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!
Debra L Hanks says
I’m really wanting to write a book of my life and bad things going on..my dad murdered..my mom leaving us on doorsteps etc..my love that got away etc
Wow. It sounds like you have a lot to write about. Are you thinking of writing a memoir or fictionalizing your life events into a novel?
i think so
I’ve been considering writing about my experiences, perhaps one day for outsider consumption. I don’t know whether or not to go for diary form, entirely one character perspective or include narrative and give other characters a voice. Whether it should be past or present. (If in diary form I’d be going for recent past)
Also if I do choose diary form, will it get tedious, my experiences are linked to each over throughout my whole life. Should I really start at the very beginning and what would be the best approach to that?
These are all really good questions. I think diary format is difficult because, like you said, you have to go in chronological order and stick with a single narrator in the present tense. Diary format is quite limiting, which is why it’s often not the best way to tell a story. On the other hand, there are novels in which it works really well. I think some starting questions to ask yourself are: Where does the story really start? Do I want to tell it with a single narrator or with multiple perspectives? Do I want my narrator to be “looking back” at what happened, or do I want them to experiencing the story as it unfolds? It may be helpful to read some novels in diary format to see how it works. Good luck with your project!
Thank you for the help, i been trying to write my diary book but i am struggling with spelling, grammar and concentration x
Hey Guys! More examples of diary-format novels: Affinity by Sarah Waters (adult historical) and The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (YA historical). I greatly enjoyed both of them, and they are great examples of the diary format.
Lyn Barela says
My endeavor is to journal my experiences with my own Dementia. I took notes on your replies to others yet I would value any other help you might provide.
Are you thinking about turning the journals into a book? That sounds therapeutic for you and possibly fascinating for readers. Good luck!
Victoria valdez says
So i would really love your advice please..so i have a numerous amount of journals from my past 2 year abusive relationship with a female.long story short i left my ex husband and kids father of 16 years to pursue a relationship with her..it only took 2 years to tear down what id worked 10 years of my life to build..i lost everything by the time this relationship was over family house kids marriage job car sobriety..most importantly myself..all for me to learn that i was dealing with an abusive narcissist.. who does this habitually..so much took place during those 2 years from the point she enters and exits my life..it’s crazy I’m still healing and picking up the pieces of what of well me.making so much progression..but i need help get my story out..mostly to help other people in so many ways different ways..but to help further my healing as well..please please please help me…thank you.. Victoria
Wow, Victoria. Thanks for your comment. It sounds like you’ve gone through a really hard time, and I’m so sorry. Do you think writing about the experience will help in your healing process? Are you thinking about writing a memoir or fictionalizing your story? Feel free to email me and we can discuss more.
Laura Chiswell says
I am 11,000 words into a ‘diary account’ of my upbringing. Brought up in a violent abusive household I saved my mum from being strangled and would protect my siblings.
As an adult I was then looking for love from the wrong men. In between this I travelled the world with a famous rock band!
Standing strong, independent and spiritually inspired at 41 I have kept my strength throughout and want to share my story. As part of my healing and to maybe help others find their path of power.
I’m writing from a single narrative, me ! Im making each diary entry descriptive as I can. Any tips are most welcome. Would 60,000 words be enough ? I want to keep the reader engaged. Thank you
Sounds like you’ve got quite the story! Are you writing a memoir or planning to fictionalize your story? My tip would be to make sure you write the entries using fully-fleshed-out scenes: dialogue, action, internal thought, description of the setting, etc.
60,000 is a bit on the short side. Maybe it’s a sign that you need to flesh out the scenes more?
Speaking of stories about overcoming abusive childhoods, have you read the memoir Educated by Tara Westover? It’s incredible, and it may be helpful as you think about how to write your story.
Manon Jean says
I thought your article was very interesting and very helpful.
I am writing a historical fiction diary novel about a young woman who helps fight for her country’s independence. I wanted to show her evolve from a teenager to a young woman.
I thought it would be cool to write it as a diary because the woman who I want to write about is only told in history by male historiens who did not look at the work she did.
I think because the story will have a lot of time gaps because she was very busy.
Diary novels tend to work well for historical fiction. One I can think of off the top of my head is The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schiltz. In what country is your book set? Good luck!
