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 décor 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 DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.