More Character Thinking

It’s Friday, and like the kings and queens that we are, let us celebrate by having meat cakes, or however that saying goes. Anyone got any good weekend plans? Anyone playing skee-ball?

We’ve been talking thinking and how to express what a character thinks. We closed Wednesday with a brief mention about psychic distance, and the idea that the more obvious you make the act of character thinking, the farther away you set your reader against that.

Put another way, when you put a big neon sign on ‘My character is thinking!’, you make the reader aware of the fact that they’re reading, which pulls them out of the imaginative world you’re both cooperating in. And you want to limit how often and how intensely you yank them from the act of picturing and sharing your world.

A little of this is inescapable. There’s no way to completely eliminate the awareness that a book is being read or an audiobook is being heard, nor can you limit the infringement from the outside world, that phone is going to ring, or they’re going to yawn or something. But small intrusions aside, people will stay in the world as often and as long as you encourage them to do so, like when we have a warm bath or we get into the ocean when we’re five and the water seems to go on forever.

But there’s a great number of manuscripts I’ve read where the jump-cut from thought to action, regardless of first- or third-person, is so jarring that I lose track of what’s going on, even if the idea being thought is critical to whatever moment it’s happening in.

Like I mentioned on Wednesday, there are three ways to demonstrate thinking: With thought tags and italics; with italics but no thought tags; with no tags or italics. Let’s look at each.

With tags and italics
Here is the broadest and most obvious method for indicating thought. You’ve got a thought tag, which is a verb that informs the reader that the idea around/near it is a thought, and you’ve got the visual cue of italics to indicate that you have to make a distinction between this idea and the same idea being spoken, as well as the different consequences thereof. (If you don’t know what I mean, it’s the difference between walking up to someone and calling them a jerk versus just thinking they’re a jerk)

There’s a place for this in a manuscript. Depending on how you want to spike the separation between thought and speech, depending on how you want to express a character’s line of thinking, tags and italics can serve you well.

When taken too far though, you shift into a hard “tell” where the character’s thought(s) shortcut the plot development and eliminate the reader’s opportunity to figure out what’s going on and then enjoy it. This happens, for instance, when the cop trying to solve the murder thinks about all the clues in order, all as thoughts, and then concludes the thought train with Doug being the killer because he was the only one who mentioned liking yams during sex.

Because this expression of thought is so obvious, it can very easily wind up as a whole mess of tell in the show-vs-tell scale. Does that mean never do this? Does that mean tags and italics makes you a poor writer? No. It just means you need to deploy this skillfully.

Italics but no tags
Now we get a bit more nuanced. Without the tags to cement that the action being taken is a thought, you’re relying on the visual difference between italics and non-italics to prompt the reader to make the internal/external switch.

Sounds easy, right? That’s what makes this ripe for abuse. Authors often think they’re being “better” (better than other authors) because they’re not using tags. And that’s horsefeathers. First, there’s no ranking based on using thought tags. Second, there’s a time and place to use tags, just like there’s a time and place to not use them.

Don’t use the tag when you need the thought itself needs to be clearly seen on its own (I don’t mean on its own like its own line in the MS, I mean making it distinct from the rest of the text) as part of context in the scene. When there’s a line of text called out by typographic difference (italics), you’re suggesting it to be special from the other lines nearby.

This is doubly so in the context of the moment within the fiction. Doug and his sex-yams might be so intriguing to Kim that she has a thought about it while she’s grooving to some polka in the conservatory after dinner. That thought, because it’s part of what helps build the Doug/Kim arc, needs more weight for the benefit of the reader and story than just exposition (since that’s not giving Kim a chance to have her own thought).

Abuse creeps in when so much of the text ends up italicized. The words of the thought get italicized. If the character isn’t thinking about another character or action, and is instead thinking of a whole scene or fantasy (like Kim about Doug), that IS NOT italicized, because it would lead to multiple paragraphs. Yes I know, those are what Kim is thinking, but imagination isn’t thinking. Break out of the fantasy back to exposition.

No tags or italics
Let’s swing the pendulum a little bit and go back to that author who thinks they’re being smart(er) by not having any italics or tags. Maybe they think that’s edgier than my neighbor’s manicured lawn.

Except it’s not edgy. In first-person this isn’t so bad, because the line between narration and thought is already translucent. But in third-person, it’s a demand posed as a request for the reader to follow along closely, and that’s something earned by having the text not … well, not suck.

The problem with trying this in third-person is that if your thought uses “I” or “we” or “my” (or a variation thereof), you’re suddenly jumping from the top-down view of third-person and individuating into the head of a character. Even if you double super pinky-swear promise that you’ll jump right back out when you’re done, it’s still a POV-shift, which gets the editorial red flags flying.

Working in the past tense makes this easier, but still, it’s a careful deployment designed to collapse psychic distance and drive us to the present minute (like when Kim picks up yams and walks to Doug’s hotel room)

To sum up, there’s a time and place for all three of these techniques. Use them throughout an MS to distinguish and develop the story you want to express.

See you guys next week. Have an awesome weekend. Happy writing.

 

0 thoughts on “More Character Thinking

  1. Going back to the discussion you had in a recent post, I have a question. If you took all of the action beats from the book, theoretically, they could be your synopsis, right? I mean, identify the beats, specifically, and then put them together and you’d have a decent outline to work from, right?

  2. I rarely use thought tags in my stories. I do use a lot of italics, since my characters do have telepathic powers of varying degrees, for dialogue, but definitely not to the point of writing an entire scene.

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