Taking YOU Out of the Story
When readers read a book, they know that someone is telling them a story. They see the author’s name on the cover with the book title and know the story is ‘by’ the author named. However, in a fiction setting, unless it is supposed to be a fictional memoir about the author, by the author, the author should not appear in the story specifically to tell the reader the story. Usually the author will pick a primary character to be the ‘star’ of the story, the one whose thoughts and feelings (point of view) convey indirectly what the author wants to say to the reader through the story. This creates a ‘believability contract’ between the author and the reader.
One of the main tenets of a fiction believability contract is...
The author shall not intrude in the story by directly addressing the reader, thereby destroying the suspension of disbelief.
So what exactly is ‘intrusion by the author’? One of the most insidious forms that many authors indulge in is the habit of using ‘you’ in a general sense to give an example of a hypothetical situation. Oftentimes these hypothetical situations switch to present tense within a past-tense storyline, creating an even more prominent sense of intrusion that destroys believability by pulling the reader out of the ongoing story. Here’s a passage to demonstrate:
Only a few yards to go and – he tripped and nearly fell, but caught himself on a support pillar just in time. Gripping his side as he gasped for air, he watched the train doors slide shut, too far away for him to even think of jumping through them. When something like this happens – when you’re so close, but just miss the mark – it makes your failure that much harder to accept. And this was a failure extremely hard for him to handle. It wasn’t just that he’d missed the train; he’d missed an opportunity to better his life ... an opportunity that would never come again. All by being a few seconds late. Still breathing hard, he dragged a hand down his sweaty face and cursed profusely as he watched the end of the train disappear around the bend.
The story is moving along fine with the pronoun ‘he’ to refer to this unnamed character in third person. We know he is rushing to catch a train because the invisible narrator (the author) has told us so, using typical fiction storytelling techniques. We also know the character is frustrated and angry, because he curses and runs a hand irritably over his face. However, as soon as we hit the phrase ‘When something like this happens – when you’re so close,’ everything comes to a halt. Notice how the verb tense changes from past to present (tripped, gasped – and then happens, makes). That’s the first clue the intruding authorial statement doesn’t belong. Because at that point, the invisible narrator ceases to be invisible and makes face-to-face contact with the reader by stepping outside the story and addressing the reader as ‘you.’ Then, when the author returns to using the pronoun ‘he,’ the reader has to shift gears again and try to get back into the story. But the damage is already done. Like a hypnotist, the author has snapped his fingers and awakened the reader from the trance of suspended disbelief.
Another serious authorial intrusion is accomplished with parenthetical asides – that is, adding information that clearly is not part of the ongoing story. Usually the author feels compelled to encase the errant information in parentheses. Here’s an example:
Wynona knew she wasn’t beautiful, but she didn’t let that stop her from having a good time at the barn dance. (So, anyway, who gets to decide what beautiful is and who possesses that transient quality?) Her lively laughter and animated demeanor at first brought only frowns of disapproval, but gradually, when the others at the gathering realized she was simply enjoying herself, their discomfort eased. (And why would she care if she made others uncomfortable? They’d been making her feel uncomfortable all her life.)
It’s easy to see that parenthetical asides could quickly become annoying to most readers. Why? Because it disrupts the reading flow of the story. Just when the reader is about to get interested in Wynona’s antics at the dance, the author jumps in and asks a question about who decides what is beautiful. A better approach would be to couch those questions within Wynona’s point of view, making her wonder about the issues, rather than the author stepping up to ask the reader.
An even more damaging intrusion is the ‘Dear Reader’ address within the story – “And, as you know, dear reader, our heroine Pauline cannot swim.”
When intrusions are a good thing.
Humor always gives a good excuse to break longstanding ‘rules’ of writing. In humor, oftentimes the more outrageous the writing style, the funnier it is. Humor gives the author free reign to talk directly to the reader. This is where those pesky parenthetical asides come in handy.
Also, the practice of the author casting himself in the story as a recurring character can become a source of amusement for the author as well as the reader.
So, to recap, any author who’s shooting for a level of reader absorption in a fictional story should avoid any disruptions that would show the puppet strings or the bracing that props up the stage in that story. But when the objective is to amuse your reader, let your style shine and use whatever devices you can to showcase your sense of humor.
Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing