Authorial Intrusion

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What is authorial intrusion?

Authorial intrusion is a literary technique authors may use to communicate directly with their reader, speaking to them as themselves rather than through the guise of a character’s dialogue to comment on the story (perhaps to give their opinion on the events of the novel or to hint at what’s to come). It’s 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, and was much more popular in Victorian literature than it is today.


What do children’s authors need to know?

Authorial intrusion was popular in children’s books in the 18th and 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 as though children needed a little extra reassurance and explanation. Today we give children much more credit and it’s rare for authors to talk down or explicitly moralise to their younger readers. Authorial intrusion is no longer the norm 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 imparting their wisdom.

Narrator as authority

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 unintrusive 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 frequently in evidence in Enid Blyton’s stories.

They cite the following extract from Blyton’s Five Go To Mystery Moor as an example of her intrusion:

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!

Remember this is just a book!

Another risk of authorial intrusion is that it pulls the reader out of the story and breaks the immersion, reminding them they’re reading a book rather than living in this story world with your characters. There’s absolutely no rule that says you can’t use the device in middle grade or YA but consider what effect you’re aiming to achieve.

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