By David E. Sharp
Storytelling is more than plot and character. It's communication. Somehow, you have to take all those vibrant characters and brilliant ideas and transfer them to the brain of another person. The straightforward path is to start spouting prose in an omniscient third-person, but that can get bland to modern readership.
Each story needs the right vehicle to make it memorable. Here are a few of my favorites.
An Epistolary novel is told through letters, journal entries or documents. With the era of technology, this can also include email, blogs and text messaging. Great examples include The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock and ttyl by Lauren Myracle.
Strengths to epistolary storytelling include opportunity to develop and contrast character voices and the intimacy of personal missives. For extra fun, Griffin and Sabine is told entirely through postcards that add a dynamic visual element to the story. Some books use epistles to tell an entire story; some use it as needed. Either way, it's a simple method to add some new perspective to your tale.
While this is technically considered epistolary, I like to break it out. This is a story told in documents. It puts the reader in the place of an investigator putting together all the personal testimonies, newspaper clippings, files and even security camera footage (I've seen it done!) into a narrative. Examples include Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero and World War Z by Max Brooks.
As an obsessive researcher, I love a story that lets me feel I am piecing together the facts. This style grants a story the sense of a mystery waiting to be solved.
Books with multiple perspectives seem without end. Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, Wonder by R. J. Palacio and One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus are a few examples that pull it off to great effect. The trick here is to have enough characters with perspectives worth following. Each has to add something different to the story without being redundant with the others.
A book I thoroughly enjoyed that took a twist on this style was The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Here the single first-person narrator lived the same day through the eyes of eight different people in order to solve a murder.
You remember this one. Think The Tell-Tale Heart. Modern examples include Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and, of course, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. As a writer, it takes some subtle maneuvering, but done right it pulls readers in by drawing on their suspicious nature.
The value to an unreliable narrator is an inevitable twist. This style is a lot of work, but if you want to turn the tables on your reader in a memorable way, this may be for you.
Or Something Else Entirely
House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski uses footnotes and page formatting to great effect as the narrator slowly loses his grip on sanity. William Goldman's classic The Princess Bride is written as though it were an abridgment. The Invention of Hugo Cabret consists of part narrative and part cinematic sketches. My own novel, Lost on a Page, is a series of excerpts of fictitious novels whose characters have come to life and are now bouncing from book to book in a series of misadventures that horrify their authors.
So… We're Talking Gimmicks?
Can we take this too far? Of course! But I wouldn't stray from variant forms of storytelling to avoid being gimmicky. Story is only part of storytelling. Telling is the other half. A world with only one style of telling would be as drab as a world with only one story to tell. All that plot development and characterization isn't going to do you any good if you can't pack them into an effective transport device.
The best rule of thumb: Fit the telling to the story, and the story to the telling.