Unconventional Devices: Direct Address

Any story is a conversation between a writer and a reader. There’s an unspoken agreement you make when you pick up a book–the author is going to tell you a story, maybe even try to make a point, and they know you’re listening and (hopefully) paying attention. That’s a lot to ask from a reader, and sometimes we need to trick you into compliance. Writers use any number of devices to keep this relationship tacit. We distance ourselves from the reader by sticking to a character’s viewpoint (these are the characters words, not mine, dear reader) or by dramatizing events rather than editorializing on them. This distancing, this careful construction of an invisible wall between the two parties, is central to the work of writing.

Yet sometimes we break that wall. The writer directly addresses the reader–either to clarify a point or simply to foreground the work of narration. It can be used for emphasis–the classic example being: “Reader, I married him.” It’s a hammer in the writer’s tool box, and not a very subtle one. Writers differ on their opinion as to its utility. Fashions in writing change, and in recent decades direct address has become a little sinful, a little louche. Writers like Vonnegut and Tom Robbins used it to great effect back in the 60s and 70s–it was practically Vonnegut’s trademark–but as with many things from those decades, it’s now seen as quaint and overly precious.

Funnily enough, it’s made a resurgence in television, with the main characters of House of Cards and Mr. Robot actually treating the viewer as a confidante. It’s clear that the showrunners/writers/director of the show are speaking directly to us here, through the words of their characters. The device has appeared in many movies made since the turn of the century as well–and let us never forget Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

So if our screenwriting colleagues occasionally dabble in direct adress, will we see a resurgence of it in fiction? It’s in the nature of fashions to change.

Should you, as a writer, use direct address? As is true with employing any device, it’s a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly.

Direct address can create that old chestnut “immediacy”, of course. It yanks the reader right onto the page and forces them to acknowledge their half of the literary contract. It allows an author to deliver plot and setting information in a compact, economical form as well, and can highlight your themes. Hell, it puts a neon sign around your theme with a big arrow that might as well say “moral of the story here, get it while the take is hot.”

Which may be the best argument against using it. Do you really want your theme stated so baldly on the page? Many themes and, yes, morals are best viewed through a thin veil of story. Direct address always runs the risk of coming across as overly chummy, didactic, even downright preachy (a true cardinal sin of writing).

You may be better off distancing yourself from your narrative, if only a little. Consider the effect you want to achieve. Are you going for polemic, are you a firebrand who needs to thump a pulpit? Or do you want a dreamier feel to your story? For anyone writing fantasy (of any flavor) direct address can be dangerous. It can shatter the illusion of a secondary world, make it look false and brittle. And for horror stories it’s downright lethal. Horror is all about seductive immersion, about luring the reader into a quiet corner and then springing nightmares on them. Direct address can kill mood and tone faster than anything.

It’s always been the opinion of this writer that writing is about choices made thoughtfully and with care. I won’t tell you not to use direct address, reader. I just hope you’ll use it with care.

Questions People Ask Writers

What are you working on?

Is it finished? When can we see it?

Do you have a day job?

Are you published?

But seriously, what do you do for money?

Are you also looking for a real job?

Is your book any good?

How long did it take you to write it?

Are you published? No?

What do you do for health insurance?

Does your spouse/partner/parent support you?

Are you published? Yes?

What have you published? Anything we would’ve heard of?

Is it a best seller yet?

Are you famous?

Are you rich?

Can I have some money?

My cousin wrote a cookbook, can you help him publish it?

Why won’t you help my cousin? He’s very nice.

If I tell you my life story, will you write the screenplay?

Can we split the money?

Why don’t you write screenplays? Isn’t the money better?

What do you write?

No, I mean, what kind of novel?

No, I’m asking what genre?

No, like, there are only three genres, right?

You write science fiction? So you’re a nerd?

You write fantasy? So are you a flake?

You write horror? Are you a closet psychopath?

Just kidding. But seriously, you have a sick mind, right?

Would I like your book?

Can I have a free copy?

Oh, you’re a writer?

