Scattershot Thoughts

Every writer has a rhythm to her prose, a cadence that she follows as the words flow out. Although the general trend over the past century has moved toward greater simplification, authors still employ great variety in sentence structure. Changes occur even with the same writer, such as Alice Munro, whose wonderfully layered prose of 30 years ago has eased into her crisp prose of today—without any loss of her unerring eye for the perfect detail. 

You can use this trend toward simplification to break through the outside-in approach to your characters. You can deliberately break apart your usual prose cadence. Whatever mode you’re comfortable with, you’re going to write not like that.

How do people think? They think in fragments. You may remind yourself: oh, I have to pick up . . . You never get to “the dry-cleaning” because you already know that. Thought left unfinished. You grab your keys and out the door you go. You can take advantage of this incompletion as a way to drive beyond the layer of superficial observations about the action happening at that time. You move beyond descriptions to sentence fragments. 

Here is an example of how you can use fragments to dig deeper and deeper, so that you feel you’re thinking just like the heroine: ‘The end of the last school year, it mattered to her that she break free of him. So she had done it.  Semi-done it, really.  And done it friendly-like. Friendly, so now she could ask this of him.  Get dirt on Don.”

There is nothing fancy about this prose, but we do know exactly what she’s thinking, because the sentence fragments provide comments on what she just thought, and then a comment on the comment. That’s the way we think, constantly refining thoughts until they suit our self-image. 

One terrific side effect of this deliberate practice is that the character’s thoughts will stand out more from the rest of the narrative. We’re following that nice prose cadence until we reach a segment of thoughts. The discontinuity stands out in contrast. A reader can more readily participate, because your character is saying: I’m not smooth and unapproachable. Come on in!

Exercise: Review the manuscript for thoughts of your main character. Pick out those that are an immediate comment on a piece of plot action. Try to break that single sentence into several sentence fragments. Don’t just deliver a pronouncement on the character’s mood. Give us the first burst, then a consideration of that thought, then a further interpretation of that thought, getting it just right.

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