Friday, June 10, 2011

Cues from the Coach: Avoid Writer Intrusion

“Writer intrusion? That’s ridiculous! It’s my work – I can’t intrude on it.”

Really? If you’re an author of first-person fiction, or if you’re an expert penning a nonfiction book in your field, you may be right. But if you’re a third-person fiction writer, you can literally sabotage your chances for success with writer intrusion.

What is writer (author) intrusion? When you inject into your story an opinion that doesn’t quite fit the scene or the character(s), you have intruded on your story. Now if the thought or idea is a natural and likely expression of one of your characters as you have developed him or her, it might work. But if that’s not the case, you would do yourself (and your readers) a favor by leaving it out. Also, writer comments and blatant hints of what’s to come pull the reader out of your story and undermine the elements of suspense and surprise. Another example of intrusion is the writer as narrator; the reader “listens” to the story from a distance rather than stepping into a scene and walking beside the character of choice. (This often occurs in omniscient point of view.) Common in Victorian and gothic literature of yesteryear, writer intrusion does not appeal to many of today’s readers, even in its more subtle forms. Let’s look at some examples:

Mary inserted the key in the lock and turned it. The tumblers clicked. She twisted the handle. Little did she know what awaited her behind the large white door. Bye-bye surprise.

Jason stepped out of the bedroom. Pausing, he adjusted his tie and then walked out of the apartment. He looked more handsome than ever in his new black suit. In whose opinion? The author’s?
“I’m so sorry to hear about the death of your father, Laura. You must be devastated. By the way, did you know the debate between the gubernatorial candidates has been postponed until Friday? I’m so disappointed. I wanted to hear verbatim where they stand on the nuclear power project, but I have another meeting on Friday evening. I know your dad would have had a lot to say about this.”
“My dad didn’t have anything to say about anything. He died of Alzheimer’s disease.”

“Yes, but . . .” Where did this come from? Sounds like we’re being set up to hear the author’s view on nuclear power and the environment—or something of that nature—which has absolutely nothing to do with the story. And the thoughtlessness of the character in imposing his/her (the author’s) views on the grieving woman will not go over well with most readers.

Staying true to your story means staying out of it . . . unless your opinions coincide with those of a given character, and expressing them through that character moves the story forward and flows seamlessly into its natural progression. Editorializing, making side comments, inserting inappropriate opinion/dialogue via a character, adding information dumps, and moralizing outside the confines a character’s personality will annoy your readers, perhaps even to the point of causing them to walk away from your book.

A lot of information can become a natural part of a story with some forethought and careful planning on the part of the author. How do you include material that you feel is vital to your story without resorting to writer intrusion?
Linda Lane and her team edit books of several genres — both fiction and nonfiction — as well as other written marketing and scholastic material. She is currently updating her writing workshops to make them even more effective, and she's developing editing workshops for those who want to hone their skills in this area to better serve the myriad writers who now self- and independently publish their works. You can reach her through

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  1. Ah, one of my pet peeves. I'm teaching a dialogue class over at Savvy Authors this month, and this topic comes up (maid/butler or AYKB speech) as well as in the other facets of dialogue. As a matter of fact, that's what I've been teaching this week.

    Omniscient POV rarely works for me. I like mystery. Don't tell me something the character can't know.

    Argh - got an error message when I tried to comment. I've seen these, and they're still funny. And, related to one of my recent blog posts, you couldn't write these in a book because nobody would believe them, true or not!)

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. The worst part, I think, about these "flubs" is that it pulls the reader out of the story. You want the reader to live in the story and not be aware of the writer, but these things that jar you out of the story detract from the story.

  3. This is one of those things that seems obvious when you point it out, but I've found it creeping up in parts of my writing, particularly my first draft. Awareness at least can help weed it out. Thanks for the great post!

  4. This is a good reminder for me as it's something I struggle with. I keep wanting to insert observation because I'm the author darn it and what I have to say is important. :)

  5. Oh, double argh -- I see part of a comment I left on another post got stuck in my comment here. Just ignore the last paragraph. Between my brain and blogger yesterday, things did Not. Go. Well.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  6. It's easy for us as writers to justify the insertion of information we feel is important to our story. Sometimes it helps to avoid this tendency if we reflect on the reason we are writing it.

    Do we have a "soapbox" -- a point we want to make or an issue we want to address? If so, create a character who shares our point or our issue.

    Is background or historical information vital to our story? This can be challenging. Perhaps a character can stop at a historical point of interest on a highway and read relevant portions of the typical posted info. Or some dialogue between characters might naturally occur -- but beware of creating an information dump or conversation that seems contrived for the sole purpose of "educating" the reader.

    The aforementioned soapbox may well make us "preachers" rather than "yarn spinners," so we need a "preachy" character -- but not one that's too preachy. We all know people like this, so make that character real, believable, and imperfect. Let other characters find fault with her, argue with him, avoid the character altogether.

    Sometimes the intrusion is so subtle that the writer doesn't recognize it. This is another of the numerous reasons to work with a competent editor before sending your manuscript off to a publisher, an agent, or to a printer if you're self-publishing.

  7. Terry and Linda: I came across this problem in a client's work just this week myself. While writing in one of two first person POVs, he wrote, "I suppose I should tell you what these people looked like."

    Until now, I as reader was hidden within the character's consciousness, watching the unfolding story through his eyes--but now the character turned on me and acknowledged my presence. Creepy!

    And of course it snapped me right out of the story.

  8. This is a difficult thing for new writers. Also, you risk author intrusion when you write things like: He noticed she was wearing red today. (He noticed, she thought, etc. can all be construed as extraneous writing). Good post.

  9. Good point and true for the majority of modern literary works.

    HOWEVER, read "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by the Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera. There the author intrudes regularaly into the novel on purpose and violates many or most other "writing rules."
    And try to find the famous "hook" in the first few pages. What we get instead is a few pages of philosophy. He talks about Nietsche and introduces the first character in chapter 3, finally. Ha!
    And yet, it is a great novel.

  10. Good point, Christa. Typically, a writer who knows the rules can break them with impunity; it's those who don't know them that stumble and fall into writing disgrace.

  11. Sounds like what happens often on TV in the so-called newscasts.

    Morgan Mandel

  12. Yes, this is one of my peeves too. It's very jarring to read.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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