Anything I would have heard of?

Who are your influences?

No, I mean, what writers did you copy?

No, seriously, whose work did you model it after?

Where do you get your ideas?

You’re a writer? Really?

Oh, you’re successful! So when does the movie come out?

You’re a writer? Would I know your name?

Can you spell it? No, I’m not going to write it down. I’ll remember.

They tell me you’re a writer?

Are you any good?

What’s your day job?

Writing When You Just Can’t

Note: I was sick as a dog this week, so this one is going to be pretty quick. It’s also more practical than my usual entry. Please note as well that there will be no update next week, due to the imminent holiday. Thanks.

There are days when you just can’t write a word.

Days where you sit down in a comfy spot, a nice beverage by your elbow, when the whole world is quiet and expectant and you look at that cursor blinking on your screen and your soul just screams and shoots off into another dimension because you realize you will not be writing one word today.

Worse, there are the days when you can write lots and lots of words, but the more you write the more you realize that it isn’t working, that nothing’s coming together and your sentences aren’t even coherent. As if your brain and the English language have conspired to thwart you.

There are days when you’re too tired to give it your all, and days when you’re sick and your brain isn’t functioning and days when every telemarketer in the world finds your number on their master list. It happens. Truth be told, it happens way too often.

It’s very easy on such days to just climb back under the covers for a “nap”, or run out to the store because you know you need more turmeric, or just give up and stare in the bathroom mirror until you can see your stubble growing. It’s understandable, it’s relatable to face these challenges and just… give up.

Or.

Or you can make a decision. You can say these words out loud: “Nothing I write today matters.” Then… keep writing. You can promise yourself to delete it all when you’re done (but don’t actually do that). You can announce to your cat, should you have a cat, that today you’re going on a side quest. A look of mischievous glee should come into your eye at this moment, for maximum effect. It’s optional, but I recommend rubbing your hands together vigorously while quietly cackling. Then–get to it.

Put aside your big project. Ignore the looming deadline, forget all your commitments. Today is already a wasted day! Start writing something new. Write something random. Or take a stab at that thing you’ve always wanted to write but didn’t know how. You’ve given yourself permission to fail. It doesn’t matter–nothing matters! Do you see how liberating this is?

Write poetry in an invented language. Invent a language. Write your main character’s shopping list (and no, they don’t need turmeric. What do they actually want?). Write word problems for children living in a mirror dimension where 2+2 can never equal 4. Write a character sketch for your favorite Star Wars character, in loving detail. In incredibly filthy, nasty, sexy detail. Write your deepest darkest secret in the plainest words possible, with no excuses and no regrets. Write your fondest desire and then write ten thousand words about why you deserve it.

Write that story you could never write because your mom might see it. Write that story your dad always wanted to read, but you didn’t get a chance to finish before he died. Write a letter to somebody you really miss, somebody who doesn’t want to hear it (don’t actually send it to them). Write what you’re afraid of. Write what makes you saddest.

It doesn’t matter.

You’re going to delete it all.

It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to make sense. This is the literary equivalent of finger painting.

When you’re done, when you need to stop (you probably won’t want to), then stop. Don’t look at what you’ve done. Don’t spend hours reading it over and over and wondering what you were thinking (the temptation to do this may be strong; resist). Then get ready to delete everything.

Instead, save it to a document with a completely nondescript name. Like “MyJournal.docx” or “taxworksheet1997.txt”. Tuck it into a deep, deep part of your hard drive where nobody is going to go snooping. Forget it’s there.

Tomorrow you get back to work, no ifs ands or buts. Tomorrow the real world’s strictures will be strictly enforced. Don’t tell anybody you played hooky. Keep your face serious and don’t make a lot of unnecessary eye contact, lest someone ask you how your day was. Pretend this never happened.

Then… every once in a while, a very infrequent once in a while, open that file back up and just sort of skim the contents. Wince. Snort in derision. Look around furtively to make sure nobody’s reading over your shoulder.

