61. Safeguarding Your Fiction from Author Intrusions

Author: Nola Published: 4 months ago.
Tags: POV, point of view, author intrusions, head hopping, information dumps, language Category: Writing tips

Bestselling author Bonny Bee (not her real name) wrote a series of books I love. In one of her recent novels, however, her protagonist was an author who’d written those same books. The first time it popped up, I thought it was cute. By the third or fourth time a character mentioned how great those books were, I was annoyed. I’m sorry, Bonnie Bee, but that’s just shameless self-promotion that took me right out of your story. It was author intrusion at its worst.

Author intrusions occur when writers put something of themselves in their fiction that disrupts the reading experience. Whether these are blatant, like the example above, or more subtle slips, they have the power to jar the reader and disrupt the flow of the story. Jodie Renner describes it as ‘butting in’ (see her book Captivate your Readers). Remember the annoying partygoer who keeps interrupting you with their own comments when you’re trying to tell a story? You don’t want to be that person in your novel.

Does that mean authors can never put themselves into their fiction? No, but it depends how you do it. If you’re writing in omniscient point of view, you can know things the characters don’t know and you can even commentate or offer funny asides. (See my earlier post on omniscient POV.) You can also inject characters with some of your own habits and ideas, as long as those qualities fit with their motivations and the plot. However, this needs to be seamless. If it’s not, you may have a problem with one or more of the following author intrusions.

  1. Addressing the reader directly – Just because Jane Eyre said, ‘Reader, I married him,’ it doesn’t mean you should. Those types of expressions have long been out of fashion.

  2. Putting a character on your soapbox – You might be passionate about environmental issues, but if your hero starts spouting forth about global warming, it had better be because it’s essential to the plot (e.g. he’s a lawyer about to bring down a multinational corporation for environmental abuses).

  3. Giving information the POV character can’t know – This overlaps with some of the head-hopping examples I gave in last week’s post. You might know that the yacht in the harbour is 23.68 metres in length and has a fuel capacity of 9000 litres, but unless your heroine is the owner, shipbuilder, or an Olympic yachting champion, she won’t know that. Also watch for subtle forays into the author’s world. You might know that Murray will live to regret his decision to dump Veronica, but he’s not aware of that yet. If you need to get across information the character doesn’t know, use other methods such as dialogue or documents.

  4. Overloading the researchBeth Hill and Jodie Renner both warn against adding interesting titbits of information that don’t fit with the character or story. Just because you’ve read fifty books on the music industry for your novel about an aging rocker, it doesn’t mean you have to mention how the BBC banned the Beatles’ song I Am the Walrus for including the word ‘knickers’. Check your novel for flowery descriptions or information dumps, and prune anything unnecessary for the story, no matter how fascinating you think it is.

  5. Overlooking language anomalies – This includes terms or expressions that don’t fit the time, location or traits of your characters. For example, having your 1850s hero tell a woman her dress is ‘fully sick’ or having your American character open the boot of the car rather than the trunk. Find an expert who knows the era or location. Check letters, diaries, court reports and other documents of the time. You can also find out about the origins of certain phrases by combining them with ‘origins’ or ‘etymology’ in an internet search.

As Beth Hill notes, ‘your personality, your skills—your heart and hands and mind—will be all over your writing projects. Just don’t let the reader see evidence of your touch’.

What’s the worst author intrusion you’ve seen in a novel? I’d love to hear your examples.

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