Authorial Intrusion: doing it right and doing it wrong-author toolbox
Thanks to Trish for suggesting this topic.
Authorial Intrusion is a literary device where the author intentionally breaks from the narrative and addresses the reader directly. Used correctly, this device can create a relationship between the author and the reader adding an additional layer to the story. Used incorrectly, it becomes an annoying nuisance. If you plan to intrude on the story, use these tips to make sure the reader really wants you there.
Correct use of Authorial Intrusion
In the classics, authorial intrusion was more common. Hawthorn in The Scarlet Letter, Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, and Hugo in Les Misérables are a few examples. (These intrusions also exist in plays as an aside or other forms of breaking the 4th wall.)
In these examples, the authors would interject commentary about a social or political issue into the prose. These comments were not intended to come from the POV character and often were used to illustrate how a character’s or society’s views were mistaken. These interjections could be a short as a phrase, or, in the case of Victor Hugo, could go on for pages. Usually, these were related to the theme or were otherwise politically motivated.
Authorial Intrusion is less common in contemporary literature.
Authorial Intrusion in contemporary literature is more commonly used for comedic effect or to portray the author as a character. Books like A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket uses frequent Authorial Intrusion. On the first page, Snicket begins the story by addressing the reader directly.
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. … I’m sorry to tell you this, but that’s how the story goes.
Snicket pops in and out the narration frequently, either to comment on the direness of the situation or to explain the meaning of a difficult word. This creates the illusion of Snicket, not as an invisible author, but as a living person who has discovered this story and is sharing it as a warning to others.
Incorrect use of Author Intrusion
In most stories, the author is invisible, intent on creating an immersive experience for the reader. Unfortunately, beginning authors often conspicuously bungle their way through the prose, banging their knees on the coffee table and stepping on Legos. Invisible or not, the reader is keenly aware of their presence.
If you are writing in 1st person POV or deep 3rd, you shouldn’t use authorial intrusion. (If anyone has an example of this working, I want to see it.) You will break the illusion of immersion. In these POV’s, there is no omniscient narrator who is allowed to interject his/her thoughts into the story. Every word that is written must come from the POV character’s thoughts.
For example, if the POV character is a racist jackass, the writer might feel compelled to add in a sentence to let the reader know she doesn’t personally hold the same beliefs. Consider
I forced them all to line up against the wall, the others, the tainted ones. They don’t belong here. This is not their home.
It was an evil, terrible thing to do.
What? Notice how the POV character seems confused. Either she believes the others are bad, or she believes that mistreating them is wrong. Which is it?
Writing evil characters can be difficult, but just like in acting, give yourself “permission to play.” Remember these are your character’s actions, not yours. Readers expect villains to be evil, and they expect anti-heroes to have questionable tactics. Also, without mistaken views, there can be no redemption arcs. You don’t have to take time out of the narration to let readers know you think the villain is a bad person.
Then Mary took the Babe in her arms, turned her eyes toward the heavens, and marveled at the stars twinkling like so many LED’s.
Huh? Using words or concepts that don’t exist in the POV characters world is jarring for the reader. A medieval sword described as humming with electricity? Only if the character is a time traveler. Keep contemporary concepts out of your historical character’s mouth.
A close relative to this is a character who inexplicably shares the author’s social values (often Judo-Christian) despite being raised in a society that does not share these values. My pet peeve is the devotion to virginity as a sign of higher morality. (notice: author intrusion!)
Third would be concepts that do exist in the character’s world, but the character would not know about them. Me suddenly knowing about sports, for example. Or when the author slips in research by having the janitor accurately name the top-secret components of the Manhattan Project. Watch out for instances where you might be tempted to show off your research. The reader knows the character wouldn’t know these terms and therefore the illusion of being in the character’s viewpoint is disrupted.
Fourth, the author pulls away from the POV character to tell the reader about something that happened off camera, or a detail that the character doesn’t know.
This second job was going to kill her, but she needed to pay for AJ’s medicine. Jane tossed her apron on the chair and collapsed on the old mattress. The one grandpa had stuffed with money decades ago.
If this were omniscient POV, the intrusion would be fine, but in limited or deep POV we can only know what Jane knows. Notice how the intrusion forces distance between to character and the reader. We can almost feel the camera pulling away. Instead of lying on the pillow with Jane, we are now hovering above her looking down.
Make sure your characters words are their own.
The final problem with unintentional author intrusion is dialogue mistakes. Here, characters use words of speech patterns that are not correct for the character.
In contemporary novels, all the characters sound like the author. There’s no use of regional colloquialisms, or speech patterns distinct to a specific character.
In historical novels, characters use words that don’t belong in their time period. This rule has a lot of flexibility. There are many examples of historical books/movies/TV series that do use contemporary language. Reign, Moana, A Knight’s Tale are a few examples of where this works. If you plan to use this technique, do some research and make sure your choice is intentional.
But what about fantasy novels?
Fantasy set in a completely fictional world does not need to sound like a Renaissance Faire. Again, do your research and use the conventions associated with your genre. Game of Thrones sounds completely different from A Court of Thorns and Roses, yet both are historical fantasy. Whichever direction you choose, keep the style consistent.
Author Intrusion can add texture to your narration.
Correctly using Author Intrusion can create another layer of storytelling adding dimension to your novel, but unintentional intrusions jar the reader out of the story, create distance, and make your writing sound amateurish. Watch out for these mistakes and keep your readers fully immersed in the story.
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