Reader, I’m Talking to You

On November 25, 2017, Aster wrote, I like to write in first person, but I often find when I focus on the character’s thoughts and feelings I forget to include description and sensory details, or I have a very sloppy transition from thoughts to description. On the flip side, if I “make a movie in the reader’s mind,” I often forget to include thoughts. How can I get better at including sensory details, and emotions? On an unrelated note: does anyone have any opinions about breaking the 4th wall, so to speak?

Christie V Powell wrote back, I’m not a first person writer, partly for this reason, but one way to combine sensory details and emotions is to have the details convey the emotion. For instance, if I’m writing about a funeral, the overcast sky will look gloomy, mourning doves will cry, wheels will creak, feet trudge. If I’m writing about a happier scene, even if it happened in the same setting, the sky might be beautiful swirls of gray, birds will sing, wheels dance, feet march.

And I wrote, We can be mechanical about encouraging ourselves to remember. We can type at the end of a day’s work: REMEMBER THE MOVIE! REMEMBER THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS! (I tend to do these things in all caps to distinguish them from the rest of my story.) Then the reminder will be there when we get to work again. We can also set a timer on our phone to go off every twenty minutes to remind us. If we do this kind of thing, remembering will become automatic after a while.

I’m adding your fourth-wall question to my list.

Then I asked Aster for the reason behind the fourth-wall question, and she wrote, I was watching FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF the other day, and the way the MC directly spoke to the screen confused me a little at first. I was wondering how other watcher/readers feel about this technique. I’m not currently working on something, but I was wondering how others felt about that method of writing (or film making).

I did a little research. Turns out that the term breaking the fourth wall is generally applied to plays and scripts. In prose, it’s called metafiction, and here are two Wikipedia links. First is a definition and discussion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metafiction. And second is a list of examples: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_metafictional_works, some of which you may know, and you may think of others as well–I have. The list is by no means exhaustive.

Basically, in metafiction, the writer calls the reader’s attention to the fact that he’s reading fiction. To my surprise, I’ve used metafiction. In both Ella Enchanted and the forthcoming Ogre Enchanted, other fairy tales are mentioned. In Ella, the magic book shows the story “The Shoemaker and the Elves” twice, once just to Ella, and once to Slannen and the elves, who laugh at how tiny they are in the story. The reader is likely to think, Huh! This fairy tale is talking about another fairy tale. This realization is likely–for just a split second, I hope–to be pulled out of my book. And my Princess Tales make so much fun of fairy tales that I hope the reader recognizes the commentary without having a clue about metafiction.

I first encountered metafiction when I was little, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, one of my childhood faves, as I’ve said many times. For example, in the chapter, “The Home Underground,” Barrie writes about which lost-boys-and-Wendy adventure to reveal. Barrie tantalizes the reader by alluding to this one or that and then deciding on one. I used to gnash my teeth in frustration whenever I reread this part, because I wanted them all! But there’s no way to read Barrie’s deliberations and not be reminded that one is reading a story.

The miracle (detouring from metafiction) of this part is that I didn’t realize until five minutes ago that Barrie does tell all the tales, in summary at least.

The form of metafiction Aster pinpoints in her question is direct address, in which the writer speaks to the reader as you or as Reader. Many writers have addressed their readers, even child readers,, as young as picture book age. The third sentence in Jon Scieszka’s picture book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is “But I’ll let you in on a little secret” (italics mine). The book isn’t for newborns, but it proves that five-year olds can get and enjoy a sophisticated literary device.

One of the most famous examples of direct address comes late in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte in the sentence, Reader, I married him, but the reader is spoken to occasionally all the way through, and here’s another example, from the beginning of Chapter Eleven: A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote. We have two kinds of metafiction going on in this sentence. Bronte not only speaks to the reader as you, she also announces that this is a novel. Why?

If we use direct address, we should eventually know why–not necessarily at first, but eventually. At first, we may be just trying it out.
I like Reader, I married him for the triumph in the simple declaration. But elsewhere Bronte seems worried that the reader needs authorial guidance to understand what’s going on. I don’t know if the guidance is needed, since I’ve read the book only her way. Anyway, that’s her reason, according to me.

Another instance just this minute occurs to me, and it comes from the last post, from Christie V Powell’s character’s journal entry, which begins, Hello! There’s no you, but this is direct address for sure. Totally justified, in my opinion. Diaries work that way, especially the diaries of young people.

