Friday, August 19

Are You Talking to Me? Addressing the Reader

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

In most stories the narrator is telling the story to an ambiguous “someone.” The fourth wall (the reader) is never broken and everything happens as if no one was watching, just like TV. But sometimes narrators break that wall and speak directly to the reader. Done well, it can make the reader feel like they’re listening to a story by a good friend. Done poorly, it jars the reader out of the story and reminds them they’re reading a story.

Tastes vary with any unusual device like this, but for me, it works best when it’s embraced and woven into the storytelling throughout as a strong narrator. A few comments here and there don’t work as well because I can forget the narrator is talking to me and when they do, it startles me. Of course, too many interruptions feels like a tour guide who won’t shut up and just tell me the dang history without his personal commentary.

One of my favorite examples of this technique done well is Pseudonymous Bosch’s The Name of this Book Is Secret. The narrator makes it very clear right from the start that he’s telling you this tale as a warning.

Why this worked for me is because the narrator is present throughout the entire story as a narrator. He’s not a character in the book. The voice and opinions are clearly his as an outsider relaying events. What he says to the reader helps move the story along and becomes part of the narrative.

The Book Thief
was another that worked for me for the same reasons. Death is the narrator and he’s telling the tale, adding his own thoughts at various times.

An example that didn’t work as well for me is Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book, (well-written, hysterical premise, fun characters), but the narrator was a character in the story who talked to the reader as he narrated his own life. He constantly reminded me that I was reading a book, because there were actual reminders about what he’d had already told me about. With the interruptions I could never lose myself in the story, which was a real shame. It was just a style that didn't work for me.

While Bosch’s narrator was telling a story, Sanderson’s was commenting on the story he was living. That made all the difference to me in how intrusive it felt.

First Person Snafus
When you think about it, all first person stories are talking to the reader. The narrator is saying “I did this I did that,” so sometimes you can have sentences that feel like the narrator is addressing the reader when they’re actually not. The comments are more like rhetorical questions or musing to oneself.
It wasn’t like they’d shoot me for it, right?
This is fairly common in first person, so it’s not technically speaking directly to the reader. If you see some of these slip into your pages, you’re probably fine.

But if you see things that are clearly talking to the reader (using “you” is a red flag here, as in “you might not believe this but …”) then you’re probably breaking that fourth wall.

How do you feel about characters talking to the reader? What books have you enjoyed (or not) because of it? Any adult examples to share?

17 comments:

  1. I recently read "The Book Thief" and I loved it. I think it would've been just as good if told strictly in third person, but death's narration added an extra powerful layer that pulled me into the story more.

    It depends on the story whether I like characters talking to the reader. Sometimes it works for me, and sometimes it can be jarring.

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  2. As soon as I read the first two paragraphs of this post, I thought of The Book Thief. :) And I agree with Laura, the narration by Death brought the story to the next level. In a lot of stories, the narration is an element that's hardly there, but when the narration is part of the story, it makes the story much more interesting.

    In the Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter, the stories are kind of framed as if the main character, Cammie, is writing them as a series of reports, so I think she occasionally talks to the audience.

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  3. Elizabeth Peters does this in her Amelia Peabody series to perfection.

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  4. I really like how Rick Riordan does this for an MG audience in both his Percy Jackson series and his Kane Chronicles.

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  5. I wasn't halfway into the post when I was thinking that I had to list Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians as another great example. These books worked very well for me -- I love the tension between narrator-Alcatraz (who's sure he's a horrible person) and the story-Alcatraz (who has an ego the size of Australia -- meaning the country, not the person). Any book with uzi-toting anthropologists also has my strong approval (umm...the uzis are for evil librarian-animated romance novel constructs, not people he's studying).

    Another book I liked was the Amulet of Samarkand. One of the POVs is 3rd limited, and the other is 1st. In the 1st person, the addresses to the reader mostly come in the form of footnotes, which happen to be the best (funniest) part of the book.

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  6. I kept getting pulled out of 'The Book Thief' because of Death's narration. After finishing the story, I can see the reasoning for having it written that way (the added layer, as previously mentioned), but I haven't quite decided if I liked it or not.

    If anything, it was a strange experience that has left me thinking about it... so I suppose that's better than being forgettable.

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  7. The technique brings to mind "old" books where it seemed commonplace to involve the reader directly. However, I don't like it--I don't like the omniscient POV, either. That being said, I haven't read the books given as good examples, so maybe it can work.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  8. This post is right on time. I had concerns about this very thing. I did do a few "right?'s" in my story and I didn't want to break that 4th wall. Look's like I'm okay...lol...Thanks once again on providing great advice!

