty I wrote my narrator’s fictionalized diary in the present tense to give more immediacy to the writing. Muriel’s words thus became the stimulus for:

“Tuesday 9 Mar

Never again will I allow Lily’s wretchedness to get the better of me. Because I felt pity for her, she persuades me on to a camel. It is like perching on a raft eight feet above a choppy sea. The beast spits and groans with every step. The driver spits and groans back and brandishes his stick. They are an unhappily married couple. I feel like their battered offspring and am grateful when they set me down and free.”

I hope the reader accepts this unexpected tense in a diary for the benefit of the pace of the narrative.

Another challenge of the diary is the resultant limiting of the narrative to only one point of view. The reader can only see the world according to the main protagonist. How can the writer show the views of other characters? Or even show all sides of the narrator? This sets up the delicious possibility of creating the unreliable narrator. The main character says and believes one thing but the reader sees something else. One of the most successful examples of this is The Remains of the Day. We pick up immediately on the butler-narrator’s lack of understanding of Miss Kenton’s overtures of love and the inadequacies of his master Lord Darlington. (Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, London: Faber and Faber, 1989

A third challenge for the novel told through letters or journals, the epistolary novel, is to make it authentically spontaneous. Straightforward first person narrators are recounting events in retrospect. They know what’s coming even if the reader doesn’t. In a journal, the diary-keeper is in the moment and has no idea what will happen to her/him the next day. The author must convey this in the writing even though she/he knows exactly what will happen on the next page.

A writer who uses the diary format to great effect is Fergus Smith. Check his website for when his new novel is coming out.

By Rachel Sargeant

Rachel Sargeant is a British author. Her latest thriller, The Roommates, is a Closer Magazine "Must Read". Her other titles are The Good Teacher, The Perfect Neighbours and Gallipoli: Year of Love and Duty. Rachel won Writing Magazine’s Crime Short Story competition and has been shortlisted in various competitions including the Bristol Short Story Prize. She was born in Lincolnshire and is a graduate of Aberystwyth University. She now lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and children.

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