Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Interior Thoughts Are Like Signposts For The Reader

One of the most common complaints I get from my critique partners is that they don’t know what my character is feeling. And the reason is all too obvious. I skimp on my character’s interior thoughts. Why? Because when I write, I assume the reader should be able to figure out what the character is feeling based on everything that’s happening around him. Shouldn’t that be enough?

No, because the reader doesn’t know the character as well as the writer does and because there’s rarely only one way in which a character might respond to an event. Is the character embarrassed when someone laughs at him, or does he become angry? Or defensive? Or confused? Without interior thoughts to help guide them, the reader may end up assuming a completely different emotion from what the writer intended. And based on comments by my CPs, that happens to me a lot.

Even if the reader guesses the right emotion, you’re still not making your story the best it can be if you skimp on interior thoughts. You want the reader to be emotionally invested in the story, and the best way to do that is to let them experience the character’s emotions right along with them. And that’s not happening if you don’t include the character’s interior thoughts.

But interior thoughts aren’t just about imparting feelings and emotions. They also act as signposts for reader, guiding them through the story, hopefully in the direction you wanted them to go. Want the reader to fall for a false clue? Let the MC think about the clue and the reader will often take the bait. Want the reader to detest another character? Make sure the MC thinks about how detestable that character is. If a reader sees your character thinking about something, they’ll assume it’s important.

This is doubly important for me because I write fantasies where unusual things happen around my MC or where my MC is surrounded by other characters with unusual habits or strange senses of humor. (Think Harry Potter or Percy Jackson or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy kind of stuff). I’ve found that if I don’t take the time to have my MC reflecting on how unusual these events are, my CPs often end up staring at the page in confusion.

For example, if I have a secondary character open an umbrella before they walk inside a house, and leave it at that, my CPs will assume I miswrote the sentence. But if I have the MC stop and stare and think “what’s up with that?” then my CPs will assume there was a reason for this action, and will be willing to wait until that reason is revealed.

So if your CPs come to you and say they’re confused about a scene, see if adding more interior thoughts solves the problem.

16 comments:

  1. Great post. I agree. Everybody preaches 'show, don't tell,' but some telling is necessary. I've read books in which the character's feelings and or motivations weren't clear, and it left me feeling frustrated.

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    1. Apparently, there is a lot of debate whether interior thoughts are inherently telling or not. I'm still working my way through the whole showing vs telling thing, so I have no clue.

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  2. Great thoughts, and you're totally on track. I've had that issue as well, except when I write from first person. If only I could write everything from first person and then alter it to third...but goodness, that would take a long time. Well, maybe it's worth doing, eh?

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    1. I've heard of agents that suggest that very thing to develop a deeper POV with the main character.

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  3. I do all right on character motivation and interior thoughts. It's the description of setting sI tend to skimp on.

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  4. Giving my character more emotion is something I still struggle with. It's the last layer I add in. I'm hoping at some point I'll learn to add it in earlier.

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    1. Adding emotion is hard for me. I have no problem crying at movies, but I usually have no idea how to evoke those same feelings inside my stories. Probably why I like to write zany stories.

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  5. This is good advice in general, but you can write an MC with very limited interior thoughts and get away with it - think 'American Gods' by Neil Gaiman. His MC is intensely private, and doesn't reveal a whole lot of what he's thinking, and yet we still understand how he feels about everything and everyone. It's very, very well done.

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    1. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the suggestion.

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  6. By George, I think you've got it. But then I haven't read American Gods. Even if I did, I'd rather know what a character thinks than only see his or her reaction. Maybe I'm old fashioned? Or maybe I don't get emotionally attached unless I know whether a character is really hurt or just pretending.

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    1. I think I only get emotionally attached to a character if I can imagine the same thing happening to myself and the character responds in the same way I would have in their position.

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  7. Hi Ken,

    Agreed! Interior thoughts can be quite the powerful tool if used correctly. Too much *can* be overkill, so I think it's about finding that right balance. Sounds like you've found it, though!

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    1. I'm moving in that direction. I think...

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  8. I think it's one of the things that separate novels from other types of storytelling. Not just thoughts, but interior emotions no one else can see and seeing how poor decisions come about can all make for a closer connection for the reader.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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    1. I agree. It's better if we can see how the character arrived at his poor decisions. Makes them more believable.

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