Monday, March 03, 2008

Hey YOU!

The Inner Studio, Tenth Street,
William Merritt Chase,
oil on canvas, c.1882.

I'm not sure what the proper technical term is for this minor variance: authorial intrusion? direct address?

Anyway, from my usual source ( someone, somewhere , recently), I read that use of the second person (you) in a first person narrative makes for a disconnect with the reader when used in descriptive or internal passages.

Or, to use the critiquer's cliche, "throws the reader out of the story."

As usual, one excludes dialogue.

An example given -- not in direct dialogue -- followed something like : I hurried into the building and made for the elevator. You know I'm never on time, surfacing in the middle of a first person account of headlong action.

I can see that. The direct address to the reader jars the flow.

Suddenly, the reader is no longer eavesdropping. Instead the reader is in immediate conversation with the author. Which can be a bit startling unless the interaction is set up that way from the beginning.

On the other hand, in an internal analysis after an incident, the first person might observe to herself: I couldn't. You don't use a man for posthumous sexual revenge. You just don't.

Here, you is used not as an address, but rather as the natural colloquial alternative for the formal, impersonal one to state a principle, an ethic, a belief, as in one does not use...

I believe this use of you is a cat of a different colour.

Still, it might give a reader, lulled by the I's, he's, my's and me's, his's and her's, pause for a huh? reorientation.

Gentle reader, how do you view?


StarvingWriteNow said...

Tough call. I'll just stick by my standard cop-out: It Depends.

Have a lovely day! Hope some of your snow is melting.

SzélsőFa said...

As you describe the two different situations, it seems obvious for me.
But when you are alone with your text, it becomes more difficult.
Here comes handy someone else, with fresh eyes :)

Interestingly, I wrote 2 sentences above and used 'you' in different ways.
In the first, you meant Bernita, while in the 2nd, a general subject, like one.

ChristineEldin said...

I think what you have is fine and readable, but I wouldn't put "I couldn't" in italics.

But..... This convention has always felt funky to me. I would prefer writing it as:

I couldn't. I would never use a man for posthumous sexual revenge. It's just not done.

Reading it your way is good though. I only have a problem with writing it like that, because it's not my style....

Can't wait to see how others weigh in.

Bernita said...

WriteNow, we are promised freezing rain, rain and snow today.

You've just produced much better examples than mine, Szelsofa.

Chris, the italics are just to separate the examples from my exposition.

Jaye Wells said...

First instance is a no-no. The second is fine as long as it's in keeping with the character's voice.

bookfraud said...

i agree that if it's not set up from the start, the intrusion of the second person is not only jarring, but lazy, as it substitutes familiarity with actual description. ("you know what i'm talking about.")

however, if it's used judiciously and for effect, i think it can be effective in telling something about the narrator, almost holden caulfield-like.

Bernita said...

Agreed, Jaye.
And one should be very careful in introducing the second.

Book,very chatty, is it not?
In the second example, the use of "you" allows the character to ascribe to a general ethic, whereas using "I" would assert an individual ethic. I find these nuances interesting.

Dave F. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave F. said...

When I read this sentence:
I couldn't. You don't use a man for posthumous sexual revenge. You just don't. And then converted it to first person: I couldn't. I can't use a man for posthumous sexual revenge. I just can't. I found a difference in tone.

The first is kinda authoritarian, like a conscience speaking (or a Mother nagging, etc...). YOU can't do this child. Society doesn't approve. Scold. Scold.

The second comes across as petulant and childish. Like a little kid stomping feet and starting a tantrum. Chris El's version sound more grown up: I couldn't. I would never use a man for posthumous sexual revenge. It's just not done. But it still retains a whining quality.

The purpose here is to reveal information about the character. If it's going to be internal dialog, I think it should be more stark -- I can't do that. I can't take PSR out on any man. I can't unload my emotional baggage about my dead lover on my current lover-interest. Now those are not the right words but that conveys more of the sentiment and thought process of the character.

A small part of me automatically rebels when anyone says "society doesn't approve of that behavior." It's a philosophical mish-mash of goofiness (IMHO). Of course, society doesn't approve murder. But society really doesn't have to care about smoking in bars or spitting on the sidewalks or using the "EF" word. All of which are somewhat forbidden by laws.
There is nothing stopping this person from "PSR" from accepting freely offered sex with the right person when both know that it is exorcising dead psychological demons. This is one of those cases where getting your ashes hauled might actually improve the entire situation.

However, both people being informed is not the situation we are presented with.. (avoiding those damn tax forms is what I'm doing right now)... One person will be used and the other character has to say "I won't do that because I want more for our relationship (or think better of our relationship." That may be the thoughts you want on the page.

Bernita said...