You may notice that out of every hundred pages of just raw primal screaming, there’s a good sentence here or there. An idea that, you know, doesn’t work at all, but which could be reworked into something maybe sort of helpful. You might find that writing all that nasty, nasty stuff has helped loosen you up a little, made you think more about what excites a reader. Who knows? Maybe you find nothing at all of use anywhere in “instructionsforcatsitter.version9.6.doc” except a reminder. A reminder that when the writing actually works, when you’re on your game, you’re actually pretty good.

There are days when you can’t write. Where it feels impossible to go on with what you’ve been doing.

Let these days be little gifts.

Second Person and Present Tense: Why and Why Not

I risk coming off like a grumpy old man in this post, which is something I’ll just have to live with. It’s my assertion, though, that second person viewpoint and the present tense are overused in modern writing, and that outside of certain usages they should be shunned.

Let’s start with second person, that is, when a writer addresses the protagonist of their story as “you” as if they were telling this character their own story. This is something you almost never used to see. I remember an English teacher I had in high school telling me there was no such thing as second person–that it had never actually been done (he was wrong, of course, but it was so rare back then I didn’t know how to contradict him). You see it more and more these days and while I think there is a place for it, it’s almost never used correctly.

If the narrator is describing recent events to someone with amnesia, perhaps, or describing events that have been foretold but have not yet occurred, then second person might be justified. The main and most important use of second person is in interactive stories–choose-your-own-adventures, interactive fiction games, and the like. I used it myself in my experiment to write a novel on Twitter, which allowed readers to pick each plot development by poll.

Otherwise, second person always comes off as affected, as pretentious, and it distances the reader from the writer in a highly artificial way. Which is not to say that’s always bad! Distancing is a valuable technique, for some stories. If you’re going to use it, though, you should have a very good reason–and the fact that it’s trendy, or cool, is not a good reason.

(Just as a tangent here I’ll say I’m not crazy about first person, either–I like limited omniscience in my narrators, and the freedom that provides to expand a story beyond a narrow range of perceptions. But there are plenty of excellent reasons to use first person and it never really bothers me when I pick up a book with a strong protagonist’s voice).

Writing narrative fiction in the present tense isn’t quite as jarring, but I feel it’s getting overused as well and it comes with its own raft of problems. Present tense suggests immediately to the reader that the story hasn’t been finalized, that the events described are still evolving, which means they can’t be predicted–that the reader who is coming along for this ride cannot be guaranteed a coherent or even complete story. It’s a subtle psychological effect and one that needs to be considered carefully.

The writer who employs the past tense when telling a story is making a compact with the reader. It says that the events that are about to unfold, having already happened, can be examined thoughtfully and with a certain authority. Present tense throws that away. Again, there could be good story reasons to do so. Yet drawing on past tense puts your story in a comfortable and established mold that readers have come to accept as the standard for storytelling. It helps speed along immersion and makes the reader feel like they’re in safe hands. You need a good reason to eschew that comfort level, and more often than not I find present tense narratives lacking in justification.

The main explanation for why people use second person or present tense, I am told, is immediacy. The idea is that a story being told directly to the reader–and only the reader–or one told as it is literally happening is better at pulling the reader in, in making them feel like they’re being dragged along on a breathless adventure. I can see the logic in this argument, but I find it rarely works that way. Typically when a writer starts out in present tense, my immediate reaction is to roll my eyes. When they start in the second person I frown and wonder why they made such an odd choice. But even this dubiety doesn’t last. Typically I pay attention to a story’s tense and viewpoint for the first couple of pages–then learn to ignore it, to put it aside and focus on the plot and characters instead. Whatever immediacy the writer has laid claim to disappears as I sink into the work. Writing is always about choices, and when the writer chooses one of these pretentious techniques it only ever puts me off… for a little while. It’s usually not worth it.

It’s possible I’m missing something here, and I’d be happy to hear from other writers who find second person and present tense useful in their writing. But for myself, I’m going to use them sparingly, and only when I can point to an excellent, organic reason for them to be there.

