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01.02.2014 08:04    Comments: 0    Categories: Fiction Writing      Tags: fiction writing  writing characters thoughts  mike klaassen  

Introspection, the fiction-writing mode used to convey a character’s thoughts, may appear to be simple in published fiction, but the issues facing an author during the writing process are numerous:


* Punctuation


* Attribution Tags


* Tense


* Person


* Direct vs. Indirect Introspection


* Verbs of Thought


* Narrative Distance


* Paragraph Treatment


* Consistency


PUNCTUATION. Over the years, various forms of punctuation have been used to delineate introspection. From time to time, writers use quotation marks to identify a character’s thoughts. This practice causes confusion, especially since quotation marks are the accepted means of identifying dialogue. As stated by Renni Browne and Dave King, in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, “Never, ever use quotes with your interior monologue. It is not merely poor style; it is, by today’s standards, ungrammatical. Thoughts are thought, not spoken.”


More commonly, introspection is denoted with italics. But this practice is losing ground to presenting thought in plain type. According to Evan Marshall, in The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, “Don’t use italics or quotation marks for thoughts. However, if a character is recalling dialogue, put the recalled dialogue in italics.”


ATTRIBUTION TAGS. Just as dialogue is tagged, where necessary, to identify the speaker, introspection may be tagged with a clause to make clear who is doing the thinking. For example:


Introspection with a tag: Maybe Bart will listen to reason before someone gets hurt, thought Cisco.


Introspection without a tag: Maybe Bart will listen to reason before someone gets hurt.


But as stated by Browne and King, “Whenever you’re writing from a single point of view – as you will be ninety percent of the time – you can simply jettison thinker attributions. Your readers will know who’s doing the thinking.”


Then again, there are times when a passage just doesn’t flow right without a tag to provide rhythm and pace.


Also regarding tags, Nancy Kress in Dynamic Characters writes, “And, of course, I don’t have to tell you not to write, He thought to himself.’ Except for telepaths, there is no other possibility.”


TENSE. A character’s thoughts may be narrated in either present tense or past tense. Combined with the choices of first-, second-, or third-person narration, they offer a mind-boggling array of choices, with advantages and disadvantages to each. As a practical matter, though, most stories are written in past tense using either first person or third. However, even when a story is narrated in third person and past tense, introspection may be presented in first person present tense. For example:


Introspection using third person and past tense: Cisco hoped Bart would listen to reason before someone got hurt.


Introspection using first person and present tense: I hope Bart listens to reason before someone gets hurt, thought Cisco.


PERSON. Narration may be written in any of the three persons. In the rare situations when second person is used to tell a story, any introspection would also be in second person; so that isn’t an issue. And when a story is presented in first person, any introspection would also be in first person; so that too is not an issue.


But authors writing in third person are faced with a choice for each line of introspection: third person or first, each with advantages and disadvantages. Switching to first person allows the use of the character’s exact words, but it also creates a narrative shift that may confuse and annoy the reader. Staying within third person for introspection may not allow for the use of the thinker’s exact words, but it retains narrative consistency. As stated by Browne and King, “. . . unless you are deliberately writing with narrative distance, there is no reason to cast your interior monologue in first person.”


According to Kress, the use of third person and past tense “is a more seamless, less intrusive way to handle thoughts, because you switch neither person nor tense. It’s true that the third-person thought will feel slightly less immediate – more reported to us than directly overheard by us – but the difference will be slight. And the gain in readability should offset that.”


DIRECT VS. INDIRECT INTROSPECTION. According to Evan Marshall, direct introspection uses the character’s exact words. Indirect introspection summarizes or paraphrases the thinker’s words. For example:


Direct Introspection, using third person: Maybe Bart will listen to reason before someone gets hurt.


Direct Introspection, using first person: I hope Bart will listen to reason before someone gets hurt.


Indirect Introspection: Cisco hoped Bart would listen to reason before someone got hurt.


As stated by Evan Marshall, in The Marshall Plan for Getting Your Novel Published, “To convey a character’s thoughts, use the indirect method whenever possible. But use the direct method to convey a character’s thoughts when you feel the exact inner words of thought will have greater impact.”


VERBS OF THOUGHT. Verbs of thought may be used in attribution tags or within the introspection itself. Examples of thinking verbs include: think, hope, wonder, reason, realize, decide. These plain-vanilla verbs have the advantage of being nearly as unobtrusive as the dialogue attribution “said.” There are, of course, many synonyms for these verbs, but other verbs of thought (such as surmised or ruminated) may distract or annoy the reader and are best avoided.


NARRATIVE DISTANCE. According to Brown and King, “. . . how you handle your interior monologue depends almost entirely on your narrative distance.” As stated by Nancy Kress, “Distance is the measure of how far you, the author, are standing from your character as you tell the story.”


Narrative distance ranges on a continuum from:


* DISTANT-observing from the outside, as with the omniscient point of view, to


* INTIMATE-perceiving the world through the character’s mind and senses.


Regarding introspection, the more distant the narrator is from the character, the more necessary are devices (such as attribution tags, italics, and thought verbs) to delineate the passages as thoughts and who is doing the thinking.


PARAGRAPH TREATMENT. Introspection is often embedded within a paragraph that also includes action or dialogue, but sometimes introspection warrants its own paragraph. As stated by Browne and King, “Where you have a longer passage of interior monologue and are still writing with some narrative distance, it sometimes helps to set it off in its own paragraph, especially when the passage signals a change of mood.”


CONSISTENCY. With so many choices available to present a character’s thoughts, there is a real risk of confusion. According to Kress, “Whatever presentation you choose for character’s thoughts, use it consistently so that your reader, once she’s caught on, doesn’t have to make mental adjustments for mechanics. That will only distract her from more important things.”


Introspection may seem complicated – that’s because it is, especially if you are willing (at the risk of alienating readers) to allow distance between the reader and the character. There are lots of moving parts. Lots of choices.


Effective use of a character’s thoughts in fiction requires a thorough understanding of the mechanics of introspection. But the benefits of skillfully delivered introspection far outweigh the cost of avoiding its use or presenting it poorly.



About the Author


Mike Klaassen is the author of two young-adult novels: The Brute and Cracks. He has also written numerous articles about the craft of writing fiction. His free, online monthly newsletter, For Fiction Writers, features articles about writing fiction.  His current projects include a novel set during the War of 1812 and a nonfiction book about the craft of writing fiction. Visit Mike at https://mikeklaassen.com

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