And, I’d say, switching POV to a diary in the first place is metafiction. In first encountering a diary, the reader can’t help but be reminded that this is a story. After that, he may stop noticing if he’s engrossed in what’s going on.

Terry Pratchett practices a kind of metafiction when he uses footnotes in his Discworld books. Footnotes in a novel? What’s up with that? I think the purpose is to ramp up the hilarity and also to accommodate the overflow from his inventive brain.

Jon Scieszka makes the reader an accomplice in what he presents as a subversive book–which adds to the fun. And Scieszka has a charmingly, warmly ironic voice, which goes well with the device. Barrie may do it to challenge the reader’s assumptions. He certainly turned my idea of childhood upside down. I loved being told in Barrie’s loving way that I, just by virtue of being a child, was selfish.

In high school I was fascinated by a play called Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (high school and up), which I read and never saw performed. In it the play explores the nature of reality and art–

–which we can do, too, even when we’re writing for children, if it’s part of an interesting story–a standard adult fiction has to meet, too.

My friend Suzanne Fisher Staples told me she used metafiction at the end of her YA novel Under the Persimmon Tree to give the reader a wider context for the events of the story, and she used it at end of her YA novel Dangerous Skies to mitigate the sadness of the finale.

So there are lots of reasons to use direct address and metafiction. I’ve mentioned just a few, and we can come up with more for our own.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Mash together two fairy tales, say “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Try the mash-up two ways. In one, be transparent about it, so the reader knows exactly what’s going on. In the other, meld the two seamlessly, and let the reader discover the two strands.

∙ Retell “Little Red Riding Hood,” and make the narrator address the reader with a commentary on what’s going on in the story, which you can take in a new direction, or not. Give the narrator attitude.

∙ A theatrical version of “Snow White” has just been performed, and afterwards there’s a Q & A session between the two main characters, Snow White and the evil queen. Write the discussion. Remember that both characters have depended on their looks, despite the fact that one is sweet and passive and the other, well, evil.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. ” to accommodate the overflow from his inventive brain.”
    Oh yes. I love the footnotes. I had the great privileged to see Sir Terry and Neil Galman on a panel once, and you could just see the ideas whizzing around between them.

    (It’s a good thing there wasn’t a fire, because that room was packed way beyond capacity with people who I think just wanted to be in the same room with those brilliant minds. And by golly, I’m not the only one who likes to read old household encyclopedias! Brilliant comic literary geniuses do it too. 🙂 )

  2. I don’t think I’d ever have reason to do it in any of my stories but, when the story is right for it, I do love metafiction! Especially in Peter Pan (doesn’t he appeal directly to the reader at one point to help save Tinkerbell?) – I think that’s one of the most unique things about his writing style!

    • Oh yes- that’s probably one of the most memorable parts! Although it’s in past tense, which I’d forgotten:

      ” Peter flung out his arms. There were no children there, and it was night time; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls in their nighties, and naked papooses in their baskets hung from trees.

      “Do you believe?” he cried.

      Tink sat up in bed almost briskly to listen to her fate.

      She fancied she heard answers in the affirmative, and then again she wasn’t sure.

      “What do you think?” she asked Peter.

      “If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”

      Many clapped.

      Some didn’t.

      A few beasts hissed.

      The clapping stopped suddenly; as if countless mothers had rushed to their nurseries to see what on earth was happening; but already Tink was saved. First her voice grew strong, then she popped out of bed, then she was flashing through the room more merry and impudent than ever. She never thought of thanking those who believed, but she would have liked to get at the ones who had hissed.”

      C.S. Lewis addressed the reader in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, too.

  3. I have a completely unrelated question that I’ve been struggling with for the past few weeks (actually, I’ve always struggled with it but only realized what I’ve been doing about two weeks ago!). Have you ever noticed your own personality flaws showing up too much in all of your characters?

    • I’m a little worried about that right now too. I’ve recently branched out to two WIPs with different characters than my main series, and I worry about them being too much alike (all four girl names even end in -a).
      One thing that I hope will help is their character arcs: each one is working on a different trait that drives the story. Keita struggles with motivation to make a difference, prejudice against another clan, and to give up her wants/needs for what is really best for her kingdom (different books in the series). Kenna from DreamRovers struggles with a desire to escape reality, while Norma tries to live her dreams but gets overwhelmed when she takes on too much responsibility. Mira from Mira’s Griffin struggles with over-independence. According to KM Wieland, character flaws are just symptoms of the Lie that they believe about the world, which the story will disprove. So Kenna’s Lie is that dreams are better than reality, and her flaws are not noticing when people need her, being absent-minded, giving up too quickly, and so on. Mira’s over-independence does sometimes make her not notice other people, but it has a different root.

