Staying Out of the Story

PhotobucketI believe that our stories belong to the characters we create. For that reason, an entire work of fiction can be ruined for me when I hear the voice of the writer on the page. I’m not talking about our classic definition of voice, the one we are trying to discover and develop as writers. What I’m talking about is when the flow of a story is interrupted every so often by a writer who just can’t seem to stay out of things. If I am lucky enough to be immersed in the world the writer has created, this pulls me right out of it. The flow stops. The characters disappear. I am left standing face to face with the writer’s ego, which is not a place I want to be.

Obviously this is a mistake.  As writers, we never intend to interrupt the flow of our stories, but sometimes it just happens.

I think this is most likely to happen where there has been a great deal of research involved in creating a story. I’m pretty sure I’ve been guilty of it. I write books set in current times, but they always include quite a bit of imbedded history as well as medical and psychological data. My research takes up a high percentage of my total writing time. I always end up with more information than I can use, and I know that, on at least one occasion, I have slipped some of that information into a chapter where it clearly didn’t belong. It wasn’t an urge to take credit for the piece or even to tell you how much I know. My intentions were honorable. It’s just that I had fallen in love with my own research and wanted to share some of the data. The information didn’t fit any character, and it didn’t further the plot. It simply didn’t belong in my story.

While we may have some wonderful information, sometimes we do ourselves a disservice to include it. Nothing slows down a story faster than pedantic rambling. It’s boring. It’s frustrating. I think it’s better to save these bits of trivia for our book tours where we are encouraged to elaborate, and, even there, they should be kept to a minimum.

Though the aforementioned is disconcerting, I become even more frustrated when a writer inserts his opinions into the story. I find it difficult to forgive. While there is nothing wrong with creating a character with opinions that reflect our own, it is very hard to do and, in most cases, should be avoided. Why? It’s always difficult to see ourselves objectively. To assume that we’ve created a character with similar views almost always fails. The character seems flat and dishonest.

If we want to espouse our opinions, I don’t think we should be writing fiction.

Strangely enough, readers of fiction often believe that we are writing from experience, and that any opinions expressed by characters or experiences they have reflect our own. I’m not sure why this happens. That’s a post for another day. I spend a great deal of time telling people that no, I didn’t undergo electroshock therapy, I wasn’t the victim of sexual abuse, and I’m not in a religious cult. Some story elements do come from personal experience, of course, but for the most part they are fiction. The opinions expressed in my novels belong to the fictional characters I create. Sometimes I am violently opposed to their beliefs, but I have to resist the urge to step in to let my readers know this. Who cares what the writer thinks? The story belongs to our characters.  If we’re not comfortable with their beliefs and actions, we should scrap the story altogether and write something else.

So there you have it, my strong opinion about why we should never express our strong opinions. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. What stops the flow of fiction for you? Do you ever have a hard time staying out of the stories you write?

Public domain photo, “Job Lot Cheap,” by William Michael Harnett (1848-1892).

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About Brunonia Barry

Brunonia Barry studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain college in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire, and was one of the founding members of the Portland Stage Company. She's the first American Writer to win the Woman’s International Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award. Her first novel, The Lace Reader, a New York Times and international bestseller, was translated into more than 30 languages. Her second novel, The Map of True Places released in May, 2010.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for the post. Knowing when to hold back is a problem I have in my stories sometimes. I do so much research and make up so many back stories for characters that I tend to want to include it all. That doesn’t always add to the story though. That’s why when I revise I usually end up losing a lot of my word count.

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    • says

      Lovelyn,

      Backstories are a huge problem for me, even more than research data. I fall in love with backstories. It’s hard to cut them down.

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  2. says

    I just deleted some historical info from my wip the other day. Info that had no right being in that chapter. I just thought it was cool information.

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  3. says

    First: I think it’s very brave to admit that you may have made this misstep at some point in your writing. In general I respect and admire when people are willing to own up to their own mistakes. Even more so when they learn from them and try to help others do the same.

    Second: I agree that research and/or preaching pull me out of a story. There’s little worse than being taken out of a moment so that someone can make a point.

