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This is an excerpt from a novel I have started writing.

Penry laughed. His face changed instantly. His disbelief changed into happiness, into almost the serenity in my dreams. It seemed to be the same feeling I had when… Then it hit me! I knew it. He was going to attempt to exit the Luzerne area, with this long haired stranger.

I want to continue with it saying that 'I' woke up and then I say to the reader directly "don't worry, it's not a dream". Is this a proper writing style, considering that I am not actually the narrator?

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    In one of José Saramago novels he [the narrator] is explaining an historical event and at some point, when he's about to give a very specific date of when it happened, he interludes with something on this fashion: "I did look for that information and wrote it somewhere but I can't seem to find it. I'll just have to tell you later." (he never did). – armatita Feb 23 '18 at 11:57
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Of course the narrator can talk to the reader. That is their job. It is what narrator means.

I suspect what you are really asking is, can the narrator comment on the action? Again, the answer is that of course they can. This was pretty much the way every novelist wrote until very recently, and the way many novelists still write today.

There is a style popular today which seeks to suppress the narrative voice, to use the words of the novel simply to paint a picture in the reader's mind, as if they were watching a movie rather than being told a story. Often this is done by writers who would rather be writing a movie, and often such books are read by readers who spend more time watching TV than reading.

This is not to say that it cannot also be a legitimate literary technique, but it is certainly not a requirement and not the norm.

You can, of course, choose to write in this style if you want to. But it is the exception, not the rule.

If you do decide that you want your narrator to comment on the action, though, make sure that you are not doing it because you are having a hard time figuring out how to dramatize the action. On the other hand, there are parts of the action of many novels that it would be tedious to dramatize in full, parts that set the stage of the dramatic moments but do not themselves contain much drama. It is far better simply to tell the reader these things so you can get on to the dramatic moments.

It is also perfectly legitimate to comment on the story in other ways. The narrator's personality and voice is an important part of storytelling. Like anything else, though, you have to do it well. If you do it badly, people may tell you to "show don't tell". Sometimes they will be right, and sometimes what they really should be saying is "tell better" or "comment more originally or insightfully".

  • Thanks, Mark. I appreciate the help, and will probably have a few more questions in the future. I would be honored if I could send you a copy of what I am writing to have you review it. Is there a way to private message on this stackexchange? – David Doyle Feb 26 '18 at 3:27
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If you're writing in a style then your writing is a "proper writing style". Perhaps you meant to ask "does this conform to an existing style?"

Having a first person narrator who directly addresses the audience is an interesting stylistic choice. There are definitely books out there where the narrator is a character in the story, adding their own commentary to the narrative.

You shouldn't be asking yourself "Is this a proper style of writing?" but "Does this style fit my writing?" and "Am I consistent with my style?"

  • Thanks for the feedback, I was wondering if the stylistic choice would be appropriate with the context. – David Doyle Feb 23 '18 at 4:36
  • @DavidDoyle That's entirely up to you. – sphennings Feb 23 '18 at 4:37
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You are writing a first-person novel; as a character in the story standing next to Penry and relating what happened at certain times.

So you are speaking directly to the reader at all times. However, to say, "Don't worry; it's not a dream!" seems to jump your timeline forward to the present, and I think that is jarring.

As a reader this line seems confusing and takes me out of the flow of the story.

Here is my second concern: From the story fragment given, I guess I don't understand why the narrator might consider the reader "worried" that this scene is a dream, or why you as the author feel compelled to write it.

I suspect your scene is describing some implausible miracle solution to the plot problems and you are trying to convey something equivalent to "This really really happened, I swear." If that is the case, then the line "Don't worry, it's not a dream," is not likely to repair the reader's broken suspension of disbelief; and may exacerbate it. Plot issues should not be resolved by some obviously enormously lucky break.

If my suspicion is correct, you'd be better off leaving it out, or putting the astonishment where it belongs, on the MC, in the current timeline: "I couldn't believe it, but there it was, the way out."

  • Your hunch was correct :) – David Doyle Feb 26 '18 at 3:27
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As Mark mentioned, it used to be a lot more common. Literature used to be peppered with "..as I'm sure you, dear reader, will understand" and similar.

It's less common in literature today, but it still happens. In theatre it's known as "breaking the fourth wall" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_wall). It's often used as a device in television and film - think of Ian Richardson in the original UK "House of Cards" (and some bloke who's being mentioned a lot less than before from the US remake), or Eddie Murphy's glances into camera in pretty much every Eddie Murphy film.

