How to Write a Fictional Journal: The Real Stories of Fake People
The Children’s Book Review | September 7, 2013
Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of six acclaimed novels, is an avid reader of books that aren’t for grownups. Her latest middle grade novel, Heaven Is Paved with Oreos, is written as 14-year-old Sarah’s journal. Sarah plans to spend the summer with her “pretend boyfriend” Curtis Schwenk, waiting for a dead calf named Boris to decompose in time for the science fair. Her plans upend when hippie Grandma Z invites her on a European holiday to visit the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome. Murdock shares her brilliant “how-to” musings on fictional journal writing … or, as she likes to put it, the real stories of fake people.
A journal—a real-life journal—is the story of someone’s life, invariably highly edited. (Can you imagine reading one that wasn’t?) So it makes sense that the journal format would be an ideal format for fiction: it gets the reader directly into the character’s head and it provides a built-in framework for plot. I also appreciate how a journal in a sense justifies the project: “why does this book exist? Because it’s my story. Here, I’m telling it.”
But a fictional journal has pitfalls, too. The first is figuring out how to convey setting and backstory. Why would the narrator be writing an explanation of her mother, or a description of her community, into her own personal journal? “Dear Diary: today as I walked through the town where I’ve lived in for ten years, I passed the library where I’ve spent so many beloved hours, the three-story brick school that I attended through eighth grade, and the gift shop where my boyfriend Bobby now works selling candles . . .” Yeah. That’s believable. It’s not even readable.
My own personal solution to this is to make the beginning of the journal-writing experience the beginning of the book. The narrator ends up presenting critical backstory while navigating this new medium. This is baldly obvious in Heaven is Paved with Oreos, which begins with a statement along the lines of “Look at my new journal! What do I write? Hmmm . . .” It is also the formula I used (spoiler alert!) in Dairy Queen, which, it turns out, is actually a journal writing assignment. In Dairy Queen’s case, the justification for the story isn’t revealed until the last page of the book.
That’s a second issue I’ve had with journals: the problem of the third-act reveal. A third-act reveal, for those of you lucky enough not to have studied screenwriting, is the big surprise that comes near the end of the movie—you know, the moment when you go, “Oh! It was the old guy all the time!” A fictional-journal surprise is easy to write if the narrator is surprised, too—if the narrator is also discovering that it was the old guy all the time. But what if the narrator has information that I, the author, want to keep from the reader in order to heighten the suspense? For example, the narrator might figure out early on that it was the old guy but refrain from writing it down because the old guy is her grandfather—a nice twist, but (trust me) difficult to write in a manner that doesn’t either give it away or cheapen the revelation when it happens.
I encountered this challenge with Heaven is Paved with Oreos, where the narrator learns a very big secret halfway through the book but refuses to mention it it for several weeks because I needed the third-act reveal. It was an even bigger problem in my last book, Wisdom’s Kiss, which has multiple narrators, one of whom doesn’t know something important . . . so I had to write the story into a pretzel to make the revelation of this fact as dramatic, and delayed, as possible.
The fictional-journal third-act reveal is particularly tricky with false consciousness. I am not a psych-type person, but I know enough to understand that sometimes what people think they believe isn’t what they believe in truth. “I don’t like Curtis—I really don’t like Curtis—I so, so, so don’t like Curtis—um, maybe I do like him . . .” That revelation needs to be worked carefully into the story. We readers need hints so it doesn’t come out of nowhere, but not so many hints that the narrator sounds dim. And that’s a tightrope, because what is obvious to one reader is opaque to others. I myself am notorious for missing critical clues; perhaps that’s why I’m sensitive about this. Readers can suspect the truth—can even suspect that the narrator suspects it — but nevertheless need to support the narrator on her/his journey to that psychological revelation.
Do I have magic-bullet solutions to offer other fictional-journal writers on the problem of third-act reveals? No. I’m not sure my third-act reveals even work. But know at least that I give them an extraordinary amount of thought.
The third problem of fictional journals, as I see it, is voice. It really needs to sound like a journal. If it doesn’t sound like a journal, then make it something else. I will admit that this is a peeve of mine, the “young-adult narrator” who sounds more like a 47-year-old woman than a 14-year-old boy—particularly when the author is a 47-year-old woman. If that’s your voice, then use it! Make the story close third-person, or have it be a journal written by an angel (say), who sounds like a 47-year-old woman . . . That would be really cool, actually. And if it is a journal, regardless of the narrator it requires a bit of dross: “this afternoon I had a dentist’s appointment and Dad made spaghetti again” . . . “Heaven is the same as ever —I’m so weary of eternal bliss!” . . . enough to provide a sense that this is a day-to-day recounting of someone’s life. Here again, it’s rather a tightrope, because that sort of day-to-day recounting can rapidly become boring. In, like, three sentences. But those three sentences had better be placed artfully because otherwise it simply doesn’t scan. The journal of a 14yo boy needs to relate, at least vaguely, to the life of a 14yo boy; the journal of a 47yo angel, ditto.
There. I hadn’t realized I had quite so much to say about journal-writing, particularly considering that I have never been able to keep a journal myself . . . perhaps that makes me better suited to envision what an ideal journal should be! Or at least what an ideal fictional journal should be; real-life journals should be far too real ever to make it to publication.
For more information on Catherine Murdock and her books, visit: www.catherinemurdock.com