6) In third person limited point of view and first person, a writer often tells the reader things the point of view character couldn’t possibly know.
Jane sat in the café, sipping a cooling mocha latte, lost in thought, a book open on the table. The man in the booth behind her stared and wondered why someone so good looking was so sad.
Unless Jane has eyes in the back of her head, she isn’t aware that she is being watched. Unless she reads minds, she won’t know what the man behind her is thinking. The verbal camera panned away from Jane and followed the man in the booth. This is either head-hopping or author intrusion, depending on the point of view.
Another example would be:
Sally perched on the edge of a park bench. She closed her eyes, wiping the sweat from her brow. When did it get so hot? A man sat down on the grass, not close enough to be obvious, but near enough to catch her if she decided to run.
Sounds suspenseful, right? However, Sally’s eyes are closed. She can’t see the man sitting on the grass. She doesn’t know why he is sitting on the grass, or that he intends to grab her if she leaves the bench. The author thinks he is setting up suspense, but he is shifting point of view or intruding.
The scene can be fixed by simply having Sally open her eyes, see the guy sitting on the grass. She can decide he is a problem and calculate whether she could run before he could grab her. This keeps us in her head and sets the tension. Will she go for it? Will she make it?
7) Writing in first person POV, a passage might read:
I bent over to pick up the note that fell from the boy’s backpack. The paper was crumpled, from the kind of yellow legal pad a businessman would use. I unfolded it and examined the crabbed handwriting. A red stain colored my cheeks as the profane words registered. What kind of boy would write such a thing?
This is very subtle intrusion. Why? Because the character can’t see her own face, so how would she know it was red? She could feel her face flush. The reader knows that a flushed face looks red. You don’t have to explain it. These mistakes are hard to catch. A good critique partner, beta-reader, or editor helps you find them.
8) Another example is when the author gives the reader the reason for someone else’s behavior:
Jane lifted the hotel receipt from the table. She held it up so Dick could get a good look at it. “And you were at the Savoy last week for what reason?” Dick turned away to hide his panic and formulate an excuse.
If the piece is written in omniscient point of view, this passage works. Otherwise, it doesn’t. Jane can see Dick turn away. She might guess why, but she wouldn’t think to herself:
Dick turned away to hide his panic and formulate an excuse.
Jane could see him turn away. She can surmise that he is hiding something and press Dick for an answer. Dick’s lack of response tells her he is formulating a lie.
When he comes out with, “It was a business meeting,” Jane assumes it is a lie.
Jane can then call him on it by saying something like: “An overnight meeting?”
Dick justifies it with: “No, but it ran late and I was tired, so I got a room.”
Jane could top it off with: “You paid for a room instead of a cab? We only live five blocks away.”
Lie exposed and you have tense dialogue with a great zinger at the end. The fight is on.
9) Another problem is describing details a character would never notice.
Dick is standing at the coffee machine in the break room and Jane walks in with designer shoes and a dress that hugs her curves. Unless he is really into fashion or works in the fashion industry, he won’t know the dress is Dior and the shoes are Manolo Blahnik. A lot of female readers, me included, won’t know what the heck Dior or Manolos look like either. It is best to describe the dress and the response it creates within Dick (he is turned on by stiletto heels), than to toss in labels a man (or woman) wouldn’t recognize.
A reader forgives a few of these. If the book is riddled with them, and he feels the need to Google, you may lose him forever to Facebook and Twitter.
You can use the shorthand references for inspiration, but you need to describe it. You can say:
Jane had on a tight, knee-length dress and uncomfortable-looking heels.
This statement reveals character more than blatant references. If a man observing a woman thinks her dress is too tight and her shoes interfere with her ability to walk, it tells you he is either sizing her up as a potential victim who can’t outrun him, or deciding that she would make a very high-maintenance girlfriend. He might like women who dress like runway models or prefer a girl who wears cargo shorts and sneakers. The way he describes Jane’s outfit tells us a lot about the way he views women.
10) Inserting descriptive shorthand can be intrusive.
The author might know all about fashion or might throw designer names in to impress or to define character. It can have the opposite effect if the reader is frustrated by not grasping the reference. When a writer inserts cultural, geographical, designer, celebrity, and product references, she assumes her readers are familiar with them. When the references are lost on the reader, he flips the page. He might waste time Googling the reference. In order to Google, he must put the book down or switch screens. This is not the kind of page turning to aim for.
When you’ve identified the intrusion, it is fairly easy to repair it. Rephrase it in a way the character would say it or do it. Writers are frequently cautioned to show not tell, though there are times when the character has to tell. It is a fine, hotly debated line and one most writers struggle with. Don’t tell us someone is sad, show us. Don’t tell us someone is angry, show us. The advice makes many writers throw darts at their manuscript.
Read through your manuscript. Have you intruded with thoughts, opinions, or descriptions from non-viewpoint characters? If so, fix them.
Are the descriptions limited to what the character can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and know about?
Have you planted false suspense? Can you change it?
Can you spot the places where you, the author, are intruding with your thoughts, opinions, and observations? Cut them or revise them to reflect the character’s lens.
Have you used cultural references as shorthand instead of describing them?
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.