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I find writing in a diary-style is the easiest way to write fiction. The format is the same as a diary, with each entry beginning with the date, then describing the feelings or events of the character up to that date.

  • Are there any disadvantages to writing fiction in this format?
  • Do any of these disadvantages explain why this format is not very common?
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4 Answers

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Following on SF, I think the big disadvantage is that you can't give too much blow-by-blow of events or you break the format. Yes, someone might write in a diary, "And then Bill said ... and then I said ... and then we went to the park ..." But woould anyway really write in a diary, "Bill entered the room. He saw Sally on the left and me sitting at the desk. He strolled casually over to Sally. Sally nervously brushed her hair ..." etc. There's lots of description that goes into the action of a story that would just seem very unlikely in a diary.

Big advantage: Very conducive to detailed discussion of the hero's thoughts and feelings. In a conventional narrative, this would look odd. But in a diary, it's expected.

Another advantage that occurs to me: You can lie. That is, if in a narrative style you said, "Bob was having an affair with Sally", and then later you say that in fact this never happened, that that was all just a mistaken idea that one of the characters had, the reader rightly feels lied to: You told him it was so and then later you told him it was not. But if you write, "Amy thought that Bob was having an affair with Sally", that pretty much gives away that it's a mistake. Oh, there are plenty of ways around this, but sometimes it gets awkward. But in a diary format, you can write "Bob is having an affair with Sally", and it's understood that this is what the hero thinks, which may or may not be reality.

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Don't agree with the "In a conventional narrative, this would look odd." comment. Detailed discussion of the protagonist's thoughts and feelings is surely one of the strengths of first-person narratives? And the same applies for the "You can lie." comment, as well. –  Zayne S Halsall Feb 9 '13 at 14:51
    
@ZayneSHalsall I think a diary format is something of the extreme case of a first-person narrative. Yes, in an "ordinary" first person story the hero can discuss his thoughts and feelings, but I think long discussions of feelings still seem more natural in the diary form. –  Jay Feb 11 '13 at 14:52
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The "diary entry" format is not very immersive. It's hard to give believably the most immersive parts of classic prose - following given events step by step, line by line, each breath, frown and smirk. It's all a retrospection from earlier events of the day, compressed into a diary entry format, so it's never this detailed. This alone would probably be quite enough to discourage most authors.

Next comes the matter of fitting it in. The (meta-)writer must be a type to write one, and simultaneously interesting enough to be worth reading enough. Combining these two in a whole novel formatted as a journal is rare.

The format is stifling and gives little in exchange for the cost. You need to have it planned out in time - where a novel skips two months, the journal needs a filler. Where the novel has the protagonist striped of all possessions and locked up, the journal needs them to retain the journal. Where the novel has them keep a deadly secret that can never be written, the journal can't have it written down, or it would show them as reckless.

Still, the format is liked and is common as "fast forward" mode, as day summaries, as a retrospection on last days of a deceased. It is popular and a very powerful tool, but rarely used on scale of full novel - a chapter, a section, a retrospection, something to break the pacing - it's common to interweave short scenes of very intense action with journal entries of days preceding the events. It's not nearly as rare as you believe, it's just usually served as a side dish, not the main course.

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Another issue with diary-formatted fiction is that it may limit you to certain time periods and classes of society. While Victorian ladies often wrote copious diary entries and even passed the books around among their friends and family for entertainment (which would give such a diary a reason for detail and description), it's harder to imagine a modern working woman with so much spare time, and utterly unbelievable for characters from eras and locations that lacked time, literacy, or writing materials.

It also compels you to choose as your protagonist the sort of highly articulate, introspective person who would keep a diary. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this, of course.

An alternative to strictly-diary novels is to create a book from a mix of documents (newspaper clippings, letters, court reports, etc.) as Dorothy Sayers did in The Documents in the Case.

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I don't see how or why that should be a problem, and because it's a diary type entry you could add more intimate thoughts that may not occur in a 'normal' fiction book.

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Not sure this actually answers @Village's questions (1. Any disadvantages to the format? 2. Why is the format not common?). Also, have to disagree - though the journal format allows for the same level of intimacy a third-person narrative might have, it doesn't come close to the possibilities of a third-person, objective voice. Unless, perhaps, a diary of a godlike being... –  Zayne S Halsall Feb 9 '13 at 13:02
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