We might say there are 3 kinds of first-person narratives:
- The Epistolary Novel — This is similar to a diary novel, but there’s supposed to be an addressee. For example, Dear Mr Henshaw (1983) by Beverly Cleary, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
- Memoir Novel — Memoirs of a Geisha
Then there are fictitious versions:
- Fictitious Autobiographies, in which there generally has to be a reason set up for writing this thing in the first place — perhaps a justification (Lolita, written from jail) or as a cathartic exercise.
- Fictitious Diaries (and letters): The difference between this and an ‘autonomous monologue’ is that a diary is fragmented and discontinuous. There’s an illusion of immediacy. The narrator doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, along with the reader. This allows for improbable situations, like keeping a diary during the last days of her life.
- Fictitious Memoirs, in which it’s fairly common to include a metafictive preamble explaining that ‘What you’re about to read actually happened’, or similar e.g. Don Quixote, The Three Musketeers, The Name of the Rose)
Since the fictitious diary is such a popular narrative technique in children’s fiction, here are some favourites.
- The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, Ages 13 1/4 (1982) by Sue Townshend
- Top Secret by Barbro Lindgren
- The Diary of a First-Grader (1979) by Viveca Widerberg
- Bert’s Diary (1987) by Anders Jacobsson and Soren Olsson
- Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French
- Diary Of A Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
The thing to remember about writing stories in diary/journal format for publication is that they must still have a narrative arc. Real-life journals don’t necessarily follow any arc.
“Some people write in their diaries and are very introspective, and some people are not at all,” says Kate McLean, an associate professor of psychology at Western Washington University. Journal-keeping, though a way of documenting the life story, doesn’t always make for a tightly-wound narrative. A writer I interviewed several months ago—Sarah Manguso—has kept a diary for 25 years, and still told me, “Narrative is not a mode that has ever come easily to me.”