The Use for You

A more intimate narrative voice better carries a reader along in a novelist’s currents. To achieve that cadence, an author needs to employ a variety of tricks that echo the way we all think. With a neophyte writer, for instance, I suggest that they write out a character’s thoughts as spoken aloud—inner dialogue, literally. Or, sentence fragments can add immediacy. What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that a person often refers to an alternative self in their thoughts.

We are all familiar with the good angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. When someone does something bad to us, like elbow us in the subway door, the first impulse is a desire to punch out that person’s lights. Yet another voice swiftly intervenes: “Now, now, let’s just go to work this morning.” We correct ourselves, in other words. 

That extends to referring to ourselves as “you.” This often comes out when we are muttering under our breath about something stupid we did. “You idiot! Why did you do that?” The “you” is the lumbering, sappy dope we all know lurks inside of us. 

So why aren’t you using that tool in your writing arsenal? For example, a person who hates doctors may have to correct himself during a visit: “The drugs, stupid, you need the drugs.” The line is funny, but more important, the reader knows exactly what that character is thinking, right at that moment. 

The reason I couch the usage as merely one trick in a bag is because “you” is quickly overused. If a character says it too much, the reader may wonder if she’s schizophrenic. In that way, “you” resembles an exclamation point. You don’t want the boy to cry wolf too often. When used in a corrective function, however, it enables an author to penetrate to a solid depth of narration. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for places where a character makes a decision. Do you start feeling that he is decisive in an otherworldly way? Have the character bicker with herself, second-guess herself. Put “you” in there, and watch how tangled up the character’s thoughts become. Now he’s thinking like the rest of us poor schmucks.

“Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy.” —Marshall McLuhan

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.