I’m seeing a trend in novels lately that is driving me nuts. I call it authorial intrusion. What I mean by this is that the author suddenly intrudes into the action to tell the reader something. I liken it to what happens when I’m watching a movie in a theater and someone nearby comments out loud on what’s going on. It takes me right out of the movie or the book; it breaks my connection to the story and the characters and switches my attention to the person speaking. It’s bad manners in the theater; in a book, it implies either that the author was in too much of a hurry, or that the author doesn’t think much of the reader’s intelligence.
Let me give you some examples. The first is from Timeless by Gail Carriger; the second is from A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.
“But who would nae want immortality?” asked Siddheag Maccon. She had pestered her great-great-great-grandfather for years to be made into a werewolf.
“Did the witch from Bryn Mawr ask you to go?” Em was interested in the classicist, mostly (it had turned out over a fair amount of wine one summer night) because she’d once dated Gillian’s mother. “It was the sixties” was all Em would say.
In each case the author slips from describing the action and instead starts explaining some of the backstory to us—something she should have done earlier. For instance, when Carriger first introduced Siddheag, she could have told us that Siddheag had pestered her great-grandfather Lord Maccon for years to be made a werewolf without success. Or she could have had Lord Maccon tell his wife ahead of time that he had refused to turn his great-grand-daughter into a werewolf, and his reasons for his refusal. Then this information would have fit into the flow of the story. Throwing it in as an “aside” to the reader in the middle of a conversation about something else disrupts the flow and takes us out of the story.
Here’s another example from Carriger:
Major Channing looked as though he would quite like to object to the very idea of accompanying his Alpha female into the countryside, but he knew perfectly well that Lady Maccon would ask for him only if she had no other alternatives.
Carriger is mixing up her point of view here. She could have said “Major Channing hesitated. He wanted to object to this plan, but he knew perfectly well . . .” etc. Another way to fix this would have been for another character to notice that while Major Channing agreed to accompany Lady Maccon, he did not look happy about it. There is nothing wrong with an author telling us what is going on in a character’s mind or with relaying another character’s observations, but by telling us what he “looked” like, the author intrudes physically into the scene as an invisible character who is looking on at the action.
Harkness does this too:
“Yes.” I sounded harassed. The two of them were convinced I was going to see the light and begin taking my magic seriously now that I was safely tenured. Nothing cast any doubt on this wishful prognostication, and they were always thrilled when I had any contact with a witch.
In this case the author becomes another presence who can hear what the character sounds like. She could have just had the character say “I felt harassed,” or perhaps, “ ‘Yes,’ I said, feeling harassed.” Then it would be the character herself who is telling us how she feels.
A good writer builds a world through description and establishes characters through what they do and say, not by telling us what to think about them. Then the reader can intuit the reasons why characters behave as they do without being told so explicitly.
This is part of the fun of reading, in fact. Harry Potter fans had many long debates for years over whether or not Snape was a bad guy and why he might be doing what he was doing. Jo Rowling never took the reader aside and explained anything about Snape until the very last book. Even then she did not intrude, but rather let Harry experience Snape’s own memories, a scene that answered all of Harry’s and her readers’ questions. She dropped plenty of hints along the way, but again, never by addressing the reader. Instead, one or another of her characters would unearth a clue, perhaps, or even start to point out the inconsistency in Snape’s behavior before being shouted down by someone else. We weren’t unprepared to find out that Snape was in fact a good guy all along because of those subtle hints, but we didn’t know. Rowling kept her cards close to her chest until the end, which made the final reveal that much more powerful.
Vicki Hinze, in an article on why publishers reject manuscripts, explains why authorial intrusion is a no-no:
The reader . . . becomes an active participant in the story–through the characters’ senses. Now if the author intrudes and places herself between the reader and character, then the reader isn’t experiencing the story firsthand. She is being told a story.
When the author intrudes to explain something, says Hinze, it creates a “psychic gap.” Think about the times someone has explained a movie to you, compared to your experience of watching a movie. You probably weren’t very engaged in the story; in fact, you were probably bored. This is the danger of authorial intrusion: you could lose your reader.
I suggest that writers ask another person to read their manuscript and highlight these moments of authorial intrusion. In some cases the fix is easy: just switch the point of view either to the character you’re talking about, or have another character observe what you want the reader to know. In other cases you may need to back up to an earlier point in the story and find a good place to explain the facts that the reader will need to know later. But don’t overdo it. Think of your readers as smart people who will pick up on even the tiniest hint. How subtle can you be? Make it a game between you and the reader in which you are having as much fun seeding your story with hints as the reader will have finding them.
Cultural mythologist Jody Gentian Bower has worked as a writer and editor for over three decades, has taught writing classes, and offers coaching services to aspiring writers. She earned her PhD in Mythological Studies with a Depth Psychology Emphasis from Pacifica Graduate Institute in 2012. Dr. Bower has been a science fiction and fantasy fan since adolescence and loves movies as much as she loves books. She has a blog on mythic and archetypal motifs and you can like her on Facebook.