The first six weeks of my baby’s life I didn’t do any writing except a bit of blogging, but I did do some manuscript swapping with other writers. I managed to read one full manuscript for my writer friend Bethany Veinman, often while breastfeeding. Ironically, her work-in-progress was a diary novel, which is the format of my most recent manuscript as well!
Writing a novel as a series of diary entries is great in a lot of ways. As Bethany pointed out to me, it can help you fully realize your main character’s voice. It’s also a good way to explore the protagonist’s emotions AND to keep the story in the present moment – both of which are important in YA and Middle Grade books.
But, as I read Bethany’s manuscript and began to review my own, I realized that there are some major challenges to a diary novel as well.
1. Readers must suspend disbelief.
Most people don’t keep diaries. Those that do don’t often write extensive, frequent entries. And chances are, in order to tell a good story, your protagonist needs to do just that. We’re talking full scenes with description and dialogue instead of telling briefly what happened.
Your job as a writer is to make both the voice and the story so engaging that the reader doesn’t stop to wonder whether the character would really take the time to write all of this in her diary.
2. It’s difficult to include backstory and explanations.
If a character is writing a diary, she is essentially writing something for herself. Therefore, why would she need to tell herself about something that happened in the past? Instead she might write, “going to Grandma’s was just as bad as last time,” without going into detail about what happened last time. After all, she already knows. Perhaps she even wrote about it previously in her journal.
Your character also might not take the time to fully describe people or places. Why would she bother to describe to her diary her mother’s appearance, or what her bedroom looks like?
Your job as a writer is to find a way to tell the story vividly while still staying true to the diary format. One way to get around this challenge is to write an epistolary novel (a novel in letters) instead of a diary novel. If your protagonist is writing to another person, it makes sense that she would do more explaining and describing.
One book that finds a way to overcome this challenge is The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. It’s essentially a diary-style novel, but the entries are written as letters that the narrator sends to an anonymous person. Here’s the very first page:
I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me. I didn’t enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.
So that’s one way to do it.
3. Grammar and style gets tricky.
If your protagonist is a teen or preteen, are you going to write the way a kid that age would actually write? Yes and no. You don’t want to include all the spelling and grammatical mistakes your protagonist would likely make in real life because that would make for annoying reading. Instead, you’re going to write using the rules of the English language and find other ways (word choice, sentence style, content, etc.) to make the diary seem realistic.
You want to indent your paragraphs and use quotation marks for dialogue. You don’t want to use ten exclamation points even though that’s what a real teenager writing in a real diary might do. In the same way that you shouldn’t write dialogue exactly the way people speak (with all the “ums” and “likes”) you also don’t need the entries to be exactly the way your character would write them. After all, this is a work of fiction. You’re not trying to create an accurate representation a teenager’s diary; you’re simply using the diary as a device to tell a story.
There are plenty of ways to make the diary feel real without resorting to misspelled words, all-caps, and ovelry-exuberant punctuation. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is scattered throughout with cartoons that have been drawn by the narrator and look like they have been taped into the book. In Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, the narrator, teenage movie buff and aspiring director Greg Gaines, writes out scenes of his life as if they are screenplays. In this way, Alexie and Andrews give their books a unique “diary feel” without breaking grammar rules.
Below is an excerpt from Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. Note that Andrews follows the appropriate style guidelines for screenplays!
4. Tense can get tricky.
When you’re writing a diary novel, you have to think about when your character is sitting down to write these entries. Is she writing about what happened that day… or yesterday? Is she writing once a week about the whole week? She might be feeling a certain way right now (present tense) about something that happened yesterday (past tense) or about something that’s going to happen tomorrow (future tense).
This challenge isn’t too hard to manage, but what if you want your character to be more reflective about her experiences; what if you want her to be making some realizations that she might not make in the moment? Or, what if it’s unrealistic that your character would have been chronicling things on a day to day basis? Maybe she didn’t have time. Maybe she didn’t realize until after the fact that something big and important was happening to her. Maybe, instead of writing diary entries, she could instead be looking back from a certain vantage point and writing about an important time in her life.
Of course, if you’re writing YA or Middle Grade, the narrator in this case should still be young and looking back on something that happened fairly recently. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart both do this. In The Catcher and Rye, for example, Holden is writing an account of the recent past: “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.” It’s not written in diary entries, but it has the stream-of-consciousness flow of a journal. This can be a good alternative to the diary novel.
5. A diary novel lends itself to telling instead of showing.
Think about how you might have written a diary entry as an angsty teen. Something like this, perhaps:
Oh my god, I HATE Linda right now. She is being such a BITCH!!!!!! She told EVERYBODY at the bus stop I wasn’t wearing deodorant, and they all laughed at me and called me a stinky pig. I’m seriously not talking to her anymore. She SUUUUCKS and is officially no longer my friend!!!!!!!!
First of all, I don’t think I’d want to read a whole book like this, riddled with excessive explanation points and all-caps. Secondly, in most books, this would be a scene, right? We’d be at the bus stop with Linda and the protagonist. We’d get a little description of the other kids. We’d get the dialogue of what was said. We’d get Linda’s facial expressions and the protagonist’s in-the-moment reactions. We’d be SHOWN the bitchiness of Linda instead of being TOLD about it. Although it’s fine to have some telling in a diary novel, you really have to include scenes and dialogue.
When writing a diary novel, you have to continually walk the line of making it seem like a diary, yet making it an engaging story. Not an easy thing to do.
Here are my suggestions:
Go ahead and write your story as diary entries if that’s what your creative muse is calling you to do. It might help you get into the voice of your character and the flow of the story… and you can always change it out of diary entries during the revision process.
Here’s another thought: write a first person narrative interspersed with short diary entries. Maybe there’s a one-page diary excerpt at the beginning or end of each chapter. Maybe the occasional chapter is a diary entry (like in The Drowning Kind by Jennifer McMahon).
At the end of the day, your story should be composed of connecting scenes, and those scenes should be created using dialogue, description, action, narration, and internal thought. So if you can and want to do that through journal entries, go for it. But you can also get the same intimate first-person storytelling without actually using a diary format. It’s up to you!
Update: Remember that diary-style novel I wrote? I ended up revising it from journal entries into plain old first-person narration with a one-page journal entries at the end of each chapter. Turns out it worked much better that way.
Need more help with your novel-in-progress? I can help with that!