by Emilee Newman Bowles
Hello, “dear reader”
As a young English Lit student, I laughed to myself when a story addressed the reader like this. It used to be common to tell the “dear reader” the moral of the story. These days it’s passé. Even if you know you should avoid speaking directly to the reader, there’s more than one way to send a reader catapulting away from your story through narrator intrusion.
Let’s be clear before we get started: we’re not talking about the intentional narrator intrusion that’s part of the voice of the story. For example, in A Series of Unfortunate Events, the narrator is a fictitious journalist who addresses the reader often. The narrator is a character in the book and invites the reader in as an active part of the storytelling. (To study some similarly interesting options, try the recent hit, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern or the masterpiece, Mama Day by Gloria Naylor, in which the town—a collective folk voice in first-person plural—is one of several first-person narrators.)
But there’s a big difference between using it as a literary device and employing it accidentally, and for the novice writer it’s better to avoid it. The fact that it’s called an “intrusion” is a good indication that it’s usually not welcome in a story. Here are a few common occurrences of narrator intrusion (that might be haunting your book) and how to fix them.
If you’re writing a novel to get a point across or teach a moral—well, don’t. Author opinions are best saved for personal essays, opinion pieces, and nonfiction. The novels that teach us best are those that tell a moving story. Let readers come to their own conclusions. Don’t stop and tell them what they should be learning from your book. If you spell out the moral of the story (even disguised as character dialogue and the like), most readers will recognize the narrative intrusion, be annoyed, and put your book down.
Also watch out for characters whose opinions exactly match your own or who get up on your soapbox. Fleshed-out characters, the ones readers think of as real people, will have unique personalities, and the reader can often sense the subtle shift when they suddenly speak in the author’s voice. Characters will have opinions and passions that are different from the author’s. They may even disagree with you!
How to fix it:
Think about the subjects you’re passionate about. What causes do you support, and what topics do you argue about over family dinners? Search your novel and take your personal opinions out of the narration. If a character has the same worldview as you, make sure it fits that character and moves the story forward.
Narrator intrusion can manifest in a few different ways with your characters:
- A character knows something about a conversation he wasn’t there for. Or anything else about the plot or other characters he just couldn’t know (given your chosen point of view).
- Characters’ words don’t fit their education, culture, or time period. Historical fiction can be particularly tricky as many of the words common to our vocabulary today haven’t been around for as long as you may think.
- A character has expert knowledge in something she shouldn’t. If you’re a botanist and your character isn’t, she shouldn’t have special knowledge of or use specialized botany terms. And if your character is a botany expert, there had better be a compelling reason for it in the story.
How to fix it:
- Look carefully at characters who are the opposite sex from you; make sure they don’t sound too much like you (either too masculine or feminine for their gender). Get a male or female reader to tell you if that character rings true to their gender.
- Read your book with your characters in mind. Do their words fit their personalities? Do they have any knowledge or quirks that don’t fit them or the story you’re telling?
- Check your dialogue. Do any characters use words that don’t match their education? Their geographic area? Their time period? Don’t direct dialogue at the reader. The dialogue should move the story forward and fit the characters.
Point of View
Remember, a first-person narrator uses “I” and refers to only one character at a time. A third-person narrator uses “he, she, and they” and doesn’t participate in the story.
The most common form of narrator intrusion here is known as head-hopping. Quite a few contemporary books tell the story from the point of view of many different characters. I love books like that, and it’s okay to do as long as there is a natural break between viewpoints. A chapter break is the best place to switch between characters, but it should at least be done at a scene change. It is confusing to walk into a scene with one character and walk out with another.
