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When it is appropriate to use the diary form for a novel?

Which are the most effective published examples? (I mean fictional diaries, so not Anne Frank's diary).

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I personally hate any book written this way. Dracula by Bram Stoker and Carrie by Stephen King are two examples of popular books written this way, but I hated them both. –  StrixVaria Nov 25 '10 at 13:32
    
Thanks, @Strix, I erase Dracula from my reading list. –  John Smithers Nov 25 '10 at 13:58
    
@John Smithers Don't forget Carrie! (Or is it too late?) –  Ethan Dec 17 '10 at 2:13
    
Thanks, @Ethan, when I've already watched the movie, I do not read the book. Therefore it is not on my list. –  John Smithers Dec 17 '10 at 9:43
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10 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Diary form is used when a deep immersion of reader is wanted. Yeah, we all want to immerse readers into our universes, but it comes with a price, and not a small one. With diary form you can reveal only one point of view: of character who keeps a diary.

So, I guess, this is the rule: You should use diary as a narrator, when you want to bring more realism, but ready to neglect different viewpoints on your story.

Examples are:

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Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. The quality of the writing changes throughout the story, indicating the increasing (and later, decreasing) intelligence of the writer/protagonist. –  Neil Fein Nov 25 '10 at 18:55
    
@neilfein Oh, such a great example. Added to my to-read list. –  Daniel Excinsky Nov 25 '10 at 19:17
    
I agree with @Strix's comment on the question with one exception; Flowers for Algernon. Thanks for reminding me about that classic, @neilfein, definitely gotta reread that sometime soon. –  Maulrus Nov 28 '10 at 2:52
    
"With diary form you can reveal only one point of view" - that's not true, there can be several diaries, several narrators. A case in point: B. Stoker - Dracula. Although it IS kind of weird when there are several diaries in the novel. And it also might be that the author is just lazy - it seems to me that writing fictional diary is easy (especially if one also writes personal diary) compared to writing from 1-st or 3-rd person perspective. –  Lukas Stejskal Jul 18 '11 at 14:25
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For an example

Alberto Moravia, L'attenzione (Attention)

It tells the story of a man who wants to write a novel and decides to start a diary to rework it later into novel form. He ends up writing about his own life and his seeming lack of attention for what is happening around him.

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So that's actually a meta-diary? –  Lorenzo Nov 29 '10 at 20:11
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That aspect is in the story too. Actually, the boundary between diary/novel/meta-diary/meta-novel is not always clear, but that is typical Moravia. For instance, one chapter he describes some events, next chapter he explains that he didn't reproduce the events truthfully in his diary and he rectifies. It's very interesting, but brainy. If you don't like psychological novels, never read Moravia. –  Raskolnikov Nov 30 '10 at 10:55
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I would investigate The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigg by Rainer Maria Rilke. It is a proto-Modernist text that deals with the interiority of the narrator, and his gradual retreat from the social sphere into the mental sphere.

In my experience, the diary form is a device used to foreground the unreliability of the narrator's perspective. It does not necessarily have to be used with unreliability in mind; however, it is a way to emphasize the inherent subjectivity in narrative perspective. Remember, though, that diary and epistolary devices serve different purposes: the diary speaks often to the self, or a fictional audience; the epistolary speaks to a specific, definite audience. Dracula is pre-dominantly epistolary, insofar as many passages are intended to relate information to particular individuals. As is the case with Shelley's Frankenstein. I very much hope that no one strikes Stoker's masterpiece from their Reading List, as it is a fantastic read.

As for appropriateness, that depends entirely on the author, and the tone they wish to achieve.

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+1 for correcting the erroneous conflation of "epistolary" and "diary form". –  One Monkey Dec 16 '10 at 11:46
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As neilfein pointed out, Flowers for Algernon. I think what makes it particularly effective is that the very viewpoint of the narrator is itself a major plot point, so the diary form is a logical choice.

I'm not sure this counts as a diary, but The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is also told from a single (and very interesting) perspective.

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"Dangerous Liaisons" is originally told through the letters that the various characters send to each other (mainly Valmont and The Marquise). This makes it possible to mix several points of view (as opposed to with single diary, as mentioned by Daniel Excinsky's answer), but it makes it also more difficult to read for some people. Not sure if it fits what you're looking for ("diary as a novel") but it sure fits the more general "epistolary novel" category that you may want to look into for more options and storytelling techniques.

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You could also consider having a diary-form be only part of your novel. Lately I've read fiction that changes point of view from first to third person as the book moves forward. At first I found it a little disconcerting. But if the changes have their own rhythm to them, and they are somewhat predictable, then I think it can work well.

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Here are some good ones:

  1. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  2. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  3. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  4. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn - not really a diary but you really get inside the protagonists head and it is tremendously moving.

Enjoy

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To answer your question about published examples, some of Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole series are deceptively clever and very funny all in diary form

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The Autobiography of Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes is one of my favourite novels in this form. It's a spin off from the Twin Peaks television series and highlights the idiosyncrasies of one of the series's most idiosyncratic characters.

One of the features of this type of form is that you can cover a lot of time in a single novel in a relatively short period.

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A classic example of the diary form is Henry Reed's Journey by Keith Robertson.

When it is appropriate to use the diary form for a novel?

When you feel like it. When you, for reasons even you don't fully understand feel like writing your story, or some part of it, in the form of a journal.

If that's how you feel, then you have no other option but to use the journal form. To use another form would be an act of self-betrayal. If you don't feel like it, then you must not it because in that case to doing so would be phony and pretentious.

More to the point, you're going to have to live with this thing until you finish it, so you'd best write it in the form you find most interesting, regardless of whether it's journal, third person omniscient, "close third," epistolary, ePistolary, tweets, or something you just made up.

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