Dave, I agree there's a difference in tone.
But to me "You just don't" implies a personal choice of objective ethic that has nothing to do with whether socety approves or not, excepting that society is assumed to generally approve of honesty in realtionships, including motive.

Now Chris's "it's just not done" to me implies an awareness of societal standards/disapproval.

Nevertheless,in the second case, using either "you" or "I" don't appear to be authorial intrusions.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think the "you" is OK in that sense because it is really internal dialogue. The person is talking to themselves. When it's not dialogue or internal dialogue I think that's where the problem occurs.

Jon M said...

I think the 'you' is okay in the context you used it in Bernita but I can see how it changes the tone. Similarly with 'One does not.'
Perhaps the Queen might say:

"We don't use a man for posthumous sexual revenge. We just don't."

Sounds posh!

Demon Hunter said...

I don't use "you" at all. Well, I don't write in first person either, so...

I see how you worked it into the second example, Bernita. Nicely done! :*)

Mary Witzl said...

I also would interpret 'you' references here as indicative of internal musings, but this really is context dependent: 'You have to be careful when you milk a rattlesnake' sounds like internal dialogue, whereas 'You don't ask someone to the prom two days before' has more of a super-ego feel to it.

Recently, I read a book where the first chapter was all in the second person. The writer was trying to make the reader feel an immediate connection -- as though what was happening to the protaganist were happening to the reader. Weirdly enough, it worked, but I was glad to find that the rest of the book was in third person.

Rick said...

I agree with you (so to speak) - generic you in phrases like "you don't rat on one of your own," is not addressed directly to the reader. So the rule doesn't apply. (It may not apply anyway, if direct narration is established from the beginning.)

However, proverbial you does imply a mood. I hear Cagney or Bogart saying in in an old style voice over, and that immediately carries a hardboiled or noir flavor. At least it conveys a character cracking wise - if a 12 year old girl is saying to herself, "you don't wear red to church," at least we know that she is a wiseass kid.

Wavemancali said...


It would really depend. If I have been identifying with the main character, to me it would serve as a wonderful, "we're in this together I knew you'd understand" type of feel rather than a disconnect.

raine said...

The first example is like someone just walked in and raked their nails over a chalkboard to me. I've had this discussion with a couple of writer friends, and it just TOTALLY disrupts the flow and takes me out of the story.
Don't talk directly to me. You don't know me. And you remind me that I'm a reader, which is very intrusive.

The second example wouldn't bother me at all.

Bernita said...

Since we use "you" in discussions, Charles, it should work in internal dialogue.

Jon, we are amused.

Thank you, my Demon.
Even in third, you might use internal dialogue, so the use of "you" along with "he thought" might apply.

That's interesting, Mary.
I think I would be glad as well.

writtenwyrdd said...

I think your assessment is spot-on, Bernita. Using 'you' in first-person is fine if it's clearly the pov character talking to herself. You can also have the wink-wink-nod-nod style where the character is speaking to the audience. It's out of fashion, but you do still see it sometimes. Then again, there's the diary format, like Podkayne of Mars, or Unwillingly to Earth, where the pov character knows that her words are going to be read.

So there's three acceptible versions that I find, anyhow.

At any rate, I say write it how you like it and don't worry about it until the publisher/editor says to fix it.

Bernita said...

I get you, Rick, thank you.
There is a separation of sorts between the speaker and the tenet, even though "you" is really a stand in for "I don't think it's right to..."
I like that comparison.

Wave, I think the objection occurs when the stylistic rapport had not been established.

That's the way the first example strikes me, Raine.
My identification with the character is abruptly severed, and suddenly I'm a separate person.

Bernita said...

Yes, Written, when there's an awareness of the reader as reader already established, the first use of "you" can be perfectly acceptable.
I prefer to anticipate editorial urges to set hair on fire to a minimum though.

Gabriele C. said...

It depends on context and voice. The first won't jar me if the entire story was told in a colloquial way, sort of a dialogue with the reader.

But then, I'm the one who never notices head hopping, either, because omniscient is my default reading setting.

Bernita said...

Gabriele, a direct dialogue with the reader would certainly require a special voice.

spyscribbler said...

Bernita, your weather sounds truly awful. I hope it's beautiful where you live.

I think you're absolutely right. It is startling, particularly since, when reading first person, we're more living through the character than reading an author's work. To be addressed as a reader is to suddenly be a reader, and suddenly NOT be the main character.

Josephine Damian said...

Agree that the first example is jarring author intrusion while the second is first person conversational - the things we say to ourselves.

Lisa said...

