People like to think.
From the moment we awaken, our brains fire minute electrical charges along the neurons that make up the mass of tissue referred to as the brain. These electrical charges are wholly responsible for our thought and consciousness.
And people do it all the time.
We think about things like “what’s for lunch” and “I wish I didn’t have calculus homework today” and “what is the meaning of life”.
Some thoughts are deep, some are shallow, and some are in the middle. All of these thoughts can be used – and should be used – in novels to create emotion.
The deep thoughts, the hurting thoughts, the joyful thoughts, the thoughts of fear and anger and compassion and sorrow all provide excellent snippets of emotion.
But how do we use them?
Let’s ponder that thought.
The Problem with Thoughts
One of the most common ways to express thought in a novel is this:
Oh great, Bart thought, another piece of metal.
Basically, it’s dialogue without tags, and it’s spoken directly in the brain of the “speaker”. We usually indicate thoughts with italics (or underscoring, if you like do that in your early drafts) and they sound a lot like the inner voice that we all have (mine currently has an Irish accent, which is making writing this blog post quite difficult).
The thing is… this way of using thoughts almost always looks amateur. I’ve read maybe two authors who can get away with direct thought-to-italics and not sound like thirteen-year-old kids opening up Microsoft Word for the first time. (If you’re thirteen, I’d apologize, but thirteen-year-old me was the same way so it’s okay.)
Direct thoughts are an easy way to tell emotion. You’ll notice in that thought above that I showed nothing. I didn’t show the chagrin and annoyance that Bart feels, I didn’t show the shape and texture and color of that piece of metal.
I told you that Bart was feeling annoyed (by “oh great”) and I showed you that there was metal (by “another piece of metal”). This is a case of awfully stupid telling. While there are times for telling (someday I really ought to just make a blog post about this…), nine times out of ten you should show.
This is one of them.
“But Aidan I’ve already shown the piece of metal and I’ve shown Bart sighing and muttering obscene words.”
Well then… why tell us as well? If you’ve already shown that he’s annoyed by this additional piece of metal, then why tell us as well?
Here’s the deal: If the prose already shows the emotion given by the thought, don’t tell us the thought.
A nice little guideline for you. If you’ve already shown us the evil knights, you don’t have to give us the main character’s overly dramatic “we’re doomed!” thought.
Also never use that thought. Ever.
There are some thoughts that just need to be included, like “Man, I wished I stayed home today” when the MC is fighting hordes of orcs. But it needs to match your style. If your style doesn’t work with blatant thoughts like this…
A Penny-sized Placement for Your Thoughts
“But Aidan you just told us to use thoughts in our novels.”
Why yes, yes I did. How observant of you.
Here’s the deal: I do want you to use thoughts in your novel. I want you to use hundreds and hundreds of thoughts. Your prose should be littered with so many thoughts that you can pick a random paragraph from your novel and know exactly what the point-of-view character is thinking.
Well, look at your novel. Look at what makes up the majority of the words in your novel.
You’ve got two things: dialogue and narrative.
It’s obvious that dialogue can’t be littered with thoughts, right?
Dialogue is spoken thoughts. It’s literally our thoughts shared with someone else. That is what dialogue is. So, rather than creating a cliché inner monologue, try – when appropriate – to turn thoughts into dialogue. Rather than your main character thinking “oh great, another piece of metal”, have them turn to their buddy and say:
“Well I’ll be kicked to the moon,” Bart muttered, “you’ve got another one?”Dan nodded. “I like this one even better: see how shiny it is?”
This is still a form of telling, in some ways, but it’s telling through showing. I’m showing you dialogue that tells you something. And that’s the secret. Show me what you have to tell, rather than telling what you have to tell.
Now what about that last piece of prose? The narrative.
In all good novels, the narrative is an extension of your character’s mind. It sounds like they sound, it reacts the way they react. In a way, all of the narrative is one big thought. It’s your character’s thoughts, but it’s the thoughts that don’t get emphasized.
I think that this is the best way to communicate thought. By showing through the narrative your character’s state of mind, you draw the reader in and we read the narrative as a series of thoughts by your character.
For example, one or two word sentences can be used to your advantage in prose, and are basically thoughts without the italics:
“Where is Velin?” The man always appeared at his side, ready to offer unwanted advice, ready to ask for a retreat. Gaream forced back a scowl. “Where is he?”The same priest from before took his arm, led him toward the doors. “Highness… Sir Velin fell at the gate. He’s dead, Highness.”Dead.Gaream’s vision blurred, he hardly noticed as the priests led him into the building, as the others followed with their horses. Velin was dead. The man irritated Gaream, for sure, but not enough to make his death… right.
This is an excerpt from my current project, in which the main character learns of the death of one of his officers. I want you to notice, specifically, the single word paragraph inserted into the midst of the narrative:
This could be italicized, if I wanted it to be. It’s a direct thought from Gaream’s head to the prose. But I don’t. Instead, I decided to leave it as it is: a piece of the prose. Instead of looking like a thought, it looks like a piece of narrative separated for emphasis. Because of the shortness, the simplicity, it gives you the feeling of terseness, surprise, and no small amount of ‘why me’.
So. Rather than telling us all the things we need to know, why not show us? Why not give us thoughts through the narrative, and leave the italics to emphasizing what really needs to be?
Identity: Playing to Your Writing Strengths (Daniel Schwabauer)