So, today’s topic actually came to me only yesterday morning whilst on my flight home. I was at 30,000 feet (or whatever cruising altitude was for that flight) and suitably armed, as is my custom, with every type of boredom-defense I can fit in my backpack that will work on an airplane. At the moment, my tool of choice was two-fold: My Zune (yes, I have a Zune, and it has endured eight years and far, far more punishment than any other MP3 player my immediate family has tried), and my kindle. Which means that yes, I was a reading, and perhaps—okay, definitely—reading with a critical eye.
Anyway, I noticed something as I read through the first few chapters. It was something that I’ve observed before in other books, but because this book actually shifted its own stance as it moved into later chapters, my attention was captured by it all the more closely. I noted the absolute lack of “it” in the early chapters, and then as the story moved on, “it” began to appear more and more, changing the tone of the book as it came. The more “it” showed up, the happier with the book I became, as, I would hazard, did the author.
What was “it?” Well, to be honest, it was something quite simple. Something very straightforward and elegant, but something that still misses entire books.
It was the character thinking.
Okay, I’ll admit that answer could be considered a bit of a cop out. Or definitely a bit vague. So I’ll clarify: I’m not talking about characters thinking and acting for themselves here. No, that wasn’t a problem: They were doing that from page one, no issues there. No, what I’m referring to is the actual words on a page being a character’s thoughts rather than the alternative.
See, in the beginning of this book, there was a lot of narrative telling. A character would look at something and then make a decision to do something … but the presentation of this process was similar to this:
Cynthia knew that she didn’t have much time. She could still remember the last time the town guard had swept through the square, picking up every urchin they could get their hands on and tossing them outside the city limits. She knew that often those who were picked up “acquired” extra bruises and black eyes they hadn’t had along the way. She could still remember what had happened to poor Danny after the guard had gotten their hands on him. She ran this all through her mind, detailing the number of times she’d seen others—friends or not—struggle to pick themselves up after being “removed,” and she came to a decision. Cynthia knew she would have to go east, towards the narrow, beaten streets of the Cruz, where the guard wasn’t as fond of venturing. She also knew that there wouldn’t be much food there, but it was a risk she’d have to take.
All right, so it was something like that. Honestly it was even a bit more tell, since my writing style and goal is usually to move away from that rather than towards while writing a narrative. Anyway, the entire first few chapters of the book were like this. If a character made a decision, if they thought about something, the narrative would simply tell you all about it. It would tell you what they were thinking, tell you want they had decided, and then, of course, tell you what they were going to do.
You get the point. There was lots of tell. So what changed?
Well, around the third chapter, the story stopped letting the narrative tell me what a character was thinking and doing and instead started letting the character themselves do it by putting the perspective more inside their head. So what was a sequence similar to what you read above instead turned into this.
Guards, Cynthia thought as she eyed the pair coming down the wide street. And they look like they’re on a mission, too. She pulled back, fading into the busy square. It must be time for the weekly urchin cleaning. Time to get out of the way. She ducked behind a stall and turned, threading her way through the crowd to the eastern side of the square. From there, she could get to the narrow streets of the Cruz, and the guards weren’t fond of going there. Too many ways to end up with “accidental” bruises.
And they’re more fond of giving them to the urchins they throw out of the city than being on the receiving end,Cynthia thought as she slipped across the edge of the square. She could still remember what they’d done to Danny after he’d been picked up. It took weeks for his ribs to feel right again. Better to take my chances going hungry in the Cruz than tangling with the guard.
Okay, not perfect (again, this isn’t from the story, merely a situational replica), but for a rough example it’ll do. The point is, the story changed. Rather than letting the narrator tell everything as it happened, including the character’s thoughts, the perspective shifted to show the reader what those thoughts actually were. And with that, each time it happened (and it did with increasing regularity as the author warmed to it) the story itself changed with it. Not just in show versus tell, but in how the impact of what was happening went with it.
Now, I didn’t write this to go into detail on Show versus Tell. I’ve already done that. No, what I wanted to do with this observation is draw your attention to how much of a difference choosing to write out character thoughts can make on your story.
