Hey, Look at Me! Intrusive, Chatty, and Explanatory Writing
by John Robert Marlow
Authors have a single, overriding function: to connect reader and story. At our best, we immerse the reader so thoroughly in the world of our story that the “real” world disappears and, for a time, there is nothing but the story. That’s the kind of experience readers hope for and deserve. It’s a zen-like state that is not easily achieved.
It becomes impossible when a brightly-dressed, cymbal-banging acrobat starts jumping around in front of the reader, yelling “Hey, look at me!” Yet many authors unknowingly engage in the literary equivalent of this practice by inserting themselves between reader and story—usually in one of the following ways.
The word “you,” well-behaved under normal circumstances, becomes suspect any time it appears outside of dialogue or first-person narration. When properly employed—You dunderhead, he thought—all is well. But problems arise when “you” refers to someone outside the world of the story.
The most common transgressor here is the phrase “You never know” (or “You never knew”). Another common phrase begins: “You’d think…” When phrases like this are presented as narration or internal monologue (the character’s own thoughts laid out for the reader) the word you often refers to the reader.
A few other examples, all from narration: “Life never handed out what you expected;” “It was like giving up your lunch money. But when Uncle Noonan tells you to do something, you just flat do it;” “What else could you say?;” “It was the kind of thing you’d find in a junk shop;” “…when you least expected it.” (Notice the tense issues here as well.)
When you come across something like this in your own writing, ask yourself: Does you clearly refer to a character within the story? If the answer is no, you have a problem, because that means you refers to the reader—and here you are talking to him (or her) in the middle of the story.
It’s the rough equivalent of a film director leaning into frame in the middle of a movie and saying “You never know”—or whatever your particular line happens to be—to the audience. Like you, he doesn’t belong in the story.
And, short of a nearby gunshot, nothing tears the reader out of the story more swiftly or destructively.
As a side note, passages that address the reader often have mixed or incorrect tenses as well, so be sure to keep an eye out for these.
Exceptions: First person narration, and some comedies. Keep in mind that letters, sound recordings, and videos which address a nonspecific “you” are usually fine, even when the story is being told in the third person. (These are, in a sense, addressing the character doing the reading, listening, or watching.)
Screenplays are another exception; here, it is permissible—but often inadvisable—to address the reader directly.
Though not quite as bad as addressing the reader, “getting chatty” also takes a toll on reader immersion and enjoyment. Here, the author writes narration as if speaking to the reader, but without actually resorting to the word you. For example: “He was drinking coffee from one of those big cafeteria roasters.”
When describing something in the third person, you don’t say things like “one of those;” rather, you describe the thing as what it is, outside of shared observations and experiences. (“He was drinking coffee from a big, cafeteria-style roaster.”)
Because you-the-author are not present in the story, you have no shared observations or experiences to draw upon. You are (or should be) invisible; the reader should share observations and experiences with the characters, because this draws them deeper into the story. Being chatted up by the author, on the other hand, pulls them out of the story.
Another chatty passage: “It was a familiar smell, they knew it, every homicide has its smell, but no one ever quite gets used to it.” Here, the use of no one makes this chatty. It’s important to understand why:
This is not internal monologue, so we’re not reading the thoughts of any particular character. Nor is it dialogue. Just as clearly, it’s not directed at any particular character within the story. That makes it narration—but it’s not written like third-person narration; instead, it’s written as though the author were speaking to someone.
Obviously, the author isn’t speaking to anyone inside the story. Therefore, he must be addressing someone outside the story. That leaves but one possibility: the reader. And ten out of ten publishers surveyed agree—you can’t do that, for reasons stated above.
Now, if the passage is changed to read “It was a familiar odor. Every homicide had its smell, but Malone never quite got used to it”—the chattiness issue disappears, because it’s now clear who is being referred to: Malone. The more generalized “no one,” on the other hand, includes the reader—and is therefore chatty.
A different example:
“You said to bring him back in chains.”
Well, that’s not quite what she’d said, or at least meant, but…
Just who is saying well here? Obviously, it’s intended to be the character’s train of thought—but it reads like the author, chatting with the reader. Again, be on the lookout for tense issues when reviewing these passages.
Exceptions include first-person narration, some comedies, and screenplays.
Occasionally, an author feels the need to explain something that is somehow not obvious from a reading of the story itself. Avoid the temptation to do this with comments inserted in parentheses, brackets, or footnotes.
Think of the reader’s thought process: Oh, a note. Who put this here? The author. Suddenly, your audience is thinking about you, and not the story.
Instead, weave the information into the tale in such a way that it is obvious (but not obviously expository) when reading the story. If this is not possible (which almost never happens), put the information in a foreword, introduction, author’s note, afterword, or appendix. Don’t “break the read” by sticking it in the middle of your tale.
Your job is to get the reader into the story, and keep him there until the very last page—entranced by a spell woven with words. Anything that calls attention to the author, or reminds the reader that there is, in fact, an author—breaks that spell.
It is as if you were making love to your wife or husband, and the person who introduced you suddenly barged into the room shouting, “Aren’t you glad I brought you two together?”
Go over all of your writing with an eye toward author intrusion, and delete or rephrase as needed. Not just where author presence is clear (addressing the reader or inserting comments)—but also where it may be open to interpretation (getting chatty).
Absent one of the exceptions mentioned above—or instances where you’re being intentionally unclear for other reasons—the reader should always be absolutely clear on who is being addressed, and by whom. The reader should not be directly addressed, chatted up, or given notes.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
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