Now that kind of very direct step-in fell out of favour in the 19th century, and rightly so. It would be like watching a movie where now and then the video stops and the director butts in with some unsolicited commentary. It breaks that immersive hold an otherwise good story should have. If you see any book penned in the 21st century doing this, I strongly suggest you snap that book shut straight away.
No, while that kind of intrusion has all but disappeared, a more deceptive type of intrusion seems to have taken its place: where the author’s own personal opinions and thoughts are so obvious to the reader that it is just as intrusive and illusion-breaking as just outright addressing the reader.
Let me give you an example: in my most recent Showcase I talked about the terrible Seven Ancient Wonders by Matthew Reilly. One of his prime failings in terms of pure writing craft is how his action is so void of weight and genuine peril that, rather than addressing this problem within the narrative, throws all of his energy into style of the narrative itself: using fully capitalised sentences, overuse of exclamation marks, and the infamous diagrams of rooms to ‘help’ the reader visualize the setting. Through this, Reilly’s penning hand becomes all too blatant: he wants you, dear reader, to know just how intense, exciting and action packed these scenes are.
But that’s the problem. Because Reilly puts his energy into making his own wishes of what he wants the reader to feel clear, you as the reader don’t end up actually feeling the way he wants you, but you just end up with a very clear vision of an author scrambling to manipulate your emotions. And we, like normal rational human beings, despise having our emotions manipulated overtly. It’s the writing equivalent of the aggressive charity hawks on high streets who will try desperately to corner you and ask you loaded questions like “Are you interested in helping the blind?”
Wait a moment, you might be thinking, well how do I get my point across to the reader, then? I want my book to have a certain message, so how do I make that clear without being intrusive?
Well, let me be blunt here: dear writer, not a single reader cares what you think. I’m sorry, but it’s true. If you want readers to listen directly to your voice and share your thoughts and opinions on things, then get into journalism or make a blog. But as a fiction writer, your creation takes front and center stage. You as the writer shouldn’t even make an appearance: you are working backstage to keep things moving. Your only moments where you can indulge your own presence are on the front cover (ie. Your actual name), perhaps a short 100-word bio in the front sleeve, and a special thanks. In the story itself, you should be omnipresent and ambivalent.
Now, to this you could argue that there are great many books out therewhere the author’s intentions were clear. Who here was left in any doubt out Phillip Pullman’s atheism after reading the His Dark Materials trilogy? But if you were to reread any of those books, you will notice that the author never pushed the plot aside Reilly-style and said “this is how I want you to feel”. Get their point across via a character who is a vessel for experiencing whatever the narrator wishes the reader to also experience. In Northern Lights, aka The Golden Compass, Pullman has Lyla experience the dogmatism of religion and belief through her own adventures to the deep north. However, it is done with a lightness of touch: if the reader chooses to just ignore the messages, they can easily do so and simply enjoy the adventure.
Wall-E is also a great example of this. You may recall there being a big debate about whether the movie had an environmental agenda. But both sides of the argument were right there: the messages at no point are forced upon the viewer, because that would be breaking beyond the motivations of the characters and would be exposing the author’s own opinions. Again, it was a case of ‘take it or leave it’: if you wish to glean such messages then you will find a dark movie that poses some pretty dark questions. If not, then you will find a delightful story of two robots falling in love. However, director Andrew Stanton is very careful in making sure that the budding romance between Wall-E and Eve stays central to the story, while everything else revolves around it: after all, it is always story first, messages second.
So, my dear writer, while nobody may care what you think, if you’ve done your job right then they will fall in love with your characters and care about their thoughts. But again, be weary of intruding too much into the story with your own opinions: you are of the real world, and to step in either directly or to put your weight into the style of narration to overtly manipulate emotions from the reader is to break that illusion of the fictional world you have created.