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!

  1. 3 FOR 3, I'm a homeschooler, too! 🙂

    As the narrator, you hold all sorts of power to strengthen or destroy your book. I usually let the characters lead the narration, but than you really have to get inside your characters to effectively tell the story.

  2. So long I've never read any book that has a 'talking to the reader' act.(except for the series 'A Series Of Unfortunate Events') I think most Asian writers are like that(I'm not from America or Europe.)but I am not so sure.

    @Mrs.Levine: I just want to ask, and please answer my question. I usually write a chapter about one POV, like,for example:
    'He had promised to June's aunt, his mother, that he will not speak about those again in the country house'
    But somehow I just wrote about another POV for quite an entire chapter,like,for example:'She wished that he never told her the family's secret.',but the entire book stuff was about the first POV that I have shown you! So,is this a good way for writing or a confusing way? I've read a series that was written like that(at a few sentences sometimes and only one chapter at each book.)Help me please!

    Just to say you are the best author I've ever met and I've followed your post suggestions all the time, and wrote stuff from them. Thank you for everything, writing advice,great ideas(that helped at composition writing tests.), etc.


  3. 7355lyn–Thanks for the kind words! If the POV shift happens at the very beginning of the book or at the very end it will probably work, in my opinion. If it's just once in the middle, it may confuse the reader. One solution would be to switch more often, at fairly regular intervals throughout your story. Thoughts, anyone?

  4. Hey guys. Figured I'd actually comment, since I tend to find the posts on this site helpful, and I'm sadly having issues.

    So anyway, I've been having way too much trouble w/ my own writing lately, as in it won't come out and actually get anywhere. This makes me sad since I love writing stuff. I think I kinda lost my drive there, when I realized that one of my ideas was way too complicated, and not working at all. =/ I tried simplifying it out to a more workable form, but it still doesn't actually feel like it can work yet.

    I am toying with another idea of mine though, but of course, my usual plotting problems bit that one, so I'm currently stuck with not writing anything. I have a few major characters in my head already, and a vague idea of what I want to happen to them, but that's about it. The vague idea could be considered a plot in a sense, I guess, but it doesn't give me any idea over where to actually start the story. Not to mention that the word plot tends to make me scared everytime someone mentions it, because I'm really more of a character person, and I don't get this plotting thing as well.

    Any advice? This whole thing has just been frustrating me here for a while now.

    @7355lyn: I agree with what Ms. Levine said there. Another thought is to analyze that different-pov chapter, and see if that pov actually adds to the story or not. If it doesn't, there's no harm cutting it if it ended up in the middle. But obviously if it does enhance the story, you probably want to keep it in there, and see if you can get it to work somehow. (either by Ms. Levine's idea or something else).

  5. TsuneEmbers, when I get stuck I write a Drabble (a story of exactly 100 words.) It forces me to come up with small, workable ideas and relieves the pressure of having to come up with a complex plot while giving me the satisfaction of completing something.

  6. I'm currently reading The Railroad Children and the author speaks to the reader directly quite a lot. She says things like "you know what, I'm tired of calling Roberta by her real name. Nobody else does so I'm going to call her Bobbie." I'm sorry, but I find it very annoying because it draws me out of the book and makes it feel like just a story. Does that make any sense?

    Also, I just wanted to add one thing to last weeks post about dialect. I live in a neighborhood near Chicago but I don't speak like people from the city. Someone even asked me if I was from England once. This just proves that people speak differently even if they live in the same state!

  7. That does make sense, Melissa, seeing as I've had that happen to me before. I think it pretty much goes back to what Mrs. Levine said over it depending on what tone, voice, and style you're going for. I couldn't use this technique in my normal style, just because it would give that 'drag out of book' effect you mentioned, but I do think it could be effective in other circumstances.

  8. Wow, I haven't been on here in a long time 🙂 Hello again everyone!
    A great book about the narrator talking to the reader is "We Are In A Book" by Mo Willems. It's a children's picture book, but nonetheless it is hilarious. Piggy and Gerald realize that someone is reading them, and "if the reader is reading out loud" then they can make the reader say whatever they want the reader to say. 🙂 It's a really clever concept, and I recommend getting it out of the library or something 🙂
    A word on the dialect post last week… I myself tend to copy someone else's accent if I hear it a lot. For example, whenever I watch the Chronicles of Narnia, I have a British accent for days afterwards. Or, if I'm repeating what someone else said but they have an accent (such as a Southerner's funny story, or something the Irish Eoin Colfer said) I repeat it in that accent. Does that make sense?

  9. Batmansbestfriend says:

    Like all things, you can break any rule in any way you want if you’re doing it for comedic purposes. And by comedic I mean your readers are laughing, if they’re not it’s not comedy. I wrote a 715 page manuscript once where the narrator spoke to the reader…even asked question to prompt specific thought processes…and even went so far as to point out what happened and outright insult the reader for questioning it. “Hey, it’s what happened…yeah, I know…but stop assuming you know anything about…” or “…if you’re really concerned about this…then maybe you should stop reading, as you might be missing the whole point here…and wasting your own time as well as mine…” and so on. It was hilarious. However, it was well set up. When it happened it should have been no huge surprise to the reader. I wasn’t taking the reader out of the story…it was the story…how it was told, and so on. It was set up so you’d feel like you were sitting in a living room being told the story by someone. Which is exactly the type of setting you’d get those type of comments. The point is, if you do it it must be set up before it even happens. You’re story telling style must warrant it.

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