Why I Don’t Believe in Willful Suspension of Disbelief

We’re told, almost certainly apocryphally, that one of the earliest movies was of a train heading directly toward the camera, and that audiences who saw it ran for their lives. We’re told that a truly great piece of fiction makes the reader forget they’re reading a book (or seeing a movie, etc.) and immerses them entirely in the secondary world of the story.

I’ve never bought it. Oh, I’ve read plenty of immersive stories in my time, but every single time the thought in my head was not “this is real! If the characters die, I will too!” My typical thought is more along the lines of “oh, this is really good! How can I pull off this same effect in my own work?”

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and I know how the sausage gets made. Maybe my insider knowledge of how stories are put together keeps me from enjoying them in the intended manner. I don’t think so, though. I think pretty much every consumer of culture knows the basics of how entertainment is made. The water cooler talk about the latest Game of Thrones episode is often as much about the difference between practical and CG effects as it is “can you believe character X did that to character Y?”

Then there are the commenters. In one of my books I suggested that a given handgun could hold thirteen bullets (you get a prize if you can guess which book this was. The prize is that you briefly made me feel like I exist). I got an email from a reader who told me he had enjoyed the book up to that point, but really, since said gun could actually hold fourteen bullets, he could no longer appreciate my work and would not be purchasing any of my future books. I actually took this seriously and mentioned, in the second volume of the series, that the gun could hold fourteen rounds.

I then got an angry email from a reader saying that if I didn’t know the gun could only hold thirteen bullets, I wasn’t fit to be writing about vampires.

I mention this story because I think it shows that we, as media savvy entertainment consumers, have stopped willfully suspending our disbelief–if we ever did. Just as some people can watch a movie and check their texts at the same time (horrible people), when we read a book we’re never completely lost in the imagined world. We’re always–always–comparing the story to what we know, to what we’ve read before. We run to wikipedia or at least the dictionary if we find concepts or even just words that are unfamiliar in our texts. We discuss our stories endlessly–Chris Hardwick has made a career out of dissecting TV shows the very second they’ve finished airing. I don’t think disbelief enters into the equation at any point.

Instead I think we are actively participating in cultural transmission. Rather than passively submerging ourselves in words and images, we are all, in our heads, remixing them continuously into nuanced interpretations, hot takes, and snarky scorn. We don’t just absorb texts, we study them, mining for ideas for our own work, or at the very least for sick burns we can share with co-workers.

As media becomes more and more integrated into our psychological landscape we become more adept at using it, rather than being manipulated by it (current politics notwithstanding). We always experience texts at a remove, now. But I don’t know if this is purely an artifact of the twenty-first century. I’ve always been interested in mythology, and one of the first questions you end up asking when you read Bullfinch is whether the Greeks really believed that the sun was a chariot with Apollo at the reins. The answer of course is that some people did, while others simply used the story to organize their lives–just as many people today seem unable to understand the news or the actions of their friends without framing them in terms of scenes from Harry Potter. I think this may be something intrinsic in the way we tell stories.

Think of a stage magician’s show. We are told that the magician will saw a woman in half. We watch it happen. Yet only a very small part of our lizard brains actually thinks it’s real. The vast majority of our consciousness is instead devoted to trying to figure out how the trick is done. We engage with the act on multiple levels at once, almost all of them on a metatextual level–we are outside the thing we perceive, aware of factors beyond what the magician wants us to see. The same can be said for every book we read, every television show we watch. Really interesting art often plays with our expectations and our preconceptions. Think of unreliable narrators, antiheroes and stories that break the fourth wall.

When Coleridge coined the term “willful suspension of disbelief” in 1817, he was specifically talking about genre stuff (what he would call “fantastical tales”) being leavened with verisimilitude and human pathos to make it more palatable. His idea was that readers would scoff at fantasy stories unless they were given enough realism to have something to hang onto. I’m not sure if this was true even at the time; I’m certain it isn’t, now.

