Piano Man's Unexpected Writing Lesson

Fri May 13 2016

In last week's article I talked about how exposition flips the story's focus around, and in so doing breaks the connection between readers and characters. This week I want to talk about a similar effect that happens with second-person phrasing.

But before we see what this has to do with Piano Man, I'm going to pick on C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series.

I am presently reading the Narnia books to my kids for their bedtime stories, and I cannot help but notice how often C.S. Lewis slips into second-person phrasing. Take this passage from near the beginning of The Silver Chair, in which Lewis is describing a crowd of talking animals:

But then they were so very different from the animals which one called by the same names in England. Some of them were much bigger—the mice, for instance, stood on their hind legs and were over two feet high. But quite apart from that, they all looked different. You could see by the expression in their faces that they could talk and think just as well as you could.

He does this kind of thing all the bloody time. Pick up any Narnia book, open it to any random spot, and within a couple of pages at most I swear you'll hit one of these. Quite often, as here, they come in descriptive passages.

What's the big deal with second-person?

I have never liked when authors invoke "you" in the middle of otherwise third-person narration. As a reader, I know they don't actually mean me, but it always briefly feels like they do. This has always bugged me, because I tend to find myself reacting argumentatively.

Lewis writes "you could see by the expression in their faces [...]" and my immediate response is to think, "No I can't. I'm not there. I can't see their expressions at all, much less what those expressions convey."

But maybe I'm just being overly sensitive, right? We all know that when an author invokes "you," they mean to invoke the viewpoint characters who are present in the scene. In the above passage, "you" refers to Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole, the protagonists of this particular Narnia installment.

We all know what they author means, so why do I react so strongly?

Well, in being hammered by second-person phrasing over and over in these books, I finally came to understand the deeper source of my reactions, which turns out to be a more pointed form of the same focus-flipping issue readers experience with exposition.

Second-person triggers self-awareness

Stop for a moment to consider why people read novels. For enjoyment, certainly, but also as a form of escape from our ordinary lives. We delight in immersing ourselves in other lives, other worlds, and situations we would never put ourselves in personally.

Immersive reading can be an almost Zen experience, in which we are so wholly focused on the story, its characters, and their struggles that we stop being aware of ourselves. Our self, our ego, dissolves. And given how stressful most of our lives are (and if yours isn't, please don't tell me about it), it's nice to forget about all that at least for a while.

I don't know about you, but I find the temporary escape from myself to be very relaxing.

Then, into the middle of this blissful state, comes a piece of second-person phrasing and the spell is broken.

Even though I know that C.S. Lewis doesn't mean me when he writes "you", that word is still hard-wired in my brain to point at me. And probably in yours, too, and in everyone else's.

By writing "you," Lewis reminds me of myself. My focus, which had been wholly and joyfully directed into the story, suddenly flips around to point at me. It breaks my immersion in the story precisely by reminding me of myself. By re-enforcing that I am "out here" while the story is "in there."

Which brings us to Piano Man

I don't like when the spell is broken. It's irritating, and lazy writing besides! Lewis could just as easily have written "they" instead of "you," which would be more accurate and would have left me alone to, in Billy Joel's immortal words, forget about life for a while.

In fact, the verse including that line is where the lesson hides:

It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
'Cause he knows that it's me they've been coming to see
To forget about life for a while.

Emphasis mine, because that's the point, isn't it? Nobody goes to the piano bar to see themselves. They go to see the piano player, have some drinks, and escape through entertainment.

A novel is just the same. Nobody picks up a novel in order to focus on themselves. We have mirrors and psychoanalysts for that.

Fiction is escapism. Readers read because they want to escape their humdrum lives. So don't mess it up. Don't ruin their brief mental vacation by carelessly writing "you" when you don't in fact mean it.

Let your poor readers forget about life—and themselves—for a while. The real world will come along to yank them back into their skins soon enough anyway.