You’ve probably heard the term ‘author intrusion’ before, but it’s not specific to one element of your writing. Author Sherry Lewis discusses the different forms of author intrusion and how to avoid them.
Welcome to RU, Sherry!
As writers, we talk a lot about the art and craft of writing. We talk about characterization, about conflict and motivation, about goals and disasters, about scene structure and pacing. But we don’t talk much about one of the biggest problems I’ve encountered in contemporary fiction—the problem of author intrusion.
Maybe that’s because author intrusion isn’t easy to define. If we can’t define it, how can we identify it? If we can’t identify it, how can we edit it out of our work?
Anytime a reader stops reading to wonder about what just happened, it’s a problem. That glitch—no matter how brief—can result in the loss of immediacy and reader empathy for the character.
As writers, we intrude into our stories whenever we let our goals overshadow those of our characters. So how do we learn to recognize author intrusion, and how can we get it out of our work? Here are a few things to watch for:
Characters that all sound like you. Watch for pet words and phrases from your own vocabulary that creep into the character’s thoughts and dialogue. Does everyone in your story world say, “What on earth?” or use the same curse words? Does everyone speak with the same rhythm? That may mean they all sound like you or that you’re trying too hard to make them sound interesting.
The “Burly Detective” Syndrome—when the author tries to avoid overusing a character’s name and substitutes a description in its place. Rather than calling Jill Brown “Jill” or “Brown” the author will write “the slender detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” Since very few of us would ever think of ourselves as “the pudgy author” or “the sexy writer,” use of the “Burly Detective” Syndrome is a clue that you’ve stopped viewing the scene from the character’s perspective and moved back into your own to tell the reader what you see in your imagination.
Narrative redundancy—when the author duplicates information in dialogue and narrative by having characters say something and then explaining it to the reader. The solution is fairly simple: Leave in the showing and take out the unnecessary telling. The key is in knowing to look for it, and in recognizing it when you come across it.
Also watch for stretches of narrative in which a character thinks about his situation followed by a scene in which he talks about it with someone else. There’s no need to write that sequel in which the Hero agonizes in his own head over the Heroine’s engagement to another guy if he’s going to talk about it with his brother in a few pages. It’s almost always stronger to show than tell, so cut the narrative and leave the dialogue.
The “Perky Sidekick” Syndrome—when the author brings a character on stage solely to lecture another character or the reader. The Perky Sidekick is a cardboard character who exists only to tell the hero that he’s being childish, to make the heroine realize she’s being closed-minded, or to urge her to start dating again. This does not mean that you can’t include friends, neighbors and relatives as secondary characters. Just be sure those friends, neighbors and relatives come fully to life, and that they don’t exist only to push your main character to act.
Dialogue that takes a leap in logic. Characters that switch subjects abruptly and for no apparent reason. Conversations that make no logical sense based on what you’ve told the reader about the character’s current emotional state. Characters that capitulate too easily or hang onto an argument for too long. All of these are symptoms of author intrusion. If it makes no logical sense for the characters to say what they’re saying, you may be front-and-center on the page trying to get information to the reader or force an emotional reaction.
The information dump—large chunks of explanation intended to bring the reader up-to-date. It can be obvious (a letter, journal entry or newspaper article inserted into the narrative to explain the past) or more subtle (when all the current action stops so the character can think about the past) but no matter now it shows up, the information dump is a red flag. They often show up in the early pages of a book and at turning points, when the author feels a strong need to explain what the characters are doing.
The “As You Know, Bob” conversation. These are conversations in which characters tell each other things they already know (or should know) for the sake of getting the reader up to speed. Any conversation in which the characters are discussing something that logic insists two real people would have talked about before needs to be handled with kid gloves. Discussing the heroine’s divorce with a best friend as if they’ve never talked about it before is a sign that you’re trying too hard to get information to the reader. Never underestimate the value of your internal editor. If you’ll let her, she’ll find leaps in logic as you revise. When she whispers that something isn’t realistic, listen.