Because this is something you have in your writer’s toolbox. There are plenty of books out there that opt notto let us ever peek inside the mind of the main character. In fact, it’s quite a common practice (I would like to say presumably among more “literary” works, but I’ll admit that most of those lose my interest quickly enough that I can’t say for sure). This doesn’t make it bad. There are also books that do let us read character’s thoughts, but that doesn’t make them superior except in the aspects of what a book’s style is trying to be.
And that’s why I think it’s important that we recognize this little tool inside our writer’s toolbox. I’m not going to go into perspective at this time (that’s a topic for another day), but rather advise that when you read—and as a writer you should be reading—you look at the differences in style that adding or subtracting character thoughts made. In the book I was reading the other day, the book very much started out as a narrator telling you everything, but even in the early chapters the author was trying to break free of that because that wasn’t the way they wanted to tell the story. They wanted more show, more detail. They wanted to get inside the character’s head. And so midway through the third chapter, what would have been a “tell” from the narration instead became a direct jump into an italicized bit of character “dialogue.”
And to be honest, the transition was noticeable. The tone of the book shifted. Certainly for the better, I would argue, as it made the book a lot less tell and balanced out the show versus tell scale, but the tone of the book shifted all the same. Those early chapters felt jarring, less representative of the book as a whole with each passing page. And in a genre where the first few pages can determine if your book is going to be read—or even published— that’s dangerous.
Today’s post isn’t about do or don’t, though. This is about recognition of a tool that you have in your writer’s toolbox that you may not have even recognized. The tool of giving your reader access to these thoughts.
As I said, there are books that don’t do it. Even character-based perspective books with lots of show. They simply don’t ever jump inside their characters minds. Being able to do that is a powerful tool, but one that takes care from the writer and must be used in a story where it will help rather than hinder. For example, a story that relies on being alienated or distant from its characters, or one that is being told through a narrator (either unnamed or another character themselves) isn’t going to be served well by diving into a character’s mind. Likewise, if you want to truly dive into a character’s innermost thoughts and feelings, you’d be hard-pressed to do so without voicing them. It could be done, albeit very carefully, and there are certainly reasons one could find for doing so, but you could also simply let a character’s thoughts be bare to the reader.
The important thing is that we need to acknowledge this tool for what it is and recognize when and where we want to use it. As pointed out above, it’s jarring for a story to undergo a tonal shift from narrative tell to thoughts shown. Whether the author realized partway through that they’d made the wrong choice or just grew into the characters enough to be confident of what they were doing, the truth is that it would have served their interest better to make the decision about whether or not to use the tool of character thoughtbefore they got into the story. As writers, we need to be aware of what’s in our individual toolbox, what tools we have and how skilled we are with them, and from there decide when and where to use them. Treating a character’s thoughts almost like dialogue is no different. In the hands of an author who understands their characters and has made them real, the ability to peer at their innermost thoughts can be a great tool. However, in the hands of someone not comfortable exploring or writing out thoughts (because let’s face it, thoughts are not quite someone talking to themselves), a character’s mind can come off as jarring or even off-putting (such as a creating a character whose thoughts sound quite a bit like they’re speaking at you, the reader rather than being actual thoughts).
It’s a tricky balance, and as with anything in writing, practice generally makes perfect. But if you’re going to start somewhere, acknowledgement is a good place to start. Recognize that we don’t always need a story to present a character’s thoughts like this. For example, while I do give the reader direct access to Hawke’s thoughts in the first-person story Dead Silver, I don’t for the first 3/4 of Unusual Event‘s SUPER MODEL because the protagonist is directly telling the reader what happened up until that point, and the summary needs no direct line. Like any tool, once you see it for what it is, you can make a conscious decision of when and where to place it, how to use it, and you’ll notice how other authors make use of the same tool.
And from there, you can figure out when and where it will best serve you. After all, practice makes perfect
In the end? Well, it’s your toolbox. When and how you make use of this particular tool, and what for? That’s up to you.
So good luck, and get practicing.