Friday, September 18, 2015

Suspension of Disbelief: Author Intrusion

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Note: This is a three part series. Click for parts two and three.

When I was in junior high and high school (read: when I was your age), I was on a creative arts team called DMV. The acronym stood for Dynamic Mighty Voices, which I've always found funny considering the ONE thing we did NOT do was sing. We did skits and dances; we did mime; but mostly, we were puppeteers. In fact, we were award-winning puppeteers.

Oh, yes. It's a thing. There are gold medals around here somewhere.

And as circus-freaky as the whole thing sounds, those years were really the foundation for my storytelling experience. Among the many, many things I learned was this:


As a writer, we read craft book after craft book and we trip over the phrase "suspension of disbelief." It sounds so big and fancy. It sounds complex, but I assure you, it's the most natural thing in the world. In fact, it's instinctual. The reader wants to set aside their preconceived notions. They want to believe.

When you go to the theatre, you do so with the expectation that you will be entertained. And we humans are simple folk. Nine times out of ten, we're willing to set aside implausibility for the privilege of hearing a really good story.

Regardless of the medium, we choose to believe all sorts of things presented to us that simply aren't true. We're willing to believe that crime labs can return results lickity split, that our heroine's makeup will be unaltered after a swim in the ocean, that Edward Cullen's persistent five o'clock shadow is not a sign of aging, that a pair of glasses can hide Clark Kent's real identity, that the only way Prince Charming could possibly identify his soulmate is by her shoe size.

None of these things are easy to swallow when we line them up and load our gun with skepticism. It's easy to take shots at plot points when they're taken out of context and crammed next to one another before the firing squad. But when the desire for a really good tale collides with compelling elements like voice and plot and world building, audiences are willing to let reality slide a bit. They are willing to suspend their disbelief.

That said, sometimes we, as storytellers, can get ahead of ourselves. While the suspension of disbelief is an expected response from a reader, we cannot afford to push this tendency to the breaking point. Like I said before, the reader WANTS to believe you. Over the next few Fridays, I'll zero in on ways you can screw that up.

Let's start with author intrusion.

Author intrusion is when the author projects him or herself into the story. Let's be clear, you will bleed into every character you write (that's okay), but--most of the time--you, the author, are not welcome in your fictional world. You cannot expect your reader to believe the characters you are writing about are real if you keep reminding them that someone, somewhere made up this story. The very existence of you, the author, is a distraction.

Back to the whole puppeteer thing. One of the things we were NOT ALLOWED to do when we were performing was wander around with a puppet on our arm. It was forbidden. And for good reason. How can I expect a six year old to believe that my fuzzy blue puppet has a life and world and legs (!) if I'm wandering around the auditorium before the show with his half body on my arm? I can't, right? Even a six year old has limits. He wants to believe in that fuzzy blue puppet. He wants to watch the story unfold. He does not want to think of me every time that puppet pops its head above the curtain.

You know what a six year old will overlook? The rods that move the puppet's arms. That's a reasonable thing for his mind to ignore. But me, the puppeteer, blatantly disrespecting his desire to pretend the puppet is alive? That's too much. That's inexcusable.  

In writing, there are obvious intrusions, like when the author addresses the reader directly. "Dear reader . . . " or "I tell you this reader so that you will understand . . ." These types of sentences are very common in classical literature (CS Lewis, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen) but in modern fiction, they are generally frowned upon and considered intrusive.

A writer doesn't have to be so obvious to be intrusive though. He can insert his own political views or biases in such a way that feels awkward in the tale. He can reveal things to the reader that the point of view character couldn't possibly know. He can describe a setting he's over-researched using words that would be unnatural to the narrator. These types of intrusions aren't always noticed for what they are on first read, but often the reader will begin to disconnect from the story. They'll start to doubt the reality they were once so willing to dive into. They'll feel cheated their escapism and they'll close the book.

What a sad way to lose a reader, jumping in where you don't belong. These are just a few of the many, many ways for an author to tromp all over her own tale. Resist the urge. Be disciplined.

Now. I do have a minor confession. This is one of those rules that a skilled and very intentional writer can break to great success. I know, I know. I just told you not to intrude into your own stories, and I stand by that advice. That said, author intrusion (though controversial) can also be a tool in the author's toolbox and there may come a time when you decide "to heck with the rules" and you give it a go.

But the honest to God truth is this, rules are best broken only after they've been mastered. Oftentimes young or inexperienced writers stumble into their own stories--intruding in the most unwelcome manner--and this, primarily, is what we need to avoid.

Next week we'll continue on with this topic by discussing how the rules of your fictional world can help the reader let go of the rules of their current reality. That was a mouthful, wasn't it? I promise to be more clear next week.

Tell me, what pulls you out of a story? Can you pinpoint the writing that caused you to stumble? Can you think of an example where author intrusion was used to great success?

*Totally unrelated, but if you've been wanting to read my books, now is a good time to give them a try.
Angel Eyes is on sale for $1.99!

http://www.amazon.com/Angel-Eyes-Novel-Book-ebook/dp/B0078FA91U/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1442516506&sr=8-1

24 comments:

  1. I've noticed that Tolkien addresses the reader often in his writing. But it sounds natural because it's like he's telling the reader about something that happened long ago. And, like you said, author intrusion is common in the classics, so the people reading these stories when they first came out wouldn't have found it strange.

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    1. Tolkien is a genius. He can do whatever he wants. ;)

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    2. That's funny, Linea, because, in my latest re-read of LOTR, I kept noticing how FEW rules he broke - like pretty much zero fragments and run on sentences (which is my kryptonite!). His writing is so clean and perfect and beautiful. Genius' make me so jealous *sigh*

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  2. One place author intrusion works very well: humorous writing. The Hero's Guidebooks are a pretty good example of this. Or any story where the author/narrator/etc. is literally a character in the story.
    What usually draws me out of a book is not so much author-intrusion as it is things that just don't make sense in my mind.