The White Room Syndrome is a sign of author intrusion, but this one is characterized by what the author is leaving out. Few of us have imaginations primed so well that sensory details flow into our heads the instant we sit down in front of that blank screen, but leaving our characters in a white room as a result is a mistake. Take the time to set up each new scene so the reader is there with your characters as they interact. Establish location, time of day, location and props at hand, but do it briefly. Don’t interrupt the story’s flow to get the details in, but remember that the details are necessary to create a real world for your characters. World-building isn’t just for writers of fantasy or paranormal novels. We all do it in every book.
The Moral High Ground. Authors can accidentally climb onto it when, rather than presenting the story and allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions, the author “helps” the reader along by sharing her own moral points of view. Doing this usually robs the character of a believable dilemma and weakens the story, and often comes across as being preachy, whether you’re discussing spiritual matters, a political viewpoint, or your views on sex. Trying to push your agenda onto the reader is a clear sign of author intrusion.
A change in the level of diction. Most of the time these changes occur in separate paragraphs. The author writes one way in narrative, using descriptive passages or snippets of research she wants to share with the reader, but when she gets into action and dialogue her writing style changes abruptly. If you’re writing in first-person or deep third-person point-of-view, everything in narrative is actually a thought from viewpoint character’s head. Everything you describe on the page should be shown through your character’s eyes, put through her emotional filter, and written in her voice. Inserting your voice for the narrative often makes it sound like you’re trying too hard to sound like a writer instead of just telling the characters’ story.
Reaction before Action. Whatever the reader reads first on the page, happens first in the reader’s mind. Whenever we share the reaction before the action that causes the reaction, we intrude into the story and take the story from showing to telling.
- His heart began to hammer in his chest when someone moved in the shadows of the old oak tree.
- The blood rushed from her face when she saw his name on the list.
- He threw back his head and laughed in delight when he came in and saw the clown costume.
Or when the effect is shown before the cause prompting that effect:
- The gate toppled when the wind gusted.
- The car stopped when she stepped on the brakes.
- The night grew dark and spooky when the cloud covered the moon.
For the sake of varied sentence structure and other considerations, we may occasionally choose to write sentences where the reaction appears before the motivation. That’s okay once in a while. Just make sure you’re not doing it all the time, or even most of the time, and that you’re gaining more for the story than you’re losing when you make that choice.
It’s not easy to catch all these things as you write your first draft, and I’m not even suggesting that you try! Let yourself create the story with joy and abandon. Don’t worry about all the technical stuff. You can always dust it off and make it pretty later.
The bottom line with author intrusion is to make sure you’re always telling the character’s truth. If we can remember that our choices should always be made from the character’s perspective and with the reader’s emotional experience in mind, we can go a long way toward avoiding author intrusion.
My “favorite” type of author intrusion is narrative redundancy. Which one do you find yourself using most?
ONLY TIME WILL TELL – April 2016
Courtney Moss only came back to her quiet hometown of Virginia City, Montana, to clean out her grandmother’s attic—and she’s only attending the town Victorian Ball as a favor to a friend who’s helping her. But when she slips into an antique rose gown, she miraculously slips out of the modern world…and ends up in Virginia City during the gold rush.
Heath Sullivan finds her locked in a shed—all dolled up and talking crazy. He’s never seen a woman like Courtney in a wild boomtown like this. Could she be telling the truth about being from somewhere in the future?
Heath doesn’t plan on sticking around to find out, no matter how beautiful she may be. And despite the comforting presence of this rugged stranger, Courtney certainly doesn’t intend to stay in 1864. But time after time, love seems to have a plan all its own…
Only Time Will Tell, a time travel romance, is available in Kindle format now! Sherry loves to hear from readers.
Sherry Lewis grew up in Montana and Utah, but now lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast. For the past 20 years, she has spent her days writing. Her backlist includes more than 30 books, including contemporary and time-travel romance and three mystery series (the Fred Vickery mystery series as Sherry Lewis, the Piece of Cake mystery series as Jacklyn Brady, and the Candy Shop mystery series as Sammi Carter.)
Sherry has also taught classes on the craft of writing since 1993 and has a series of books based on her online master class workshops available for download on Kindle.
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