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  9. Moderation is the key here. In first-person POV, the sense usually is that the character is addressing the reader.

    On the other hand, if the story has a diary style, it is, "Dear Diary" which might work out -- but not very well, I think.

    My four novels are all first-person POV. I deliberately mock up the sense that the character is speaking directly to a friend or group of friends. I feel that works, but rarely try to "break out" much into general narrative.


    Our Fourth Wall might or might not exist in writing. If you have your audience targeted correctly, and your reader is in that audience, one of the good parts of an author's voice is that the reader gets pulled in so hard that he feels he is being addressed directly.

    Tricky, but doable. Writer beware.

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  10. Tim Bowler's Blade series makes a really interesting use of this and takes it a step further - the narrator addresses you as if you are right there in the story sneaking around behind him (saying things like 'I see you, Big Eyes,' and 'watch out for the fence there in the dark'). It's a bit jarring at first, but it's a fun twist and I really enjoyed the series.

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  11. Terry Pratchett's Diskworld books make epic use of fourth-wall breaking. (But then, everything about Diskworld is epic.)

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  12. Awesome examples everyone, thanks. I knew there were more out there.

    I also think that everyone has their own thoughts on what breaks the fourth wall. I've heard folks complain about first person in general because it feels like they're talking to you.

    It's a technique that can work very well when handled well, but can also backfire.

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  13. I find this excellent advice. ty. I wondered whether in a book that is a diary, the narrator can speak directly to the reader as he expects the reader to judge him - will this break the 4th wall? In a case where the writer is expressing doubts about his life? Any advice to an amateur such as myself is much appreciated. ty again :)

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    1. They could. That's one area where it would feel more natural. But I'd probably decide who the character was writing to in his diary. Is it him talking to himself or does he expect someone else to read it?

      The fourth wall break usually applies when the narrator knows the book is being "read" by someone else. A diary format feels (to me) more like someone talking to themselves.

      A good example of a fourth wall diary might be Tomorrow When the War Began. The narrator creates a diary for those who might read it later, chronicling what the group goes through when their town is invaded and they fight back. It's a diary, but intended for others to read it.

      So in your case, you'd decide who the diary is written for. If it's for others, talking to them would feel very natural. If it's for the character only, it wouldn't break the fourth wall.

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  14. Hello,
    I wanted to get an opinion. The book I am currently working on is with the main character sitting down and speaking to you (as the reader) about his story. (The best example I can think of is like the movie Paulie) Occasionally I plan to have a few breaks in the story that he is telling where he is speaking with the reader in "present time". He's speaking to the reader this way for a particular reason, and I'm avoiding many assumptual "actions" that the reader does for obvious reasons.

    The story is supposed to feel as if you're sitting down with this man and hearing about his story, with the looming possibility that this could happen to you, too.

    What I would like to know is if there are some similar examples of this where the reader is supposed to feel as if they are physically being interacted with. I would love to see other portrayals of it, and ones that are done well.

    Any other comments on this would be extremely helpful as well. Tips? What to avoid? Would it be something you'd be interested in (if executed well?)

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  15. Hello,
    I wanted to get an opinion. The book I am currently working on is with the main character sitting down and speaking to you (as the reader) about his story. (The best example I can think of is like the movie Paulie) Occasionally I plan to have a few breaks in the story that he is telling where he is speaking with the reader in "present time". He's speaking to the reader this way for a particular reason, and I'm avoiding many assumptual "actions" that the reader does for obvious reasons.

    The story is supposed to feel as if you're sitting down with this man and hearing about his story, with the looming possibility that this could happen to you, too.

    What I would like to know is if there are some similar examples of this where the reader is supposed to feel as if they are physically being interacted with. I would love to see other portrayals of it, and ones that are done well.

    Any other comments on this would be extremely helpful as well. Tips? What to avoid? Would it be something you'd be interested in (if executed well?)

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    Replies
    1. I can think of a lot of movies that use that device, but I'm actually drawing a blank on novels beyond what I mentioned in the post.

      Under the Tuscan Sun (the movie) was based on a book, and it's narrative nonfiction/memoir I believe. You might try looking at some of those, even though they're nonfiction. You might get some tips on how to make it feel memoir-ish, but still maintain that fiction/novel vibe.

      Hope that helps :)

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