Writing Point of View – Part 6: Exploring a Character’s Thoughts (Part 2)

WritingHintsPhotoI 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 continue a discussion of item #3.

Last week I gave an example showing how to provide a character’s thoughts as a way to promote the feeling of being inside a character’s head. This intimacy gives readers an insight into motivations for the character’s action.

This week, I am providing a similar example that demonstrates another purpose of thought intimacy–letting readers see how a character tries to figure out a complicated situation that includes history, analysis, and suspicions.

Writing such a thought process can be challenging, as one writer declared when he presented me with the following paragraph, asking how to improve it with regard to point-of-view, intimacy, and handling pronouns and their antecedents.

In this passage, Wraith and Ellis are both male and Edge is Female. Edge is the POV character.

Wraith’s plan was simple, as all good plans are, but Edge still didn’t like it. The final member of their party was a low-level data processor named Arthur Ellis. Ellis was currently living under an assumed name and toiling in the obscurity of the working class. Wraith didn’t explain why Ellis changed his name or even what it was now, but he gave her a current image of the man and wanted him abducted from his home in Lennox Heights. That was the part of the plan she didn’t like.

First, the paragraph begins with Edge’s thoughts without an action transition (as I discussed in last week’s tip). “Wraith’s plan was simple” is her thought, but readers might not be sure of who is generating that thought. When we read “Edge didn’t like it,” then we get an idea that these might be Edge’s thoughts. Yet, when the first clue is a phrase that tells us that Edge doesn’t like it (instead of showing this to us), the telling can sound like a narrator. When the first clue sounds like a narrator, the rest of the paragraph can come across as narrated rather than a flow of the character’s thinking process. The conclusion, “That was the part of the plan she didn’t like,” feels like a narrator’s conclusion instead of Edge’s.

Here is my suggested rewrite:

Edge set a fist on her hip. Wraith’s plan was simple, as all good plans are, but it still lacked something. What could it be? The weak link might be Arthur Ellis,a low-level data processor living under an assumed name–a grunt toiling in working-class obscurity. Wraith never explained why Ellis changed his name or even what it was now, choosing only to supply her with a photo image of Ellis as well as instructions to abduct him from his home in Lennox Heights. That part of the plan stunk. Too much mystery.

The opening sentence gives Edge a transitional action that draws readers to her. It sets her in a thinking posture, which indicates that the next sentence will contain her thoughts. The plan lacked something that she couldn’t put her finger on, and she raised the question “What could it be?” The rest of the paragraph shows her analyzing the question in a natural way. As she ponders the details, she gives a bit of back-story history and comes to a conclusion that sounds like internal thought in the character’s voice instead of a narrator’s assigned conclusion. “That part of the plan stunk” doesn’t sound like it comes from a narrator.

In fact, I try to remove as many focal-character pronouns as possible. I plan to discuss this topic more in a future post.

The natural thinking process also helps to clear up which pronouns belong to which antecedents, thereby making the entire paragraph easy to read and understand.

Also, the transitional action provides an opportunity to show the character’s emotions, mindset, or mood. A fist on the hip, especially for a woman, communicates anger or frustration. A man often clenches a fist or sets his jaw. Scratching the head communicates confusion, slumping shoulders can mean exhaustion or disappointment, and biting the lip often means pensiveness. Whichever mindset you choose, be sure to write the thought process in a way that reflects that mood. More on this topic in a future post about “Show, don’t tell.”

Here is a key to avoiding the feel of narrator intrusion: As often as possible, use the name of your POV character only when narrating action. “Edge set a fist on her hip” is action. “Edge still didn’t like it” is not action; it is the telling of a thought by a narrator. The same is true with pronouns that refer to the POV character. “That’s the part of the plan she didn’t like” is not action. Instead I suggested “That part of the plan stunk,” which removes the pronoun. Readers know that Edge is thinking this, because she is the focal character. Simply telling the reader she didn’t like it is done by a narrator.

In summary, start with a transitional phrase that sets the reader’s mindset to expect thoughts. Then allow the character to go through the thought process in a natural way that sounds like that character’s voice. By doing this, readers will ride along with the thought process and not think a narrator is telling them the thoughts.

Next week, I will continue discussing item #3 and delve into passionate feelings and theme development.

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8 replies

  1. Mr. Davis, when do you use italics in your writing? In my writing I put all thoughts in italics, but then again my characters usually think in just short bursts and in a direct way.

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    • Use italics for directly quoted thoughts, that is, the actual words they are thinking, not just descriptions of their thought processes.

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      • Okay. Could you please explain the difference. In your example it seemed that at least some of those words should have been italicized (ie. “What could it be?”) Thanks.

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      • If that were a directly quoted thought, it would more likely be “What is it?” Quoted thoughts are usually more exact and always present tense. “What could it be” is borderline. It could be either. Since all of the other phrases are past tense, the entire sequence should be interpreted as described thoughts instead of quoted thoughts. If they were quoted thoughts, they would all be present tense.

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  2. Very wise information. Thank you, Mr. Davis, for this good information. 🙂

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