      I also gave them a few superficial things: Mira hates goats, while Norma loves them. Keita never wears shoes, while Mira loves her boots.

      • Interesting! I’m glad at least that it’s not just me! My problem, as I now realize, is that all of my characters – and even my favorite characters from movies and other books! – are all plagued by some deep seated insecurity/self-consciousness (specifically, insecurity based in some unchangeable physical trait or condition that makes them different from everybody else). I can’t believe I never noticed how much I do this before! And yes, the embarrassing thing is that I realize now this is a direct reflection of myself. I’ve always been careful, of course, to make each character’s personality unique, with a variety of flaws and virtues (I’ve got a ditzy optimist and a stoic realist and everyone in between!), but invariably, they still end up with some deep-seated insecurity. It’s almost as though I can’t relate to them if they are completely comfortable with who they are. I just can’t figure out how to overcome this!

        • That doesn’t sound like a problem to me. It just sounds like that’s the heart you write from. I realized recently that I do a similar thing. All my books so far are, on some level, about outcasts finding home.

        • It seems like I’ve been recommending her a lot lately, but you might be interested to look at KM Wieland’s blog on story structure (helping writers become authors). She talks about a flat character arc, and that the way this still works is that even though the flat character has the Truth all along, he/she also experiences a Doubt which prohibits him/her from completely acting on the Truth. So you could say that all characters with this type of arc share the same thing your character does. https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/doubt-key-flat-character-arcs/

  4. On a related note, does anybody else have just plain odd STUFF that keeps turning up? For instance, in 3 totally different books, I have characters who eat mice, or at least threaten to.
    My characters tend to go hungry a lot, even though I never have.

    and there’s usually some sort of “city on a hill…”

  5. I first heard the concept of metafiction given a name in Adam Gidwitz’s book The Grimm Conclusion, which is the third in a series I read ages ago (hilarious series, by the way, despite its basis in Grimm fairy tales), where someone said, in response to blatant metafiction, “The metafictional dimensions of that statement are kind of blowing my mind.” Naturally, I had to look up the meaning, and bam, it became my favorite abstract concept and I’m pleased every time I find it – as long as the author can pull it off.
    Metafiction is used in Gidwitz’s series, of course, and others that come to mind are Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire and the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, and books by Lemony Snicket (the narrator is in constant conversation with the reader). In Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher, the author references one of his previous books. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke partially takes place inside a book within the book – would that count?
    A really cliche use is when someone says “There isn’t going to be happy ending – this isn’t a book” or something of the sort. Every time, I’m like, “Ah, but it IS a book.”
    I’m glad you decided to do a post on this. I love it very much.

  6. Tolkien uses metafiction in ‘The Hobbit’ the times I remember are; in the goblin tunnels with Gollum, and when they escape from the wood elves dungeon. These have always been my favorite parts of ‘The Hobbit’.

  7. We were talking about the differences between YA and MG a few posts ago. Someone on a facebook group brought this up and I thought it might interest you:

    “Went to a great class at ltue talking about the true differences between ya and middle grade. The thing that really stuck with me is that ya should have characters with complex motives and gray areas – the right answer shouldn’t be obvious. The characters should be dealing with tough choices”

    “I took that to mean they needed to darken it up with gray areas, motive complexities, etc. Violence isn’t the only way to darken a story. He gave the example of how in a middle grade if the MC had to choose between saving the BF or the city, they will always choose the BF, but still find some way to save the city too. I followed up with him afterward about what YA would choose. He said 50/50 between the BF and the city. But the big difference, and here’s where that darkness comes in, is that they won’t be able to save the other one too and will have to deal will the cost and the loss of their choice.”

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Interesting!

      I’m not sure I agree with the way this is framed. MG readers can handle complexity and sadness. A distinction for me is in the self-awareness of a teen, which includes self-doubt and more shame than MG kids are willing to go into. But I’m mostly an MG writer, so I’m not an expert. Other thoughts?

  8. Dear Gail (or anyone who might have suggestions for me),

    When I first began writing, I turned to Writing Magic to help me ease into my new interest in writing. 10 years later, I’m still writing and especially still learning (I recently began working my way through Writer to Writer).

    I wanted to know what suggestions you might give for the parts of writing that I suppose I would call “background description”. See, I’m a writer who loves dialogue –I love to know what people choose to say and what people say in return. My problem though lies with describing what is going on in-between the dialogue.