    Third: I don’t, however, agree with this:

    “If we want to espouse our opinions, I don’t think we should be writing fiction.”

    I think fiction does need to have a purpose, a theme. And it’s very likely going to be in-line with what the author thinks. The best writers, though, can hide that. Or, even better, the best writers don’t know WHAT exactly to think. Maybe they started on one side of the fence, then saw the other side, and now they’re in the middle. That, to me, is what good fiction does. It makes you think, question, reevaluate your position. Good stories have characters that oppose each other’s views, and thus give the readers twice as much to think about.

    Jodi Picoult’s books (at least the 3-4 that I’ve read) are a good example of this. She never presents a clear-cut conclusion. There are always powerful issues with many nuances, and she shows you all the facets with (mostly) equal sympathy. I love that.

    Anyway, that was a LONG comment, lol, sorry. Just goes to show how much YOUR post gave me to think about!!

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  4. says

    Kristan,

    Well put. I, too, love it when a writer sees both sides. I also love tackling the most difficult subjects. Thinking, questioning and evaluating are the reasons I love reading fiction. So it should definitely have a purpose. What I don’t like is when a fiction writer writes a book only to convince the reader of something. That seems more like propaganda than fiction. In my opinion, the best fiction does exactly what you are describing.

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  5. says

    Great, great post, and I SO agree with you! Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than feeling like the author has suddenly hopped up on a platform to preach at me instead of letting me get lost in the story.

    I think some famous author (can’t remember who!) said in answer to a question about the ‘message’ of his books, “If I wanted to convey a message, I’d rent a billboard.”

    That said, I write historical fiction and so obviously do piles of research–and yes, it’s definitely a hard pill to swallow that 90% of it will never make it into my story. You know of course that you have to avoid the “I’ve done the research and now you’re going to pay” mindset. But there’s a part of me always that’s clamoring Wait! Wait! Let me tell you how they preserved turnips during the Dark Ages! It’s interesting–really! ;-)

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  6. says

    I definitely try to stay out of the story. Some authors are extremely talented at being able to impart information while remaining in the character’s voice — Michael Connelly comes to mind. Although, if you reflect on what Harry Bosch is thinking, it’s probably NOT what he’s thinking when it comes to describing the ins and outs of the Parker Center. But if the reader doesn’t get pulled out of the story, it’s a good thing.

    I’ve read a bunch of cozy mysteries recently, and they seem to be full of “teaching the reader” stuff, which I presume is the intent. Again, it really has to sound like the character.

    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

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  7. says

    I’ve noticed that the thing that pulls me out is when I get too much exposition, especially when it’s humorous observation. The worst part is, I’ve been guilty of this! I now have to consciously edit for “stand up syndrome”… when I’m being funny just to be funny, rather than letting it grow naturally and keeping the overall pace of a scene in mind. In the first draft it’s fun. In the final draft, it’s indulgent! :)

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  8. says

    Good post, Brunonia! I have to say that parentheticals pull me right out of the story – except when the story is done in the voice of a bouncy, 12-year-old girl. I don’t mind research and backstory, although I admit to skimming once in a while. But parentheticals, to me, is the writer telling me what to REALLY think, and I’d rather think for myself.

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  9. thea says

    When I start talking back to the book, that’s when I know something knocked me out of the story. One example that I obviously have not forgotten (although I finished the book) was Dan Brown’s (see i can’t remember the name of the book – it only sold a billion copies and was made into a movie with Tom Hanks lol) but Dan would have his professor character preface an info dump with “Everybody knows…” and then we get a lot of arcane information on say, the Knights Templars. And I would respond back to the book, “Gee, no, not everyone knows that, Doc!” If you’re going to tuck some choice tidbit of historically interesting stuff, it has to be done well. That said, I too can fall in love with a good backstory. And that’s the reason I enjoyed Dan Brown’s book, despite it’s flaws.

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    • says

      Thea,

      I know. When a writer starts with “Everybody knows…,” it always makes me feel terrible if it’s something I didn’t know. That said, I enjoyed that book as well.

