Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Talking to the reader
On Feb 22, 2012, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, What do you think about writing in questions in books? Like if a story was in third person and at the end of a paragraph I write something like "could this be true?" or "well, what would you do?" or something to that extent, like a narrator almost. I do that a lot in my writing without thinking, and I'm not sure if it’s cheesy or if it sounds silly or not. If it does, is there a way to avoid this?
I certainly don’t think your practice is cheesy or silly. It’s a matter of choice and voice and distance. When you ask these questions, your narrator, who can be first person as well as third, is addressing the reader directly. This speaking to the reader can be in the form of statements, not just questions, as in, You will soon learn the after-effects of the smart slap Duchess Claudette delivered to the cheek of Master Rex.
If you decide to address the reader, you need to do so early in your story or book and be consistent, not in every paragraph, which would likely be annoying, and maybe not even in every chapter (although possibly), but at least once in every, say, fifty pages. If the reader hears from the narrator for the first time on page 368, he is likely to be startled and possibly confused.
(I can’t remember if Charlotte Bronte ever speaks directly to the reader before she says **SPOILER ALERT** near the end “Reader, I married him.” If she didn’t, well, she’s doing it in the wrapping-up, when the reader is already disengaging. You may be able to do that, too, once, right at the end. Try it, if you like. And, although this is a lame excuse, she is Charlotte Bronte and might have even gotten away with tossing a few kangaroos into a novel set in England!)
I suspect you can also talk to the reader in a prologue and not again, because the prologue is a little separate from the story that follows.
Speaking to the reader acknowledges that there is a reader and that this is a book or a story. The question or statement addressed to him takes him out for a beat. I’m not saying this is bad or good; it just is. If the story has him by the throat, he’ll dive right back in. If the story isn’t engaging, whether or not you use this device, he’s likely to wander off.
This technique often has an old-fashioned tone, but that’s not necessary. If the voice of the story is contemporary, the words to the reader can be too, or can be consistent with the time period. J. D. Salinger manages it in a contemporary way in Catcher in the Rye. A narrator in a 1960's novel might say to the reader, “You dig?” A first-person narrator in love with science fiction might ask, “You grok?” A modern, casual narrator might say, “Get it?”
In Beloved Elodie or whatever it’s going to be called, one of the POV characters, the dragon Masteress Meenore, is itching to address the reader, but I’m not letting IT because I haven’t done so anywhere else and I don’t want the reader spending even a second in thinking Huh? Why can IT do this and no one else? (The others don’t want to.)
Which leads to a question worth asking yourself: What kind of narrator am I writing? Even an omniscient third-person narrator has a voice and an implied personality. Compare some books you have that are written in third person, both classic and contemporary. When you’re making the decision about speaking to the reader or not, consider whether the voice is comfortable talking to beings outside the book.
Here’s a prompt: If you’re in the habit of speaking to the reader, try deleting those sentences. How does your story read without them? If you decide to put them back in, consider whether you might phrase the statements or questions in a new way. If you never speak to the reader, try it. See how you feel.
You’ll likely find that a narrator who speaks to the reader has a strong presence. He, she, or it, has an attitude toward the story. If you want your story’s events to unfold naturalistically, you may want to steer clear of this kind of narrator.
This blog takes a conversational tone. I do speak to you, and occasionally I struggle with perspective. Sometimes my we refers to the reader and sometimes to the writer. Sometimes my you is to the writers out there and then I worry that maybe I’m being condescending, since we’re all writers, but I do it anyway if it seems to suit the topic.
Still, I might take a more academic approach and never talk to you. Let’s look at the beginning of my second paragraph as an example. Instead of this:
If you decide to address the reader, you need to do so early in your story or book and be consistent, not in every paragraph, which would likely be annoying, and maybe not even in every chapter (although possibly), but at least once in every, say, fifty pages...
we’d have this:
When an author decides to address a reader directly, the technique will be most effective if begun early in the narrative and consistently applied thereafter, not constantly, which might annoy, but frequently enough...
I’d probably lose most of you.
Here are some prompts. Think about which you enjoyed writing the most and which worked best. I hope you don’t commit to any future voice, but just experiment.
∙ Retell an anecdote from your life, preferably a funny one, from the POV of an irreverent narrator who speaks to the reader.
∙ Retell it straight, using an invisible third-person narrator who doesn’t intrude on the story.
∙ Retell it yet again in your own voice as if you were telling a friend or relative who knew nothing about it.
∙ Fictionalize the anecdote and introduce an embarrassing element. Make it not have happened to you if that helps. Have your narrator tell it in narration to a disapproving reader.
∙ Pick a fairy tale to tell straight in an old-timey fairy tale voice, including asides to the reader.
∙ Tell the fairy tale as if you were a stand-up comic, performing the tale in a nightclub or a one-person play.
Have fun, and save what you write!