Dracula, Letter, and Suspense – a Post on Writing Technique

I know the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula well – I know what happens in this book from general usage in popular culture. Furthermore, I even know the narrative arc of this particular version of the tale, as I’ve seen Coppola’s masterful film adaptation of the book.[1] However, as I’ve been reading the book Dracula for the first time, I am constantly intrigued by the way the narrative moves. The genius of this novel lies in the way it is told, not in the story itself.

It is not merely the fact that Dracula is an epistolary novel – one of the few I’ve read that actually seems to work as a series of letters and journal entries. Instead, it is because what is revealed in these letters is carefully calibrated to conceal and reveal. Bram Stoker seems to be constantly aware of what he is hiding and illuminating for his audience. In reading Dracula, I am struck by how much suspense is created by the characters not knowing what is happening on the other end of the chain of letters. Stoker knew what he was doing.

For example, when Jonathan Harker is in Transylvania and his wife Mina is in England, the lack of knowledge about each other’s situation leads to enormous suspense. The reader / listener knows all along what is really going on. This factor of readerly knowledge leads to engagement. The reader knows – or suspects – much more than the characters are able (or willing) to put into their letters. To cite an early instance, Jonathan Harker writes in one of the first “letters” to his wife about his first journey to Transylvania, and describes himself and his act of writing:

I am writing up part of this diary whilst I am waiting for the coach, which is, of course, late; and the crucifix is still around my neck. Whether it is the old lady’s fear, or the many ghostly traditions of this place, or the crucifix itself, I do not know, but I am not feeling nearly as easy in my mind as usual. If this book should ever reach Mina before I do, let it bring my good-bye. Here comes the coach! (6)

In this passage, Jonathan acts as an “innocent” – even while the reader suspects much more is happening. Over time, our knowledge (as readers) grows, while the characters stay relatively naïve. It’s a tough balancing act, and I am challenged in my own writing to give the reader more information even while concealing it from my characters. As I read this novel, I like feeling smarter than the characters, but it’s tough – because as a reader I don’t want to feel that the characters are “dumb,” I just want to feel a step ahead of them.  I still don’t know how to do this effectively in my own writing. Perhaps one of the keys is helping the characters to conceal information from their own selves.

The characters “live” their stories as completely hermetic boxes from one another, and tell their reality to the reader. In fact, the whole novel attempts to be more credible by being a type of “documentary” experience. By creating his novel in this fashion, Stoker seems to remove himself from the scene, while inserting his own writerly act even deeper by making the reader’s insight more dominant. This device of a “documentary” story hooks readers into the story.

A more recent example of the same technique can be found in the movie Blair Witch Project, which feels so very, very “real” because it seems to be one person’s perspective. Another example of a narrative that succeeds, because only one perspective is seen is the movie The Usual Suspects, which is all told from one person’s point of view (except for a very telling coda at the end). In contemporary novels, The Historian covers similar terrain as Dracula (and is inspired by that story). The Historian tries the same trick but seems just too conscious of this device and the story overplays its hand. I think that The Historian would have been more effective as a “found narrative,” much as Dracula purports to be, with its letters and journals. Instead, the over-consciousness about technique makes us doubt the characters in The Historian.

In that light, what’s really interesting about Stoker’s work in Dracula is that as we get deeper into the letters and journals we begin to realize that every one of these writers are unreliable narrators who are gradually being suborned by “the devil”– Dracula himself. But each character/writer is constantly trying to reinforce their credibility by writing it down. Stoker conceals information from the characters – and gives it to the readers (or to other characters). Honesty on the part of the characters themselves – saying the truth as they see it – seems to be the key to effectiveness of the narrative.

For example, Jonathan writes: “I came tiptoe into our own room, and found Mina asleep, breathing so softly that I had to put my ear down to hear it. She looks paler than usual. I hope the meeting to-night has not upset her. I am truly thankful that she is to be left out of our future work, and even of our deliberations. It is too great a strain for a woman to bear” (277). So Jonathan overtly thinks he is keeping information from Mina, and he is telling the reader that he will conceal what happens next from his wife.

Yet a few pages later in the novel, Mina writes in her own journal, and reveals that she knows much more than Jonathan suspects (again, telling the reader private information): “It is strange to me to be kept in the dark as I am to-day; after Jonathan’s full confidence for so many years, to see him manifestly avoid certain matters, and those the most vital of all” (279). Mina then goes on to describe what she knows – which is much of what Jonathan is trying to conceal from her.

The two characters tell the reader everything, but don’t tell each other much at all (during this crucial set of scenes). The reader feels a step ahead of both of them, but the characters are still respected by the reader (and are still believed), since the characters are trying to be honest to themselves. Credibility is vital to their own stories. The fact that they are concealing critical information from their own consciousness just adds to the suspense and the vitality of the narrative.

One way of creating these self-deceptive characters is to have them write their thoughts down. But I don’t have the courage, in my own writing, to have my characters write self-deceptive letters to each other – at least not yet. In my first (unpublished) novel, I did have a first person protagonist who deceived himself, and was an unreliable narrator, but I’m not sure I was fully successful in that endeavor. It is hard to write characters that are at once believable, yet also on some level oblivious to the import of their own actions.

The most important aspect of learning I am taking away from Dracula is the necessity of having your characters be absolutely true to their own realities – even if the reader can see that their “reality” is leaving out some critical information. The characters need to believe their stories, even if they are going off a cliff.

A literary update from NedNote.com
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Works Cited

Blair Witch Project. Dir. Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez. Lion’s Gate, 1999.

Dracula. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Columbia Pictures, 1992.

Hayes, Ned. Carpenter. Seattle, WA Unpublished Novel 2000.

Kostova, Elizabeth. The Historian. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.

Naked Lunch. Dir. David Cronenberg. Criterian Collection, 2003.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Dover Publications, 2000.

The Usual Suspects. Dir. Bryan Singer. MGM Studios, 1995.


[1] Coppola’s “Dracula” is one of the few filmic adaptations that actually capture the phantasmagoric characteristics of a great work of supernatural fiction. Now that I’ve read Dracula, I continue to be amazed at how perfectly the movie captured the sense and flow of this novel – brilliant movie-making in service of a great story. Another of these filmic masterworks is Cronenberg’s version of William Burrough’s “Naked Lunch” – a film that perfectly captures the drug-induced hallucinatory environment of Burrough’s powerful and disturbing story. The way that Burrough’s internal world is brought to reality in Cronenberg’s film is one of the most amazing acts of page-to-film translation I have ever seen.

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