As a general rule, readers do not appreciate being reminded that they are reading. At some point in the experience of a story, the words drift away and your mind takes over creating the scene for you.
You become entrenched in the story. You escape wherever you are and enter this whole other realm.
Don’t you love it when that happens? Isn’t it nothing short of magic?
Until *cue record-scratch sound…
Author intrusion or narrative intrusion is basically any time the reader is tapped on the shoulder and reminded, “Hey, you’re really not on that mountain about to ski down after the bad guy. You’re reading a book that I created. Don’t forget about me!”
There is some debate about exactly what constitutes author intrusion vs narrative intrusion. In my opinion, that is not the point.
Have you ever heard anyone say, “Oh, I just adore being interrupted when I’m reading! Especially during the most intense part of the story!”
Nope? Me, either.
Introducing Mr. Green
Think of these intrusions like a little man popping up in the corner of a performance. Everything on the stage stops, the man meanders forward, proclaims some information, then wanders away and waits for his next cue. When I’m working with clients, I highlight this dude’s appearances in the color green. One of my early clients dubbed him, Mr. Green.
Sometimes Mr. Green only shows up for a sentence or two. Sometimes he comes out and tap dances his away through an entire chapter.
Mr. Green isn't alway bad (in fact he is very common and welcomed in some genres, such as literary fiction and high fantasy), but you have to severely limit his appearances in romance, suspense, paranormal, mystery* (See note).
Otherwise, he becomes a crutch and a way to dump information without putting it through the filter of the current POV character.
*Yes, some classic mystery writers such as Agatha Christie were BFFs with Mr. Green and sat around with him drinking Sherry while he smoked his pipe. That’s not quite as true anymore so it depends on your particular style.
Intrusion vs Omniscient Narrator
But wait! Mr. Green isn’t an intrusion! He’s a narrator. He’s there to help the reader with the story! They need this information RIGHT NOW.
Um, are ya sure?
Are you absolutely sure you’re not just using him to show your research or your opinion or set up the scene without having to go through a POV character? Are you really, really sure?
Consider this example:
"The day was cold and blustery. The temperatures had not been above freezing in two weeks. A thin layer of ice covered every surface, even the individual blades of grass, making travel treacherous. But Judy Bright was still going out today. She had to take soup to her friend. Marcie had been struck with the flu. Since they were roommates in college, when Marcie was sick, Judy brought her the tomato bisque soup her mother had always made when she was a little girl."
Whose POV is this?
You could argue that it’s Judy’s because she’s the first character introduced, but it could be Marcie’s, or it could be Judy’s son’s who is sitting on the kitchen counter, watching his mom make the soup.
That’s why Mr. Green (even if he is serving as an omniscient narrator) doesn’t get to play in First Person or 3rd Person Deep POV. His appearance yanks us out of the character’s head and readers don’t like that.
Of course, there are exceptions. Ms. Big Famous Author writes this way all the time!
That’s great! As I mentioned above, there are genres where this is expected. Plus Ms. BFA is already established and has the luxury of being in a position to bend the rules a little.
Most new writers aren’t in that position and use Mr. Green instead of presenting the information through the POV character’s filter which creates distance between the reader and the characters rather than drawing them closer.
What to watch for?
So how do you know when Mr. Green has crashed the party? Look for information that can’t be linked to a particular character’s POV either through dialogue or internal thoughts.
Mr. Green likes to be generic.
It was a beautiful day.
“Beautiful day” can mean very different things to different people. My “beautiful day” is sunny and warm. My daughter’s “beautiful day” involves clouds and rain. I swear she’s on the first plane to Seattle as soon as she finishes high school.
Tailor the description to the character.
James squinted in the sunshine as he stepped off his porch.
The thick, gleaming layers of snow brought a smile to Sylvie’s face.
Maddie popped open her umbrella and drew in a deep breath of her favorite scent—rain.
Mr. Green likes to tell us things instead of show.
Betty couldn’t help but be pleased when she heard the pottery she’d worked so hard on had won a first place ribbon at the Annual Celebrate Our Town Festival.
All the action on the stage stops when Mr. Green appears. He’s telling us that Betty is pleased and she worked hard and she won first place. The reader is just supposed to accept his word for it. Without Mr. Green, it could read like this.
Betty bit her lip as she clicked open the email from the festival committee. Congratulations on your First Place entry! She let out a happy squeal and clapped her hands together. All that time she’d spent painting the intricate pattern on that soup bowl had been totally worth it!
Mr. Green likes to give information the reader doesn’t need right then.
Chris stomped the mud off his boots then turned the key in the door of the home his father had built for his mother. He pushed open the large wooden door, stepped into the silence, and paused to hang his coat on the hook that he’d always neglected as a child. The study was to his left, next to the stairs that led to three identical bedrooms that shared a hall bath. His parents’ room had been at the end of that hall with their own bathroom. A few steps in front of him was the living room, beyond that a large kitchen/dining room combo with a backdoor that led to a heart-shaped pool where he and his brothers had spent their summers trying to drown one another in day-long games of Marco Polo.
Some of the above paragraph is important, like the fact he’s stepping into a silent house. But does the reader really need to know the full layout of the house right in this moment? Are they going to remember there are four bedrooms and two baths upstairs? What if the reader walked through the house with Chris instead? Saw it through his eyes and knew what touched him as important.
Think about what the character would be thinking in that moment. What is important and what can be introduced along the way? Let’s say Chris’ parents recently passed away and he’s returned home to deal with their belongings. It might read something like this:
Chris stomped the mud off his boots then turned the key to the house his father had built for his mother. He pushed open the large, wooden door and stepped into the silence. He paused with his coat hanging over the hook he’d always neglected as a child. His mother wouldn’t be scolding him for letting it drop on the floor. His father wouldn’t rise from his desk in the study to welcome him home.
What if Chris’ parents have a history of domestic violence? Their neighbor called last night and told him they were fighting again, but neither one will answer their phones this morning so he’s taking his lunch break to check on them. How would he move through the house then? What would he notice?
What if he is a police officer and has been called to the home of a childhood friend who is armed? Then the layout of the house could be important, but how would that character process it versus a different character?
Use your character’s filter and keep Mr. Green where he belongs…backstage in the green room! (See what I did there?)
For more information about how to avoid Mr. Green, check out these posts:
For a different opinion, consider this post by C.S. Larkin 5 Reasons To Consider Using an Omniscient Narrator BUT be sure you read the comments!