What’s the takeaway here, for writers? Be conscious, always, of the fact that your reader isn’t reading your work in a vacuum. She has access to endless secondary sources. She can call you on your bullshit, or she can get in a discussion group with hundreds of other people about the details of your fiction. Don’t let that paralyze you, though. Instead, play with it. Withhold details or intentionally provide false information–which you correct later, for dramatic effect. Don’t be afraid of direct address or other techniques which might damage the illusion of secondary reality. But always remember, when you write, you are not alone. You are not screaming your truth into a void. You are contributing one long twitter thread in the culture conversation that began before you were born and will long outlive you.

Was that helpful? Or are you already rolling your eyes, thinking about how I overwrote that last sentence, and how much of this article I got wrong?

Bad Writing Advice: “Write What You Know”

99% of all writing advice is just inspirational nonsense. Most of it boils down to “sing the story inside of you!” or “don’t give up on your dreams!” If you’re a writer, you don’t need to be told this. If you have the bug, you’re going to write and nothing, not even self-interest, will stop you.

There’s another kind of writing advice, though, which usually gets quoted as gospel truth because nobody every thinks about what it really means. Let’s start with the most famous and most often repeated saying, “write what you know.”

Sounds good, right? Write from your own personal experience, and your stories will breathe with verisimilitude. What if you want to write genre fiction, though? What if you want, specifically, to write about what you don’t know? I can’t count how many times people have told me to write what I know. I try very hard to say thank you and not roll my eyes so hard they get stuck in the back of my head. The whole point of writing for me is to create new worlds. To explore weird ideas. If I only ever wrote what I know, my readers would get very bored, very quickly. The vast majority of my life involves what I’m doing right now. Staring at a blinking cursor on a computer screen, while I lift a can of Coke Zero Sugar to my mouth and fail to actually drink from it because I’m too lost in thought.

Do you want to read that book?

Honestly, this piece of advice is impossible to follow. Any story will, at the very least, abstract reality. A writer knows when to skip over vast swaths of lived reality. You throw away all the conversations that amount to:

“What? I didn’t hear you.”

“Never mind.”

“No, I didn’t–”

“Doesn’t matter.”

You skip the periods of time your character is asleep, or in the bathroom, or just watching television. But beyond mere elision, it’s literally impossible to write from reality. Language is only ever metaphor for describing things taken in by the human senses. No matter how carefully you choose your words, they are symbols, simplified hieroglyphs that represent sensory impressions in your reader’s mind. Except your reader may have very different impressions than you do. Your best attempt to represent your reality will never match up to what the reader experiences in their own head.

Perhaps I’m being a little precious, here. And, to be fair, like most pieces of advice, “write what you know” is actually useful when it’s taken with a grain of salt. It’s very true, for instance, that good writers take cues from their sensory experience when creating even the most fantastical scenes. One of the best bits of imagery I ever came up with was that the queen of an alien species of social insects had breath that smelled like honey. I love that image, and it came from actually getting a jar of honey out of the cupboard and taking a good honest whiff.

But the idea that you can only ever write from personal experience just doesn’t hold up, no matter how much you want it to. Simply because the whole purpose of writing–the reason it was created in the first place–was to catalogue all the things the reader cannot immediately see or feel or hear. Writers do research. We look things up, in others peoples’ books (or, more often these days, on Wikipedia). We draw ideas and images from other stories, or from first hand accounts of things, or scientific descriptions. Maybe the advice should be: “write what you know, or failing that, research the topic until you feel like you know it”.

Finally, to get back to genre writing–how can you “know” what it looks like to fly through hyperspace on the back of a time dragon, or what it feels like to transform into a were-ocelot under a silvery moon? The answer, of course, is that you infer it. You compare it to slightly similar experiences, or you close your eyes and just imagine it. The quality of your writing depends on your ability to then communicate your inference in a way that makes the reader feel it, too.

So maybe the advice should be “write what you know, or what you’ve researched thoroughly, or what you’ve done your level best to imagine given all the mental tools you have available.”

That’s a little long to put into a Facebook meme, though.