    Allow me to give an example from one of your books I grew-up with: Ever.

    “You never crawled,” Aunt Fedo says.
    Merem corrects her. “Once or twice you crawled.”
    Aunt Fedo ignores the correction. “You were too eager to walk and dance.”
    “And climb!” Merem says. She pats Kezi’s hand.
    Senat, Merem, and Aunt Fedo laugh.
    “Nothing was safe from you,” Senat says, breaking off a section of bread for her.

    In this example, using “say” and “said” are the first tools in breaking up straight dialogue as it tells who said it. But, what about the rest? The –as I put it- “background description”- correcting of facts, patting of Kezi’s hand, laughter, and Senat breaking off the section of bread. How would you suggest I write “background description” to break up dialogue? Thank you in advance for any suggestions.

    • I think that being able to see the whole thing in your mind would help you nail those details. In writing dialogue, you’re often focused on the words the characters are saying, but you might miss out on everything else going on: real life doesn’t stop when people have a conversation. Visualizing the setting might help.

      Also, those little descriptions are a great way to build subtext. Senat handing her bread shows that he’s caring for her. Merem patting a hand is a gesture that shows that she’s an older woman, probably family, showing fondness and possibly a bit of teasing. There is a ton of subtext going on–reading between the lines, if you will. Not everyone will pick up on it, but it makes the story richer.

      Here’s a section I’m working on right now (still in progress).

      He nodded slowly, but his guarded expression cleared when he saw her bandaged arm. “Hurt during capture?” he asked. Despite his husky accent, she easily picked out his words.

      “No. That tiny griffin…”

      “Ah.”

      He unwrapped the bandage with fingers scratchy with callouses, but gentle. The wound began to bleed again, but he pressed one hand over it. The warmth grew to heat, higher and higher, but a second before it grew painful he let go. The cut had vanished completely. Mira thought of the Spektrit visitor who had fixed her limp on the beach.

      “It brought me to you on purpose. For the healing.”

      “He,” the Spectrit corrected. “That griffin is a he. I’m Arvid, Keeper.” He tapped his black collar. “Keepers herd, sometimes heal. You’re a minder. General labor. Sometimes pets…”

      She shot the griffin a suspicious look.

      “Could be worse,” Arvid said.

      She didn’t like his tone or the intensity in his eyes. She turned away and examined the goat herd. These were shaggier than the goats Mira knew, with huge curled horns, but they bawled and bleated with the same voices.

      “I must go,” Arvid gestured at the griffin. “He’s watching.”

      Mira glanced back, but the griffin was standing still, not even his tufted tail moving. “He’s not doing anything.”

      When she turned back, Arvid was already walking away. “Wait!” she called. “How do I get out?”

      He faced her. “White Junior took a pet before. She nearly escaped. White Leader took charge of her. Now it looks like Junior claimed you. Junior is a much safer owner. Keep him if you can.”

      “If you’re saying I shouldn’t escape…”

      “I’m not. You should.” His shoulders drooped as he let out a deep breath. “You should,” he repeated.

      “How?”

      For a moment she wondered if he would answer. His eyes darted from the griffin to the other Keepers, who had gathered behind the goat herd to stare at them. Then he said, “If I escaped, I would wait for nightfall. Griffins can’t see in the dark. Climb the walls—hard, but doable. Then get into thick brush where they can’t follow.”

      She nodded, committing every detail to memory. Then she said, “Why don’t you come?”

      “The others need a healer.”

      An unbidden smile crossed her face. The sight seemed to alarm him. He whirled around and dashed back to the Keepers. She could hear them greet him but was too far to make out the words.

      Arvid knows a lot more about what’s going on than Mira does. He’s reluctant to talk to her because the griffin would see them associating and cause trouble. He’s also hiding some of the griffins’ plans. Despite that he actually does care for her. None of that is actually stated, but it’s (I hope) hinted at in subtext. A sharp reader might pick up some of it. A rereader would pick up a lot more, after they know the rest of the story. A hasty reader, like me, wouldn’t catch much, but when they get further along to future scenes with the two of them, they’d have more clues about how their relationship might work.

  9. I have a similar problem I don’t know how to transition from dialogue to continue my story. This is my first time trying to write more than a short story, this blog has helped me a lot.

  10. Hm. Another character could interrupt, or something distracting could happen…Have you got a little snippet that you wouldn’t mind sharing, and maybe people could come up with different ways to get the characters from talking to doing?

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