Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Narrator Intrusion - Part 1

Don't you hate it when someone butts into your conversation or adds their own commentary during a television show or movie? What if someone tells you what is going to happen next? Don't you want to toss your soda onto their face?

The biggest problem with any point of view, other than omniscient, is narrator or narrative intrusion. The author interrupts the story to deliver his commentary, thoughts, opinions, or information, creating speed bumps that disrupt the reader's total immersion in the story.

Speaking to the audience was used in 18th and 19th century novels and voice-overs are used in modern sit-coms. It is a device that can be used for effect or it can be annoying. Let's learn how to search for it. It is up to you whether you keep it or kill it.

1) Ideally, comments, thoughts, opinions, and information should be filtered through the characters, not the writer.

Omniscient narrators are able to be in everyone’s head at all times. They often intrude with their own opinion. You lose a certain number of readers with this method.

With other points of view, narrator intrusion removes the verbal camera from the shoulder or the eyes of the viewpoint character to take in action on the stage the character isn’t aware of. The speed bumps can be low or high depending on the severity of the intrusion.

Intrusion is difficult to avoid. Stringent editing can fix it. Read each scene. If possible, have other people read each scene to look for intrusions. Pull back and look at what you’ve written with a jaundiced eye. Ask yourself if you’ve written anything the point of view character couldn’t see, hear, feel, smell, taste, touch, notice, know, or do.

2) Key intrusion words to look for include: as before, after, behind, believed, considered, debated, discovered, during, felt, figured, hated, inside, knew, liked, loved, noticed, realized, pondered, remembered, sensed, since, smelled, tasted, thought, wanted to, when, while, wished, understood, until, used to.

3) Showing versus telling is not necessarily the same as narrator intrusion. An example of intrusion would be:

Dick Malone, a dark, handsome, intelligent man stared through the window of his fortieth floor penthouse at the brooding LA skyline.

This sentence is simply awful, but you get the point. Yes, I just intruded with an opinion. If you write in omniscient, this is perfectly acceptable. In all other cases, it isn’t.

4) Even in third person, a character does not think to himself:

I’m a handsome, intelligent, man standing in my fortieth floor penthouse. My d├ęcor is ultra modern and shows I have expensive taste.

To fix the intrusion, the writer can show the character entering his building or getting off at the fortieth floor. The character places his keys in a ceramic bowl on a glass and steel hall table or hangs them on an ornate message board above it. The character walks into the living room, across the deep pile carpet, and places his jacket on the back of a white leather sofa. He can look at himself in the mirror (overused but effective) or catch a glimpse of himself in the glass as he stares at the brooding LA skyline.

He could notice a photo of himself and his wife. He can think about the way they used to be, so young, so good looking, so idealistic. He can wonder if she still finds him as attractive as he finds her. He can miss her presence in his swank apartment, one they chose together but he now occupies alone. In this way, you show the reader his world rather than tell them about it. This would be strongest in first person or third person close up, relating it through the character's lens. How does he feel about the space? What irritates or soothes him? Is coming home a good thing or a bad thing?

The door closed behind me with its familiar whoosh. I tossed my keys onto the slick glass table. As they slid onto the white marble tile floor, I resolved to find a coconut shaped ashstray like the one I stole from a hotel in the Bahamas. It had comfortably held my keys for years before I met Sally. I could take a sledgehammer to the table, pity she wouldn't be around to see it. I could replace the white leather furniture with soft suede loungechairs with cupholders. For the first time in five years, I could do anything I wanted. I flung my coat across the metal back of the dining room chair and used the remote to lift the automatic blinds from the panoramic windows. They were useful and could stay. I slipped off my tie and rolled up my sleeves. The fancy, useless rugs, monochromatic vases that didn't hold flowers, and artfully arranged books she never read, could go to Goodwill. They'd make some poor schmuck's day. I popped a frozen burrito in the microwave, no plate, and popped the top off a Corona. I needed boxes and some paint, yeah, brown and beige to relieve the endless white. She left, but it was time for me to erase her.

5) Another example is when a writer inserts statements for suspense:

Sally didn’t know that Dick had other plans for her and that his plans would change her life forever.

Little did Dick know that Spot, so peacefully curled up at the end of his bed, would attack him in the middle of the night. If he had known what the dog was capable of, he might have put Spot in his crate.

These are extreme examples, but you get the point. Who is giving us this information? It isn’t Dick or Sally. Some writers do this on purpose, to say, “Wait for it: a tense situation is coming.” It does the opposite. The author just told us there is going to be an attack in the middle of the night, removing the suspense factor.

The author could have shown Dick snuggling up with dear Spot, holding the dog close, feeling all warm and safe. Then Spot growls and wriggles away from Dick. The dog’s fur stands on end. Cut scene. Next chapter. The reader keeps reading to find out what upset the dog. That is well-crafted suspense.

Next, we continue our hunt for intrusions.

For more on revision, check out Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. I detest the use of "Little did Dick know...", although I can accept its use in first person ("Little did I realise at the time that..."). It always pulls me out of a story.

    1. I just read one the other day at the end of a chapter. Bleck.

  2. Elle just said what I was going to say. lol
    About intruder words, I don't see how some of them can be avoided at times,but not too often, just like sometimes telling works to move the story along.

    1. A character sometimes has to "tell." I'm fine with it as long as it is through the character's POV and not the author.

  3. While intrusion words don't necessarily need to intrude, they should be viewed with suspicion until cleared of all such charges. Meanwhile, good writing can create a visual with the same power as a motion picture, giving the reader insight and involvement equal to that of a great movie or television drama. Great post, Diana. This is a keeper.

    1. This is one of the most difficult and time consuming revision layers for me. Luckily, I have a great critique group to point them out.

  4. Very good post, Diana. I've seen books start with the "If he had only known how the next few days would change his life..." Shut book. Not only is that author intrusion, it kills any suspense in the rest of the book. Writing has so many pitfalls, it's hard not to fall into one of them during the writing of a novel. We must be vigilant--or have a really good editor.

    1. It really helps to have other eyes look at a manuscript to catch these bugaboos. Some are very elusive.

  5. I know one of the most excellent BRP editors would keep me from injuring my readers with an ill-timed intrusion. Oh, and thanks, Diana, for shattering my image of that most adorable of curs, Spot ... now he's Cujo ... who knew?

  6. What a great post! I just finished reading the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Goldfinch. How I cringed when I read: ". . . it would ba a long long time before I heard anything from Boris again." And in another spot the author wrote, "Little did I know then Boris and I would be friends for life."

    Please! Even the best writers intrude. As a reader, I read the passage without the intrusion, but I have to wonder, where was the editor?

    Thanks for a wonderful post with clear examples we can all use.

  7. Ah .. 'she turned away and didn't see Joe's smirk ..'
    I hate those, yet authors who write in the omniscient pov get away with them. Nora Roberts isn't hurting for readers, but she started her career when omniscient was more the norm.

    As for filtering words -- I go round and round with these, because I write Deep POV which is almost 1st person, and a person can't know what another is seeing, feeling, thinking, etc., so to avoid it being a POV slip, those filtering words are needed. But I look for them on my editing pass.


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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