Friday, April 13, 2018

Are You Talking to Me? Addressing the Reader

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's not always a good idea for your novel to talk back to readers. 

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 as if 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.

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. The "right?" could just as easily be the narrator trying to reassure themselves.

But other times, the internal comment is absolutely directed at the reader:
So listen, you know how it gets when you're flying down a hill in a giant barrel with no way to steer? It was like that.
This isn't dialogue aimed at a character, it's an internal thought meant for the reader. Using “you” is a red flag here, and whenever you see that, odds are you're breaking that fourth wall and addressing the reader.

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. Having only a few comments here and there don’t work as well because in between comments, it's easy to forget the narrator is talking to me and when they do, it startles me all over again. Of course, too many interruptions feels like a tour guide who won’t shut up--just tell me the dang history without the personal commentary!

A good example 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.

Now I know I can trust you.

You're curious. You're brave. And you're not afraid to lead a life of crime.

But let's get something straight: if, despite my warning, you insist on reading this book, you can't hold me responsible for the consequences. 
He's speaking to the reader and knows it, so 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 novel 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.
--Of course, an introduction.

A beginning.

Where are my manners?

I could introduce myself properly, but it's not necessary. 
Or later...
Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a color and all that tired sort of nonsense. Well, I'm here to tell you that it is.
He pops in with observations throughout the story, and ever goes as far as to change where the story is located and who the focus character is when he sees fit. The capricious nature of Death works for this and doesn't make you feel as though you're being yanked all over the story.

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.
So there I was, tied to an altar made from outdated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil Librarians.

As you might imagine, that sort of situation can be quite disturbing. It does funny things to the brain to be in such danger--in fact, it often makes a person pause and reflect upon his life. If you've never faced such a situation, then you'll simply have to take my word. If, on the other hand, you have faced such a situation, then you are probably dead and aren't likely to be reading this.
He often reminded me that I was reading a book, because there were actual reminders about what he’d had already told me about.
Now, I warned you that I wasn't a good person.
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.

Breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader can be a fun technique that gives a different tone and feel to a novel, but it can also go too far and become tedious. Make sure you find the right balance between narrator and annoying tour guide.

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? 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  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.

  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.

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

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

  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.

  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.

  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's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  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 once again on providing great advice!

  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.

  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.

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

  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.

  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 :)

    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.

  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?)

    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 :)

  15. Greetings,

    I did not know where else to ask so will try my luck here -

    I am currently writing a fiction piece, and at the point I'm currently on I want to make a reference to the reader of an area that was covered before. For example - "As they enter a clear area that we are oh so familiar with..."

    How do I go about that without going over the 4th wall too much? Thank you.

    1. It depends on your point of view. If you're writing omniscient and have been talking to the reader the entire time, that would fit.

      If you haven't been addressing the reader before now, that sudden break is probably going to feel weird and throw them out of the story. I'd suggest not doing it.

      If you just want to refer to the area, but want to keep it in the character's POV, just have them notice or mention they'd been there before. Such as, "We returned ton the clearing" or "A familiar clear area greeted us" or "We we back in the clearing" or the like.

      Unless you want to break the 4th wall, keep it in the POV characer's head and refer to it however they would.

      Does that clear it up for you?

    2. Ah, makes sense.

      I will omit it and try proceeding normally.

      Thanks for your insight! I appreciate it.

      Keep up the good work!

  16. It sounds like what kicked you out was the future-MC breaking the fourth wall, almost more than the wall-breaking? With all the knowledge and tense shifting involved when you go from present-story to character-in-the-future commenting on his past actions?

    I haven't read most of the books described, but it sounds like Death was keeping it present-tense and not alluding to future actions.

    1. I think ti was more the frequency of it. It was if the author didn't want me to forget stuff so he kept reminding me, but it didn't happen that long ago, so it started feeling repetitious.

      Had he cut about half of it out, it would have been easy to roll with it. Just too much for me overall.

  17. I did this once as an experiment and my writers group tossed me into the fire. In their opinion it was not the writing that bothered them it was the surprise. That didn't stop me from wanting to try it again.

    It's actually fun to speak directly to the reader. Give them a wink and a smile as if to say - Can you believe this is actually happening?

    1. Years ago I tried it, but I was so new to writing I made a mess of it. :)

  18. How about Gone Girl? I feel like both narrators occasionally breaks the fourth wall, but it could've just been first person narration.

    1. I haven't read it so I can't say. Sometimes first person give a fourth wall feel if it uses "you" in the general sense.

  19. I also am writing a children's book where I am trying to figure out how to bring the reader themselves into the book and I'm just not having any luck with it at all. Can someone please point me the right direction here lol my head hurts lol

    1. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "bring the reader into the book." Are you talking about second person, where the story is "you do this, you do that?"

  20. When breaking the 4th wall, should the text be in quotations?

    1. I've always seen it done using internal thought, and it often references the reader in some way, such as "dear reader" or "if you're reading this..."