Closing the Distance

The line between what a character is thinking and general narrative exposition is a thin one. That’s why it is crossed so frequently by an author still learning why their creations act the way they do. Many times they write what feels more like a report on the thoughts rather than what a character is actually thinking. Here are five tips to help separate what you want the character to think from thoughts that a reader feels are genuine.

First, examine how you write dialogue. Are your conversational passages direct and effective? If so, start by using quotation marks to bracket off thoughts. That way they will clearly be marked as separate from the narrative. Even better, you will tend to simplify the thoughts the way you do your dialogue, making them more fraught with true emotions. When you’re done, many times you can merely remove the quotation marks, and there they are: direct thoughts.

Second, also related to writing dialogue, try writing all of the thoughts in the present tense. Since most prose is written in the past tense, you’ll create a distinction right away. You’ll also find that the thoughts become more immediate, because that is one of the qualities of the present tense. Once you’re done, you can decide whether you want to convert them back into the past tense.

The third trick is writing all thoughts in the first-person voice. As with the previous two, you’re using an alternate method of style that sets the thoughts apart. The I-voice also adds much more immediacy, since that is one of the hallmarks of that type of narration. After you’re done, some of the first-person thoughts may well stay that way, maybe set in italics, but you can also convert others back to the omniscient voice when you review the work.

The fourth addresses a textual method rather than one of style. The gist of it is: don’t name the emotion. Here is an example: “He was feeling sad because she left him.”  That is you commenting on his thoughts. You’re naming his emotions. Instead, look at the emotion and then get inside it. What, in particular, makes him sad? Being alone? Not going out Friday night? Or, what things did she do that made him happy?

Finally, don’t plan. Emotions are forthright, and any future thinking takes the lines of: this is what I’m going to do to you. Take a look at: “She would discover how to best assuage his anger. She would win his favor by helping his son in school.” Now, I ask you: Who thinks like that? The author is reporting on what he wants the character to think. You have to close the distance and have the thought yourself. Get personal. Let go and be the character.

“I am a spy in the house of me. I report back from the front lines of the battle that is me. I am somewhat nonplused by the event that is my life. “
—Carrie Fisher

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.