You may see rare head-hopping occurring in books that have omniscient (unlimited) narrators, but again, this is a deliberate literary device used by the pros and in particular genres it’s suited for. This is one of those tricky “don’t try this at home” tactics if you don’t know why you’re doing it and what effect you’re going for. It’s reserved for pros who know the rules well and can therefore break them. It will usually be clear from the opening lines in a book that the narrator is taking this approach—often with a bird’s-eye view of the land and people before swooping down to settle in on someone. But even then the author often keeps to one head per scene just to eliminate confusion, even when narrator commentary is more involved in the story than one normally sees.
In the published books you read, you may also see deliberate point-of-view changes when it’s an intentional device to take the story in a particular direction, such as the POV shift in the last scene of Ender’s Game, showing that the next phase of the story will be about the new character. (For more help in this area, see our article on POV to determine which is best for your type of story and your goals.)
Understanding why and when you can break this rule is crucial, so if you’re not a point-of-view pro yet, stick with one point of view per scene.
How to fix it:
Look for places where the point of view changes from one character to another. Make sure it’s at a scene change or, better yet, a chapter break. If we storm into a room with Mike, we cannot know how Sally feels about his sudden tirade. If Mike can’t read her mind, neither can the reader. However, we can observe Sally’s physical (external) reaction through Mike’s eyes: “Sally’s eyes narrowed, her jaw locking in that familiar angry way she had when she wasn’t getting her way.”
World-Building and Setting
Authors of historical fiction or any fiction that creates a new world (fantasy, sci-fi, futuristic) need to watch out for events, knowledge, worldviews, or words that don’t fit the time and place of their book. We don’t speak the same way people did a hundred years ago, and our descendants won’t speak the same as we do a hundred years from now.
If your book is set in a different time or place, you’ll need to do your research so your characters use words and phrases from their own era or world. Also, setting details should add to the story but not go on for pages on end. You want to ensure that you are not detracting from the story itself. The setting can be described in a few useful lines, or it needs to be relevant to important thought patterns, goals, and decisions a character makes. It can also be symbolic of the mood/tone of the story (foreshadowing, etc.). But most new writers go overboard describing the setting or explaining the nuance and history of their worlds—called “info dumping.” If your early readers can tell this or that scene is info dumping or setting dumping (just part of your fascination with the history/world and not part of the story), it’s time to revise.
How to fix it:
- Have a trusted reader or editor look for words, phrases, objects, etc., that are anachronistic (don’t fit the time period). This is especially important with teenage slang and other instances of dialogue that will expose inconsistencies in your world building. Find replacement words or phrases by listening to your teenage children, siblings, or other relations or friends, or by reading letters and documents of the time period you’re writing about.
- Read your scene descriptions. Do they add to the plot, or are they just beautiful imagery or interesting details you learned while researching your book? A little of that is fine. Paragraphs and paragraphs will put most readers to sleep.
- With a little practice, you’ll be able to spot and fix narrator intrusion and someday even avoid it before it happens. And that, dear reader, is a worthy goal.
To help you understand narrator intrusion better, check out these resources:
Do This Now
- Spend some time with each of your characters. Interview them, delve into their backstory, and find their unique voice. Once you know your characters, go to your manuscript and make sure their voice is clear and true to who they are. Make sure their opinions and desires are theirs, not yours.
- Self-edit for POV problems . Make sure the thoughts and opinions are from the character whose POV is telling the story (in that scene or chapter).
- Do some history reading. If your book is set even ten years ago, you’ll want to be sure you know the trends, fashions, and historical events that would shape your characters. If you’ve created a fantasy or sci-fi world, make sure your world is solidly built so that it abides by rules and is believable.
Your Turn: Can you recall some of the narrator intrusions you’ve encountered? Have we helped you eliminate any of your own? Comment and tell us your tales of woe!
Emilee Newman Bowles is currently interning (impressively so) at Eschler Editing. She is also a college English instructor, a freelance editor, and a stay-at-home mom to three children. For her undergrad she majored in reading as many books as possible (also known as English Literature) and later graduated with a master’s in writing from the Book Publishing Program at Portland State University. She blogs about books for children and young adults at www.tesseractbooks.com.