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: And second is a list of examples:, 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!