Challenge 575 Response
Bewildering Stories discusses
Run or Roll?
In J. Daniel Batt’s “Run Like You’re on Fire”:
- Why does the character “you” feel threatened? Is “you” a pyromaniac or a pyrokinetic?
- The second-person point of view is extremely rare in fiction. Why? What would be the effect of a first- or third-person point of view in this scenario?
- All the main verbs in the story are in which mood: declarative, interrogative or imperative?
- Why should the title be taken figuratively? What should you do if you were literally on fire?
[Heather Frederick] Oh, this occurred to me after I read your Challenge: Of course you “Stop Drop and Roll” if you’re REALLY on fire.
But I still loved that flash fiction piece... The second person voice grabbed me, although second person usually throws me off. And I sympathized instantly with the “you” as a young, scared, pyrokinetic girl. Obviously it’s a different story if the “you” is a pyromaniac, and the author does leave open that possibility.
[Don W.] Thank you, Heather! “Run Like You’re on Fire” is very interesting for a number of reasons. For example:
In the title, “like” is used as a conjunction. Grammatical purists will say it can only be a preposition. But the title, as it stands, does seem to fit the story very neatly.
BwS has an unofficial motto: “Readers take everything literally unless they know to do otherwise.” Someone who is literally on fire should do as you say: stop, drop and roll. Now, readers can take the story literally, but maybe the title means we might interpret it figuratively, as well. And figurative interpretations are bound to raise interesting questions!
Some readers reject the second person on principle; others are less categorical. One of the most famous examples of the nouveau roman is Michel Butor’s La Modification, where the main character is vous (“you” in the formal or plural form). Vous is masculine singular in the novel, by default. It could have been, say, feminine plural, but French grammar requires a choice.
English is the only Indo-European language I know of that has no grammatical gender; it has only natural gender. We know that “you” is masculine or feminine only by context.
Does anything in the story determine the gender of “you”? Not necessarily, no more than we know whether “you” sets fires deliberately or psychically, by accident. I don’t know how the story could be translated into, say, French or Spanish or Portuguese with the same ambiguity.
All the main verbs in the story are in the imperative mood, which gives the action immediacy and urgency. Imperatives are possible in the first and third persons, but they don’t have the same tone. They’re either deliberative, for "I,” or rule-making language, in the third person. Any other person than “you” would fall flat in this story.
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