Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Through Fiction's Fourth Wall: Part 1

09.29.09: V-Day

This is it! The day of the official release of Visions. Don't have a copy yet? Go ahead and get one. I'll be here when you get back.

All right. Now let's get to it.

Yesterday I touched on the private nature of writing. Let’s consider it again, this time as it relates to both writer and reader.

A writer composes a story in solitude for a reader who reads the work alone. Between the two lies a world of characters who have no awareness of either the reader or writer. But what happens when the writer’s voice shifts to second person, when the reader becomes a character in that previously self-contained world of fiction?

I remember when I first realized the potential of that mode of storytelling. It was September 16, 1963, the night that the science-fiction program The Outer Limits premiered on ABC. I sat before the set, waiting for the show to begin, when suddenly the screen went dark. A moment later, the control voice began, speaking directly to me through the 24-inch Magnavox.

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture […]. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to the outer limits.

It was, of course, a ripoff of a second-person intro that had been airing on CBS since 1959 -- Rod Serling's opening for The Twilight Zone -- although I'm not sure I was aware of that at the time.

You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone!

Although neither show sustained the second-person narrative beyond the introductions (unless we count the few lines at the end of each episode), both impressed me enough to start experimenting with second-person, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type stories.

Eventually, I discovered fully developed second-person narratives in books and magazines, perhaps the most successful of which was Bob Leman's “Instructions” (F&SF September 1984, and currently available as a chapbook from Tachyon Publications). Incredibly, Leman sustains the control voice through an entire 6,000 word story. Here's how it begins:

This is the only notice you will receive.
You will follow the instructions set out below.

1. Dress warmly and leave your house. Do not tell your family you are leaving. Do not talk to them at all.
Do not listen if they talk to you.
Dress warmly and leave the house.

2. Proceed at a brisk clip to the center of town.
The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and “Instructions” were very much on my mind when I wrote “Aberrations,” the piece of second-person flash fiction that opens Visions, and writing that story (and noting the response that it gets when I read it live) started me thinking of a number of fiction-writing exercised to help break the ice and prime the pump in writing classes and workshops.

In tomorrow's installment, I'll share with you one of those lessons.

Until then, share the vision!

1 comment:

  1. Growing up, I loved both The Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits. In particular, the "ritual" opening always drew me into the story.

    Carlos Fuentes' novella "Aura" is a second person narrative, and would appeal to any fan of horror fiction. Also, didn't F&SF publish a 2nd PPOV story within the last two issues? Don't have the story to hand at the moment--but the POV character is a woman who, while driving, comes upon a house that she dreams about...