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  10. says

    In the theater, the set has three walls. The fourth wall is the imaginary wall between the set and the audience. The audience sees the play through this invisible wall. The actors pretend not to see the audience, and the audience pretends the characters on stage can’t see the crowd in the theater.
    To break the fourth wall means that the character acknowledges the audience or the reader. In essence, the character winks at the reader.
    Breaking the fourth wall can be a deliberate nod to the fact that the book has an author, that the reader is not living the story, but is reading something produced by a writer. Here is Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, winking at the audience: “As it would be, by no means, seemly in a humble author to keep so mighty a personage as a beadle waiting, with his back to the fire, and the skirts of his coat gathered up under his arms, until such time as it might suit his pleasure to relieve him, . . .”
    But for me the most irksome breach of the fourth wall–the intrusion by an author–is when the writing gets too precious, too writerly. When I read “gaping maw” instead of “mouth,” or “furious dabs of tulips stuttering,” I feel like the writer is in the room banging my head with a frying pan.

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    • says

      James,

      Love the fourth wall metaphor.

      I hate precious writing too. I recently heard the word “maw” in a poem, though, and it seemed to work, but I think it was because the poet called attention to the word by isolating it.

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  11. says

    This is such a thought-provoking post! On the one hand, I think we sometimes can’t help but put pieces of ourselves in our fiction—if not ourselves, then quirks from people we’ve met, who inspire a character, or bits of memories that serve as a starting point, but then get twisted and played with.

    But I think that’s different from the “voice” you mention. There’s one part of the writer’s voice that adds truth to the fiction, and then there’s another part that’s too self-aware, and that can pull readers out. I agree that we have to be very careful not to cross from one voice to the other.

    Thanks for a great discussion :)

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  12. says

    Great points to ponder!

    I get turned off when I start to think the author is trying to cram his or her political viewpoint down my throat, either through the pontificating of a character, or through implication within the narrative tone.

    Even if I *agree* with that viewpoint, it still annoys me. Tell me a story, don’t try to convert me.

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  13. says

    Writing in third-person POV does tend to make the authorly intrusions more apparent. Ever read Hugo’s “Les Mesirable”? How does a 3-page essay on the sewers of Paris or the street urchins found therein sound now-a-days? That’s the author jumping in.

    I read all of Ayn Rand’s stuff in my youth. Yep, there were multiple-page speeches about several subjects. Interesting and valuable, but (at least to me) now should be reference material, not part of the fiction.

    In first-person POV, intrusion might be a bit more subtle, but we can sense it even then. When the character starts off on a 20-paragraph (all quoted as dialog) on the evils of the xxxx (insert a favorite subject), that’s the author jumping in, not the character.

    Go write something great — without yakking endlessly about the joys of collecting Cabbage Patch dolls.

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    • says

      I think you’re right, Bruce, that this might be less obvious in the first person. I think it was once more fashionable. I’m thinking of Hawthorne and Melville. They both seemed to do quite a bit of it.

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  14. says

    I’ve had the same issue with trying to insert my research into a story. I write a lot of science fiction and for my last attempted manuscript, I did so much research on extrasolar planet detection and supernovas and interstellar travel, and some of the characters were scientists working in those fields, but it stopped the story cold if they began giving lengthy lectures, especially since they were supposed to come at exciting points in the plot.

    Preaching about anything often stops the story cold as well, whether it be politics, religion, or a personal issue or cause. It doesn’t matter whether I agree or not; it’s just when it’s really heavy-handed and nothing else is happening that it gets annoying. I do think characters can come to a realization and give a little bit of a monologue about something and it *can* be done well, but some delicacy is required and it’s easy to mess up.

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  15. says

    Excellent post!! I can’t even count the number of times I tried to read a book, but put it down and never touched it again because I couldn’t stand the way the author told the story – or tried.

    But, like you said, from an author’s standpoint, it’s very true that we often don’t realize what we’re doing too. It’s too easy to get carried away talking about stuff that no one else really cares about!

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  16. says

    Yeah, I’ve found myself being pulled out of the story by too much detailed descriptive research. I like it when an author uses period people, things, fashions, news events to imprint the setting/era; but I’m rarely interested in the historical research.