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    1. You bring up a fabulous point. The voice and tone of the writing matters immensely. Honestly, this might be the most important element in deciding whether or not to give the whole author intrusion thing a go.

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  3. Oh, yes, this irritates me a LOT. I would rather be a part of the story than feel like an outsider. However, I have read some exceptions -- Lemony Snicket makes himself a character in his own books and writes it that way, and it's absolutely brilliant and fits the feeling of the story rather than making you feel outside of the story.

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    1. Lemony Snicket is a great example of modern literature that does this well. In fact, it's listed in nearly every online article I could find endorsing author intrusion.

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  4. There was some weird author intrusion in Les Miserables, which I could never get my mind about... I realize it's a classic, but it baffled me how he did that. XD

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    1. The author intrusion in Les Miserables was a bit too much, I agree. Victor Hugo has a tendency to go off on long tangents (like 'here's my opinion about convents' or 'here's an account of the time I visited some places that were significant in the Battle of Waterloo') which only slightly related to the story. Then again, as this post mentioned, that kind of intrusion is common in classic novels.

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    2. Oh yes. Well, Les Mis is it's own kind of monster. It's a favorite of mine for so many reasons and it sort of serves as a little history lesson as well. But, I agree, I don't think his brand of fiction would fly today.

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    3. He interjected himself into the fiction part of the story a couple times it seemed like, too, in addition to the historical places that were significant or his own thoughts. It was the sort of the thing that made me stop and scratch my head like "how does that even work, I thought these characters were fiction?!" But! I'm still congratulating myself for having read Les Mis this year. ;) I liked it!

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  5. This is a great post! Thank you Mrs. Dittemore.
    I loved the puppeteer analogy. I can totally relate because I'm a puppeteer at my local church. It is so cool to find that you are one too. (You are way better than me though, winning gold medals. :D)

    I agree with what Linea said about Tolkien. I don't mind other in some books, if it is done well, but I don't want it in mine. especially since I'm not experienced enough to do it well. :)

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    1. High five to all the church puppeteers out there. It's a noble art form! ;)

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  6. I get pulled out of stories when something doesn't fit the storyworld. I read a book where these teen girls went into a fantasy world that was very much medieval, and there was a pizza place there. They explained that people from earth brought pizza over, but its still pulled me out of the book. I felt like they needed more of that sort of thing from the start to make the pizza believable. The fact that the fantasy world felt so authentically medieval for many pages before the pizza felt like a mistake. (I know, I take these things WAY too seriously... LOL)

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    1. Lol! You bring up a REALLY good point. The thing that knocks me out of a story most is when something happens totally out of context. Something so out of tune with the story with so little actual connection between everything you've learned so far. It feels like the story is stabbing you in the back.

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    2. I totally agree that something like that could be so annoying, but I like things like that for humorous purposes. Also, the Grimm Series by Adam Gidwitch--there's a ton of author intrusion in there, but it's part of the story, because he's supposed to be telling it. I like those books, and the author intrusion makes it fun.

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    3. I guess I wasn't clear. You can have pizzas in the medieval world as long as it fits in with the tone and humor the book has shown already. For example, one of my classmates in Lit wrote a paper about a giant death slug who was killed by a bag of jolly ranchers. This is wild, but alright since they introduced the jolly ranchers at the beginning of the story along with the humorous tone. However, if they had just had the giant death slug murdering people left and right, and then without warning at the end pulled out a random bag of jolly ranchers, bad story. Even with foreshadowing, if you contradict the overall tone of the story, your reader will want to throw the book out the window.

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    4. Oh yes! Agreed. It makes you question the tone and intention of the story when things feel (fairly or not) disjointed.

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  7. One of the main things that pull me out of stories is when an author will give a historical character a modern day mindset, whether with politics, religion, or mostly feminism. Its just so irritating when in a society that would have accepted arranged marriages as the thing, you have the main character yearn for "true love" or have all the girls just ache to wear pants. Or stuff like that :D

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    1. Oooo. Interesting. I do agree here. Stuff like this must be handled well. Author Tasha Alexander has written a bit about trying to keep this type of thing in perfect tension. Good point.

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  8. One thing that bothers me is when medieval fantasy characters use modern words, "okay" being a common one. It pulls me out of the story for a second. Dialogue is so important when it comes to believability!

    @Jill Williamson: Oh, I just read that book! The pizza thing did throw me a little, too, as well as some vagueness concerning how much modern knowledge the fantasy world characters had... They seemed perfectly aware of some modern stuff, and clueless about others, and I didn't quite figure out how that worked. :/ Other than that (and a tad more steaminess than I expected), a fun read!

    @Keturah Lamb: That is a great point. Authors seem to insert modern ideas into historical characters' heads, and that just doesn't fit sometimes.

    Anyway, great post, Ms. Dittemore! Looking forward to more on this series. :)

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    1. Fabulous point, friend. Dialogue can squash an entire book for me.

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  9. I was glad to see that one paragraph where you mentioned those authors whose books have become classics, doing exactly what you are saying not to do. Actually, it was your post about Little Women that got me thinking about this, because she breaks quite a few rules herself... and yet, LW is one of my all time favorites. My point is that I find it kind of ironic that the books that are still bestsellers so many years after the author has died are the ones that were written before the "rules" were created - and therefore, they broke all of them.

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    1. It's absolutely true. The RULES that we work so hard to master nowadays come--partially--from picking apart classic works. The passing of time and current trends also play a GIGANTIC role. And again, it is perfectly okay to break rules but it's important to do it consciously. Master the rule first so that when you break it, you do it well.

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