I began writing a novel. It's something I'm preparing for a long time and I now have enough material. Given the fact that I will concentrate on my main character's poitnt of view, and that I want to show his toughts on a daily basis, I decided that the better form should be a fictional diary.

As I said, I know (most of) what the main character will have to say. For each Chapter / Day, I tried to see what could compose the text : the easisest part is the sequentials events : Where the MC will relate his interactions with other characters (or between the other characters) : A did something to B in day 1. B spoke to MC on day 2. D decided to ask MC what B said to him in day 5. etc — It's the easiesst part.

The problem lies in what remains :

Descriptions : The MC will describe a part of his environment in each chapter.

Flash-backs : The MC will remember what led him to this place, everything that happenned and that is related to his present situation.

Stream of consciousness : Here we go deep in the MC's toughts (feelings or general ideas about life, love, death in his actual context)

These three parts are not bound by any chronological or "cause and effect" rule in the diary ! So, nothing can decide that you have to write this part in that chapter.

So, my quetsion is : Is there any method, advices or guidance to help me stucture this in a less arbitrary way ? (like alternating flash-backs parts and descriptions parts from chapter to chapter, things of this kind)


The diary format gives you a lot of liberty, as Lauren suggests. But I believe that there is a reason that this format is seldom used in fiction. It can be difficult to make a set of diary entries into something with story shape and still have them be sufficiently convincing as diary entries.

Stories have a very definite and well documented shape, and they have it for a reason. You want to unfold a complex history that leads to the climactic moral choice that is the crux of any story. Without the history, the difficulty and the poignancy of the moral choice are not apparent and the story falls flat. But in order to get there, you have to keep the reader's attention while you unfold that history.

This is what makes storytelling difficult. You have to keep the reader's attention at each step along the way. You can earn some indulgence from the reader along the way to get them to persevere through some of the necessary exposition, but basically you need to keep the engagement high throughout. Stories have the shape they do because they need that shape to maintain engagement.

But diary entries are all flashbacks. They all occur after an incident is over and the narrator sits down to record their thoughts. The mood is reflective, which means that they begin with what is the ending emotion of the incident they are about to tell. That inversion is a challenge to story shape. It could be an immensely effective tool in a certain kind of story, but difficult to wield well and consistently across an entire novel.

Without the reflective tone, however, there is little to distinguish a diary entry from ordinary first person narration. And without that distinction, the diary format is likely to just be a distraction.

An interesting variation, and one that might give you similar liberties with fewer difficulties, is the tale told in old age. In this form, an elderly character tells the story of something that happened in their youth. The beauty of this form is that the narrator can assume either first person or third person POV as it suits the needs of the moment. They were there and they experienced things for themselves, but they also have the historian's perspective as well and have had the chance to learn what others thought and felt and did. Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian books strike me an a good example of this form.

  • Flowers for Algernon/Charly does this as well. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Sep 1 '16 at 17:49
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    Yes, Flowers for Algernon is a great example of where the epistolary form works. In that case it is essential to the tragic arc of the story as we see the growth and decline of his intelligence. But it is more than that. The reflective tone is exactly what is wanted in this story, the central tragedy of which is that of a man who is observing himself as an experimental subject and realizing that he is not going to succeed. It is the horror of his own recognition of his decline that this the core emotional payoff of the story, and it depends on the epistolary form. – user16226 Sep 1 '16 at 18:32

It's a diary. It can be arbitrary. It can be long or short, meandering or brisk, organized or all over the place. Do whatever serves your story and your character.

The only guidance you might need is to make sure that it's readable. If you're trying to build suspense, then you may need to focus on just "here's what happened today" for a few entries, and then have a "and here's what I think about it" section rather than insisting on rigidly using all three in order. Or conversely, if your character is a rigid sort, have him insist on putting in those sections but just writing "Nothing to report" for that bit.

  • No, it is not rigid, and there's no established order in my mind concerning these parts. I rather imagined using a different combination of two or three of them from chapter to chapter. – Koblenz Sep 1 '16 at 15:07
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    @Koblenz Sounds fine to me! go for it. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Sep 1 '16 at 15:15

The way I'd make the diary is the way my character would make it. Don't think that much what will suite the way of story telling. On first place I'd consider my character. It he is male or female the structure would be different. If he is lazy, then it will be different. If he is messy, then it would be different and if he doesn't complete his planned tasks it would be unfinished or with gaps. If he has free time for writing, if he/she feels obligated to make this diary etc. etc. Then plan what parts to take from it to present to the reader. At least this is what I'd do.


I would suggest a hybrid approach, keeping in mind the comments by @mbakeranalecta. How about only having certain chapters as diary entries? These would focus on the pieces where your MC has to show his or her opinion, thought processes, etc. The rest of the story could be third person, if you like, and that would have the burden of moving the story along in a style that reflects a more normal story arc.


Write it, read it, re-write it

You seem to take a very rational, constructionist approach to writing: think about what you want; write an outline; build the text. But writing does not work like that. Language is not something that can be mastered in a rational fashion; we express and understand language from the gut.

The laws of grammar can be taught like traffic regulations: drive on the right side of the road; indicate that you want to turn; and so on. But try to teach someone to ride a bike. It is not something you can explain and they just follow your instructions. You show them. And they try. And after many tries, they suddenly stay on the bike and wobble along until they crash, or their parent catches them. And after a lot of wobbling, their sense of balance develops and they become able to look around and evade lamp posts. Then they can ride on the sidewalk. And after a few years, and in the company of their parents, they can begin to ride on a real street.

That is how writing works. It is, to use a technical term, not declarative but procedural knowledge. It is something that you "just know how to do", but cannot explain. Which is why all the how-to books and Q&As won't help you to learn it, and only doing it will.

So, as a reader, you already have a gut feeling for good writing. You do not know yet how to achieve that goodness in your own writing, but when you write and then – maybe after some time, to distance yourself – read it, you will immediately know if it is good and, if it is not, what went wrong and how to fix it. And in this feedback loop of writing and revision you will slowly develop the "balance" (as in riding a bike), the gut knowledge of how to write. And when you have got the knack of it, you will be unable to explain it to other aspiring writers. You'll tell them: Just try. It won't work for a long time, and then suddenly it will click and you won't know what you did differently, but for no apparent reason at all, it all just suddenly works.

So just write.

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