Get in, Get out

Narrating a story from within a character’s head requires judicious balance. Unless the thoughts the character is having are arresting and provocative, inward commentary can clog up outward story progress. Yes, we do want to know a rebel’s take on corporate stooges, for one idea, but too much posturing can start to feel like more of the same. Enough snide asides already. Go ahead and punch the guy in the nose.

Trying to write a book that is both character- and plot-driven runs the risk of ending up with a “mid-list book,” in publishing parlance. You do need to rise above the level of Willie-walked, Willie-stared type of writing, but you also can’t fall in love with thoughts you manage to write down on paper. So how do you move the story along and also achieve a satisfying depth of characterization?

A good place to start is asking the question: What type of thoughts do I have? If you really have the gift of writing out entire skeins of thoughts, like the literary authors you admire, then interior activity is its own reward. But if your characters tend to think about what is immediately in front of them, you’d better think about pruning their thoughts. They are essentially functioning as gilding on the related plot events.

Like anything placed in juxtaposition, such commentary tends to compete with what is happening. Oh, she said something mean, so what did he think of that? It’s like watching tennis. After a few pages the scene becomes loaded with so many thoughts, the pacing drags. The writing becomes enervated—because not enough is happening to support the gilt.

You need to push the envelope. Being snarky is safe. Thoughts that are related to action should function as the build-up for a truly disturbing plot event. The thoughts become actualized, in other words—and someone ends up being damaged. That’s why we read novels. They take readers beyond what they would dare to do.

Exercise: Review a chapter with an eye out for interior work. You have to be honest with yourself. Do you find yourself start to feel annoyed with the commenting character? Do you feel the scene is dragging? Not every action requires a thought. Try to trim a third of them and see how the balance strikes you now.

“The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.”
—James Joyce

Copyright @ John Paine, 2016

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