Writing Point of View – Part 5: Exploring a Character’s Thoughts (Part 1)

Woman in the medieval costume with a sword

I have been discussing a list of ways to get inside a character’s head in order to establish intimacy with a character and give readers a feeling of “being there” in the scene.

  1. Report only what the focal character sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, or thinks without using narrator phrases to introduce the sensations.
  2. Avoid describing anything that the focal character cannot perceive or would not notice.
  3. Dive deeply into the character’s mind to explore his or her thoughts and emotions.
  4. Employ motivation/reaction units to make the action flow with a real-time feel.

Today, I will begin a discussion of item #3. I’m not sure how many weeks this will take. 🙂

For readers, knowing what a character is thinking is the utmost in intimate experience. Thoughts, feelings, moods, regrets about the past, and plans for the future might never be spoken, so readers need a journey through a character’s mind to learn the secrets of hidden motivations. Without knowing the motivations for a character’s actions, readers would miss out on the most powerful aspect of the journey–the passions that drive the character ever onward toward the story’s goal.

When you write with intimate POV, whenever the focal character does anything, readers must know why the character did it before you report the action. If readers don’t find out the reason until after they read the action, then you have harmed intimacy. (I will cover this aspect in much more detail when I discuss item #4 above.)

One factor that motivates characters to action is what they are thinking about. In such a case, if readers aren’t made aware of a character’s thoughts, they won’t know why the character acted, and readers will be left in the dark. Intimacy is lost.

Yet it’s sometimes difficult for an author to dive into a character’s mind in a way that doesn’t shake or confuse readers. During a scene, the author might be describing what is going on around the character, reported through the character’s senses of external surroundings, then the author jumps to describing the character’s thoughts without a transition. It’s a sudden jump from the external to the internal, which can feel like a jarring leap.

The solution is to include an external-to-internal transition by writing an action for the focal character to do so readers are drawn to the character and away from focusing on what is surrounding him..

For example:

Elyssa returned her gaze to the sphere. What did this peculiar torture device mean to the dragons? With its prominent placement in the observatory, it had to be more than a lie detector. It was a treasure, perhaps even an object of worship. And that made it a point of vulnerability.

Grimacing as the pain increased, Elyssa reared back with the blade, ready to strike. “You will take us to Jason, or I’ll smash your precious crystal!”

For the sake of space and brevity, I didn’t include the text that preceded this excerpt. The scene provided a description of what Elyssa saw in this observatory, which included a glowing crystal sphere sitting on a pedestal at the center of the room. It emitted light that stung anyone standing in its radiance. Someone standing close would feel torturous pain. Also, it brightened if someone told the truth and darkened if someone told a lie, making it a lie detector.

Also, she is in the room with a dragon who has refused to lead her to her friend Jason, and she’s trying to figure out a way to get him to acquiesce to her request.

While taking in the description that precedes the excerpt, readers are focused on what is external to Elyssa–the observatory and the sphere. After writing that, I wanted to let readers know her thoughts about what she saw. I needed a transition to draw the reader back to Elyssa before diving into her thoughts. I did this by providing Elyssa with an action that focused on her and the topic she was going to think about, “Elyssa returned her gaze to the sphere.”

This phrase brings readers from the larger setting to Elyssa herself, making it clear that the question and comments that follow are her thoughts. She ponders the sphere, analyzes its purposes, and comes to a conclusion about it, that it is a vulnerability point she can exploit.

That conclusion becomes a motivation for her next action, to threaten to attack the sphere as a way of forcing the dragon to do as she requested.

Without the ability to dive into Elyssa’s thoughts, readers wouldn’t have a clear understanding as to why Elyssa chose to attack the sphere. Being able to read her thoughts puts readers inside her head, thereby establishing close intimacy. Readers sense everything she does, including the thinking process that drives her actions.

Remember, the key to expressing thoughts is a transitional phrase, a personal action that draws readers to the character. Also, it’s often a good idea to follow a similar pattern of thought: 1. A question about what is seen (or heard, smelled, etc), 2. an analysis that adds a character’s knowledge and experience, and 3. a conclusion that creates a motivation for the character’s next action.

One more item to take into account: A dive into a character’s mind such as in the example above should take place during a pause in the action when the character has time to think or reflect. Avoid interior monologue episodes when intense action is going on. (More on the pacing aspect in a couple of weeks.)

I will continue discussion of item #3 next week.

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3 replies

  1. I recently heard that italicizing thoughts isn’t something writers should put in books anymore. Is this true?

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    • It is proper to italicize quoted thoughts but not described thoughts. It is true that more editors are frowning on quoted thoughts, and I don’t use them as often as I used to, but it is not wrong to use them.

      A quoted thought expresses the exact words a character is thinking at the moment, and you write it in present tense. A described thought is written in past tense but it isn’t the exact words that are thought.

      Described thought:

      George closed the front door. The click signaled the end of their relationship

      Quoted thought:

      George closed the front door. Well, that’s the end of our relationship. (the second sentence would be in italics)

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