It's certainly a proper writing style, but it works best with a narrator who has already established a relationship with the reader (ie. a single occurrence part way through a book from a narrator who has previously seemed unaware of the audience would be best avoided).

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    Yeah it was the first chapter. I always think I'm telling the story, so I thought that I had a connection with the reader, me. Thanks for the feedback. – David Doyle Feb 26 '18 at 3:29
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Clarifying as per discussion below:

It depends on how far you are planning to go in terms of addressing the reader. As pointed out, it is quite common in a first person narrative for the narrator to address the reader directly in terms of expressing thoughts, musings, questions, and so on, when the listener is a vague audience, e.g.

'I know I was in the wrong, but she wasn't going to leave me, right?'

Whereas, breaking the 'forth wall' and talking directly to your specific reader is less common and can smack of authorial intrusion if not handled correctly. E.g.:

'Now, reader, you might think I was wrong, and you may think she should leave me, but you're just going to have to read the next two hundred pages to find out what happens.'

In The Book Thief, the narrator is death and death addresses the reader directly. It's a fabulous example (in my humble opinion) of this style.

Breaking the forth wall like this is rarely done and though it's fine to break rules, it is better to understand them fully before you attempt it.

TBF was Markus Zusak's fifth published novel, and he'd already won a number of accolades for his previous works. He knew exactly what he was doing and he did it well.

Having death narrate his book and talk directly to the reader works well because: death is a narrator completely separate from the writer so it doesn't smack of authorial intrusion; it's set in Germany during the Holocaust and death is everywhere; death has his own perspective on all that mindless killing; death isn't entirely omniscient, and can only speak from his own experience.

Breaking the forth wall needs to be handled with caution. If you don't create a convincing character in the narrator, and it smacks of authorial intrusion, you could alienate the reader. You wrote the story, you know the whole story, so the reader could feel cheated by what you reveal and what you hold back. And, if you go too far, as in telling the reader that they shouldn't be worried right now, because it isn't a dream. You're telling them what to think and feel. And the last thing readers want is to be told what to think.

If this is your first novel, I would HIGHLY recommend that you think very carefully before proceeding. Writing a novel is hard enough without making it even more difficult for yourself. But, that very much depends on where you're going with it. If you're just writing this for yourself, or as a classroom experiment, go for it, have fun! But, if you plan on submitting to agents and publishers, it's worth keeping in mind how tough this business is. Publishers are extremely cautious. They don't like taking risks. And breaking norms will raise caution flags for them.

Also, if you do proceed with it, make sure it's for the right reason: because the nature of your story demands it, and your story will be improved by this style of narration.

Good luck!

  • BTW David, a lot of this advice comes from painful experience. My first book was a magnum opus that broke rules of genre and audience and took years of complex research. If someone could have given me a crystal ball and shown me the end of the road I had started down, I would have stopped right there. I would have cut my teeth on a much easier book, and turned to that story when I had the experience to break those rules proficiently. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 23 '18 at 16:14
  • Actually, I pointed out just the opposite, that the refusal to have the narrator address the reader is a deviation from the norm. It is a writing school conceit not commonly found in general literature. – user16226 Feb 23 '18 at 19:12
  • @MarkBaker Apologies, I misread your post and have corrected mine to remove that comment. I'll clarify the rest of the response too, since it perhaps isn't clear that what I'm expressing caution over, isn't having the narrator address the audience (which as you rightly point out is quite common in first person narrative) where the listener is a vague audience, e.g. 'I know I was in the wrong, but she wasn't going to leave me for it, right?' ... – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 24 '18 at 8:02
  • ... but rather, the authorial intrusion that can be felt when breaking the forth wall and talking directly to your specific reader, e.g. 'Now, reader, you might think I was wrong, and you may think she should leave me, but you're just going to have to read on to find out whether she does.' It was a caution for the OP of breaking through that wall and I'll clarify that. Apologies again for misquoting you. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 24 '18 at 8:03
  • @MarkBaker I've read your comment on two different posts now about writers who spend more time watching TV than reading books. I'm really interested in this. I love films and TV, but books too. My time between each medium is about equal, and I'm interested in the impact this may have on my own writing. Do you have a quintessential book in mind, that in your opinion, falls prey to too much TV watching, rather than book reading? I'd be interested to compare it to my own writing. Thx! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 24 '18 at 12:20

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