Unraveling Thoughts

As an editor, I spend a lot of time reading about characters who smile, or shrug, or stare. In other words, the author uses physical manifestations of thoughts. I will write an editorial prompt, asking if a description denoting an emotion can be substituted. Rather than using any of the three choices above, what is a character’s reaction, say, to a ring presented on one knee?

An author might respond: “She was disappointed by the size of the diamond.” That works. A single sentence that delivers her reaction. Pleased with himself, the author goes on to pen one-sentence thoughts in response to all of my prompts. That’s not so terrible. A hundred thoughts are better than a hundred shrugs.

That method does not lead to much character penetration, however. When I provide a prompt, I’m hoping the author runs with the idea. That’s because a simple thought means you have created merely a simple character. That’s a mean achievement compared to a towering figure whose complexity matches our own.

In this case I ask authors to experiment with writing more than one sentence. The problem with only one thought is that we don’t think that way. A thought usually unravels in our mind and then we comment on it, qualify it. If a sentiment seems too bold, for instance, we add a sardonic comment—to ourselves, almost as if we’re talking to a friend.

So, she is disappointed in the ring. Now what? You can comment on that thought in a way that reveals more about what she thinks of the proposal. “She was disappointed by the size of the diamond. Instantly she recoiled at that thought. Kneeling before her was Jeff, the love of her life.” You can see that her commenting on the thought leads to how she really feels about the occasion.

You could choose the opposite tack. “She was disappointed by the size of the diamond. It was tiny, microscopic even, compared to the massive rock Sheila’s boyfriend gave her.” Now, that’s a character of a different stripe. Or, “She was disappointed by the size of the diamond. Then again, she supposed it was a sensible purchase. She never regarded herself as any great prize.”  

When you get in the hang of writing that way, you may find the thoughts spin off from there, to a paragraph or more. Sure, you’ll probably have to edit it later. But at that point you’ll be choosing among all the new discoveries you’ve made about your character.

Exercise: The key to this method is to keep the character’s personality uppermost in your mind while commenting. If she tends to be sarcastic, a comment about the ring might be funny. Yet consider how moved the reader will be if she is genuinely touched, shocked into being grateful.

“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”
—August Wilson

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

1 comment:

  1. This is a great tip. Never quite considered the "shrugs" and "smiles" in this way. Thank you!


Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.