Manon Jean says
Its set in 1800’s Haiti. I am going to start reading that. Thank you
Liv Stephenson says
Out of curiosity, if I were to write a journal-style novel, but more in the style of a log, as someone records their events and daily happenings on an island per say, how would I go about doing that?
You can definitely do that! You could think about a person sitting down in the evening to record the important events of the day. One example that comes to mind is The Martian by Andy Weir.
Everyone on this thread might be interested in this list of books written in letter, diary, or journal format: https://marinet.bibliocommons.com/list/share/639090497/1071050537
Marilyn Guhl says
I’ve been asked by a publisher to take my manuscript and put it into a diary form. It was somewhat confusing as I was not given examples of that way of writing in this manuscript. I couldn’t decide if that included all interactions with real time conversations. This article has helped me identify the direction I need to go. Thank you.
You’re welcome! Interesting that your publisher asked you to write your MS in diary form. I wonder why? Yes, definitely include the conversations and scenes, I would think. Let me know how it goes!
Natalie Rompella says
Great points! I have a middle grade novel I’m going through and was thinking of adding some diary entries as a way to speed up some scenes. I hadn’t thought about doing letters instead. Helpful post.
So glad this was helpful! Good luck with your novel!
Luv from, Newt says
I love writing diary novels, but the problem is that I can never finish it. Like, I write about, I dunno, 10-50 pages, or even less maybe, but then I lose interest. Help mee, lol.
I’ll try, lol! You know, writing diary entries can be a great way to get to know your main character — their voice, their thoughts, their emotions, their desires. Maybe the thing to do is write those diaries entries first then do some brainstorming about the plot. Once you understand the character, you’ll know what they want and what is going to get in their way and what they’re going to do about it. Start writing the story again, in regular prose this time instead of diary format.
Something to try, anyway. Good luck!
Brian John says
I came across this post — interesting points! Thank you. It may interest some of those who have commented to know that novels — or even sagas — can quite successfully be written in diary format. My Angel Mountain series of 8 novels are all written as diaries, with all of the risks and advantages outlined in the post above. The main advantages are immediately and an ability to create a really powerful lead character in a way that can build a powerful bond with the reader. The first-person voice can be very distinctive, and can resonate strongly. On the other hand, there is a lot of telling at the expense of showing, with everything coming from the narrators point of view. The back stories of subsidiary characters can be difficult to flag up, except through snippets of hearsay. It’s a challenge! But my 8 novels featuring the incorrigible heroine Martha Morgan are now Welsh best-sellers, having racked up paperback sales of 110,000 and plenty more in Ebook and audiobook formats. The first one is called “On Angel Mountain” — you can check it out. Happy writing!!
Thanks so much for providing us with examples of the diary-format novel done successfully!
I have come up with a plot for a political thriller that I think should be written as a diary novel. I googled and found your blog. I am glad that you have written about some of the problems that I am wrestling with while writing a diary novella. Have you read “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” which are the books based on 2 successful British TV shows from the 1970s and 80s? Both books were written by the screenwriters after the success of their shows. In both books, editorial footnotes describe some of the back-stories and explain them. I did not find it annoying to have to frequently take my eyes off the Minister’s diary and read the editors’ footnotes. In fact, I found this device clever and explanatory. What do you think of inserting extraneous press clippings into the diary to explain things to the reader? “Yes Minister” did not use this device, if memory serves me right.
I haven’t read Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, but that’s an interesting device. I definitely think inserting press clippings could work. With the popularity of books like Where Did You Go, Bernadette, I’ve been noticing a lot of episolary novels on the market that incorporate things like email exchanges, text messages, newspaper articles, blog posts, and journal entries. I think different kinds of media can work well to fill in the blanks, break up the monotony of diary entries, and be a lot of fun for the reader as they read between the lines and piece together the story. Good luck with your book!
Thank you for insightful comments on this format. What do you think about a novel containing diary excerpts from different characters, to give differing perspectives of the same scenes?
I LOVE that idea! It sounds really interesting. And I think diary excerpts can work really well as part of a novel. It’s just challenging to write an entire novel made solely of diary entries. Good luck with your writing!