    Not that I haven’t been guilty of this Author Intrusion myself; but that’s what a crit partner is for; a second pair of eyes/intuition.

    ……..dhole

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  17. says

    Thank you, Brunonia, for lending your thoughts to us. I enjoy your work immensely.

    One thing that yanks me from experiencing a story is when a character blurts out knowledge that they cannot possibly have. As you said, when a piece of information doesn’t fit a character, but it is still forced on them by the author. But I think this problem, and the information dumps and author mantras and views can be wholly avoided if we just write true. Whatever is honest. When we write, if we listen to the story and write that instead of imposing what we want onto it.

    Thank you!

    Jennifer

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  18. says

    Food for thought! As a fantasy writer, sometimes I think we can over tell on our “research” into our imaginary worlds. It drives me crazy in fantasy worlds when authors try too hard. I mean sticking in some random, made up word or weird creature or colloquialism every two sentences. Your world should feel natural to your characters, so it can feel natural to your writers. Overdoing it is always obvious!

    Hopefully I do not do this. :)
    Thanks for the great post!

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  19. says

    What I enjoyed most about this, Brunonia, was your comment that you often are radically opposed to a character’s views but you write them anyway. I never thought about that before and it’s definitely grist for my mental mill. I’ve never introduced a character whose thinking is the opposite of mine but now I will!

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  20. says

    This post was brilliant. I have seen this one a couple of occasions. One of the more recent ones was in Warbreaker. There were a few anti-religious notions in there that came across as being out of place. And as you did state, it flattened what was happening and I came out of the world.

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  21. says

    “Sometimes I am violently opposed to their beliefs, but I have to resist the urge to step in to let my readers know this. Who cares what the writer thinks? The story belongs to our characters.”

    I totally agree!

    There is a huge debate in YA literature (which I write) about the author’s “responsiblity” to “teach” their readers the “right” way to act. The prime example given is Twilight’s Bella Swan, her willingness to be the damsel in distress, and how we would do our readers a better service if we portrayed our female characters as strong and independent (ala The Hunger Games’ Katniss).

    I love Katniss’s strength, but I’m not a fan of the role-models argument–mainly because the argument that naturally follows is that ALL our YA characters have to be role models, and there goes all the smoking, drinking, thieving, sexting characters that we love so much.

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  22. says

    Great post! It’s one of the main problems I notice when critiquing others in my writing group. It’s so hard to explain in your comments, too. Once we had a writer who was very fit and athletic. Her novels always had overweight people described in a disparaging way.

    I’ve also noticed it when I go back to old favorite novels I loved when I was young. Robert Heinlein comes to mind. Recently I tried to reread “Stranger in a strange land” and found I could no longer roll on past the intrusive message.

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  23. says

    This post really hit home for me! I tend to do a lot of research as well, and often get caught up in the details. My antagonist’s back story takes place in Louisiana, on the Cane River, and the chapter devoted to him and what actually happened to set him on such a terrible path is FOURTEEN pages long. No idea about the word count, but I’m sure it’s high. I’ve got to cut a lot of it, but I was so caught up in setting the scene in an old plantation, and giving the background on that area … way too much that’s fascinating to me but not really relevant to the plot.

    It’s good to know I’m not the only one with this issue!

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  24. says

    I’ve written a few posts about the subjects you bring up. I won’t bore you with a re-posting but I will try to highlight the salient points:

    1. Character’s Voice vs. Author’s Voice: Very tricky to tell them apart, specially in 1st person. I for one identify strongly with my MCs and therefore inject a lot of myself into them. That may cross the line into Mary Sue/Marty Stu territory, but that’s just the way it is with me.

    2. Bias in writing: You carry your bias with you where ever you go. And it is a folly to believe that you can write ANYTHING (fiction/non-fiction) without it. The best we can do is acknowledge it and go from there.

    3. Info Dumping: Now that is something that requires a fine balancing act. Too much, it pulls the reader out (unless they are into that kind of thing, which happens) too little and the reader gets lost without understanding what happened, why or where it came from.

    Those are just my opinions.

    Great post and great blog! :D

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