I think the second example of someone either speaking in first person or having and internal dialogue works well, as long as the syntax match the character -- a more formal speaker would never "sound" like that, I suppose. A book truly written from the 2nd person POV is a tough one to pull off. But I really wanted to comment on the painting for today. William Merritt Chase is one of my favorite painters. :)

Ello said...

I agree the first instance doesn't work at all = wrenches you out of the moment. But the second one is just fine cause it is still in keeping with inner dialogue.

The Anti-Wife said...

I think the way you used it in the second example if fine. It works for me!

Scott from Oregon said...

If it is first person and a You is uttered as a common expression, what's the problem?

"You just never know, these days..."

"You get what you pay for..."

"You can't always blame the guy with the big arms..."

I think a reader's ego in these instances jolts them out of the story, not the writer's skill.

I mean, how presumptuous to assume that just because you picked up this book and strted reading it, the writer had YOU in mind when he/she wrote it...

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Well, the first is directly addressing the reader; the second is part of internal narrative. Two very different things. As Szelsofa and others said, it's obvious to me.

Also, right now I believe it's en vogue to NOT italicize thoughts, especially in urban fantasy where folks are telepathing and such. It's why I've switched to calling it internal narrative (for third person) rather than internal dialogue. Done correctly, it bridges narrative and thought nicely and serves to suck the reader in.

Bernita said...

That describes it well, Natasha.
Just a severe winter this year. It is quite beautiful, some claim the native name for it meant "garden of the gods."

Thank you,Josephine, Lisa, Ello and AW.
Am not nuts after all.

Thank you, Scott.
"But we want every reader to think the story was written specially for them, " she said in small voice. But I know what you mean.

Bernita said...

I'm glad it's in vogue not to italicize, SS.
I don't do it in my WIP, except for emphasis and that rarely.
Here I used italics merely for the purpose of emphasizing the example and separate it from the essay, as I do sometimes. Quotes would have worked just as well.
I do like to see italics used to set telepathic communication off from internal narrative though.

BernardL said...

I don't think your second example would jar me out of the story flow. Unless it's some form of comedy, I don't want the author addressing me while I'm reading though. :)

Shauna Roberts said...

The use of "you" in this way doesn't bother me. That may be because of my background in magazines, where it is common in self-help articles to address the reader personally, as in, "You can avoid disease X by taking five steps...."

SzélsőFa said...

what about italics , please?
Bernita, please, anytime next time you feel like writing a post about that?
In my WIP, I use italics quite often, as to express the MC's thoughts.
Is it incorrect to do so?

Bernita said...

Bernard, the second example is internal thought. I do wonder if it would give the reader pause just the same.

And that familiar convention might lead a reader to think the second example is also addressing the reader, Shauna.
As you can see, I waffle over this.

Szelsofa, italics conventions vary from publisher to publisher and also may depend on whether the story is in first or third person.
It's not considered necessary to italicize the internal thoughts of a story told in first person, unless one wishes to emphasize a certain thought.
Not always necessary in third either.
I'll have to think about third.
The general rule is to always use italics sparingly and be consistent in that use.

writtenwyrdd said...

Now there's where it gets tricky these days: italicization of thoughts. I prefer to try and avoid them, because I usually have some psychic conversation going on and those I like to put in italics without funny punctuation that distracts the reader.

SzélsőFa said...

I understand that in first person, this person's thoughts are not needed to be italicized.
Thoughts come natural.

But when the writing is in third person AND the writer wants to show this person's thoughts, inner feelings, italics might come handy.
But does not it create a certain clumsiness? a hybrid-feeling?

Bernita said...

I like italics for psychic conversation too , Written.

I don't think so, Szelsofa.
Just as an example:
"Stefan went through the house room by room.The silence, the emptiness disturbed him. The bedroom door knob refused to turn under his hand.
Why was this door locked!"
As long as we aren't favoured with interminable italicized passages of a person's inner turmoil, re-capitulation of previously described events, etc., italics work very well.

SzélsőFa said...

Thanks for making it clearer. I thought italicising in 3rd Person was considered a 'no-no'.
It seems you mean it's rather about a careful in most cases...?

Billy said...

I don't mind the internal analysis example as you have rendered it. Maybe context dictates as to whether its called for or a hindrance, but generally I don't find it intrudes on the narrative.

Bernita said...

Szelsofa, with italics, I think the best guide is to be miserly.

Thank you, Billy.

Angie said...

I agree that "you" works perfectly well in internal dialogue. I use it all the time, and I imagine most other people do too. There's a reason why English teachers have to flog their students to get them to use "one" in formal essays; it's not something we do naturally. [wry smile]

There's a difference between the author or POV character directly addressing the reader, and the POV character mumbling in general. The one can jar the reader out of the story, while the other most probably won't.


Bernita said...

Thank you, Angie.