Write Now: “Dear Diary”

For my current YA novel, Still Water, I’m using a “diary” structure. This has its pros and cons. Some pros:

  • The diary form provides a good justification for first person narration, very popular in YA fiction. The reader is placed in the position of the diary – the recipient of the protagonist’s confidences. This creates a very personal connection between protagonist and reader, since the protagonist is sharing her most private and powerful thoughts and feelings, including internal conflicts. Being placed in the role of sympathetic “listener” predisposes the reader to identify with and care about the protagonist.
  • The form emphasises the passage of time, while allowing flexibility in the way events are narrated. My protagonist, Storm usually brings her diary up to date a couple of times a day. However, sometimes she’s writing in the middle of an unfolding drama, while other times days go past before she updates her diary.  I like the variety this brings to the narrative.
  • We get a sense of immediacy in our relationship with the protagonist. We get to “see” where Storm is, who she’s with and what she’s feeling at the moment of writing (like a FB update!) and also to hear about what’s happened in the past few hours or days to bring her to this point. Sometimes she’ll say at lunchtime, “This afternoon I’m going to try this“, then at dinnertime “That didn’t work! Let me tell you what happened…”  The mix of past-tense and present-tense narration keeps things interesting.
  • The diary is a tool for showing changes in the protagonist’s mental state, not just through the content of what she writes, but through the form. Longer or shorter diary entries, frequency of entries, length and completeness of sentences, punctuation or lack of it, repetitiveness, misspellings, and so on can show that the protagonist is upset, angry, confused, semi-conscious, borderline psychotic – whether she tells us or not.
  • The diary form lends itself to a sense of continuity – that the protagonist has a life beyond this particular novel. I’m planning a prequel and a sequel to Still Water, which I don’t think I’d have had the urge to do if the novel wasn’t in diary form. Storm explains at the start that she’s been diarizing for the past year, while hospitalised for depression and self-harm. This “new” diary begins when she leaves hospital. Now, as her author, I’m curious to read her hospital diary – and I’m also interested in what happens next, after this one ends. I’m hoping her readers will be equally inquisitive!

However, the diary form also raises some challenges. So far I’ve identified these:

  • Some readers consider the diary form to be overused, particularly since the 1990s, so a novel in this form now seems “old hat”. (Personally I can’t say I feel that, but some people do).
  • If your protagonist is keeping a diary quite conscientiously, it’s reasonable for the reader to ask why? Does she expect someone else to read it someday? Does she feel she’s participating in historically important events that someone should chronicle? Is she collecting raw material for her memoir? Is it a school project? Or just a way of coping with the stresses of life? Especially today when many people blog or micro-blog rather than keep a diary, it may be important that your protagonist has a reason for journalling – and this reason can also add another dimension to the character/story.
  • Switching between past-tense and present-tense narration can feel “clunky” or jarring, unless carefully managed.
  • The diary form privileges the protagonist’s view of things so completely it can be a challenge to show the reader anything else. The protagonist is more interesting if she doesn’t fully understand herself and her own actions. Other characters are more interesting if the reader can see things about them that the protagonist is blind to. As the author, sometimes you want to share a secret with the reader without letting the protagonist in on it. This can be tricky in diary form – but it’s fun!
  • Because your protagonist is placed explicitly in the role of narrator, mediating or translating events for the diary/reader, it can be easy to slip into using the protagonist as a mouthpiece for your own views. Readers are quick to detect preachiness. It’s especially important in a diary to maintain the voice of the protagonist consistently, and this can be challenging if he/she is very different from you the author in age, sex, socio-economic status, cultural-linguistic background, etc.

How about you – have you written in diary form? Or read novels that use a diary structure? What inspires you about this form? What challenges you? What solutions have you found to these challenges?

Andrea Baldwin

About Andrea Baldwin

Andrea Baldwin teaches creative writing and business writing, most recently at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. She has published fiction, poetry, travel articles, feature stories, reviews and academic papers, and has been a street press editor and sub-editor. Andrea holds PhDs in Psychology and Creative Writing and a Masters in Drama. She lives in a house full of notebooks and can never find a pen.