Authorial intrusion

600 200 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

What is authorial intrusion?

Authorial intrusion is a form of ‘breaking the fourth wall’, sort of like an actor turning to the camera and acknowledging the viewer at home ala Oliver Hardy. In fiction, it happens when the author becomes a character in their own story and speaks directly to the reader, sometimes addressing them, for example, as ‘you’ or ‘dear reader’. It was fairly popular in Victorian literature but it’s not very common today.

What do children’s authors need to know?

Authorial intrusion was popular in children’s books in the 18th, 19th centuries when the world of children’s literature was fairly new (it’s thought The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes – a fable about virtue leading to wealth – in 1765 was the first true children’s novel) and for a long time, most children’s books were written with the purpose of instructing and preaching to young readers, hence it being common to directly address them with a moral or reminder of how to behave.

As novels started to lose their didactic approach, authors eased up on the instruction but still popped in to chat to the reader once in a while, probably feeling that children needed their hands held throughout the story in the form of reassurance and explanation from the author. Of course, today we give children much more credit and authorial intrusion is rare in middle grade and YA novels (unless the story is specifically incorporating meta elements) because it can put the author in a position of authority over the reader, as though they’re speaking down to them and and imparting their wisdom.

This passage, from Exploring Children’s Literature: Teaching the Language and Reading of Fiction by Nikki Gamble and Sally Yates, is one of the best discussions I’ve come across on the topic:

In contemporary fiction, the third person narrator is usually and does not intervene to make explicit comments or judgements on events or characters. But sometimes a narrator’s voice does intrude into the story. For instance in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories the narrator addresses the listener ‘O Best Beloved…’ This is called the transferred storyteller mode and when it is adopted we are most likely to be aware of the narrator’s presence. Writing in this mode the author adopts the persona of a guide or companion through the story, addressing the reader directly and intimately. One of the problems with authorial intrusion is that the narrator adopts a position of authority and in children’s literature this amplifies the existing unequal power relationship between adult narrator and child naratee. The narrator as an authority is is frequently in evidence in Enid Blyton’s stories. Here is an example:

All the same, it’s a good name for you, said Anne. You’re full of mystery and adventure, and your last adventure waited for us to to come and share it. I really think I’d call this adventure ‘Five Go To Mystery Moor’.

It’s a good name, Anne. We’ll call it that too!

Five Go to Mystery Moor by Enid Blyton

Further resources:

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes