Stop All That Thinking
by James Thayer
The novelist and playwright Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
This might be one of them: don’t have your characters think a lot.
Writers of romance, women’s fiction (also known as chick lit), and literary novels are particularly prone to letting their protagonists think on and on, setting out in sentence after sentence the characters’ precise feelings, sharpening and sharpening the emotional pencil down to a nub. But for writers of all genres, the tendency to write down the characters’ thoughts at great length is tempting.
Why is it so appealing? Couple of reasons. First, it’s easy. There’s little need to be logical, or to bother with cause and effect, which is critical in writing dialogue and action sequences. Tom Clancy said, “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction must make sense.” The rules of physics and logic—which must apply in the rest of the novel to make the story credible—don’t apply to a character’s thoughts. In real life, we can think anything we want with no consequences. So can a character in a novel.
Second, we may be writing too much interior monologue because we don’t have enough story. We haven’t figured out enough compelling incidents for the novel, so we pad it with characters’ long ruminations.
Resist the temptation to load up on the character’s thoughts.
Interior monologue is a fancy way of saying thinking. Usually, of all the component parts of a novel such as action, dialogue, and setting description, a character’s interior monologue is the least interesting. Much of it is navel-gazing.
A novel is a series of scenes. Novelist and writing-teacher Jack Bickham says a scene is “a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story ‘now.’ It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted out.” Thinking cannot be acted out on a stage. When a character is thinking, nothing is going on for the reader to watch.
Writers are always advised to show rather than to tell. He scratched his arm is showing. His arm itched is telling. It’s a critical distinction because showing makes a story more vivid and believable for the reader. A problem with interior monologue is that it is telling rather than showing. The character who is doing all the thinking is simply telling the reader what she is thinking, rather than showing the reader with action and dialogue.
Here’s a short example where Allison is the first-person narrator: I was attracted to John. This is interior monologue, and it is telling the reader. Here is how the writer would showthe reader: I slowly leaned toward him, and I put my mouth on his, with my lips slightly parted. That’s action, and it tells the reader what she is thinking.
Another short example: She knew she would be hungry, and wanted to take a sack lunch is interior monologue, and it is telling the reader. “Mom, I’m going to be gone all day. Can you make me a sandwich?” This is dialogue, and it is showing the reader
One more example. The reader is hearing Carolyn think:
Carolyn worried about her son’s safety. Tommy was so impetuous. Sometimes he did dangerous things. And he was small for his age. The boy had been angry ever since his dad had left for the gold fields. Tommy didn’t obey her, and sometimes she would catch him scowling and staring at her. She wished Tommy had friends nearby but town was six miles away, and his closest friend, Jake, lived a mile away, on the other side of the river.
These are important thoughts—a mother concerned about her son—but they just aren’t interesting when presented inside the character’s mind. Here’s the way to show the same worries in action and dialogue:
She leaned out the open window. “Tommy, get away from that fire. That stump is going to burn all day and night, and don’t you get too near it.”
Her son stared at her, then stepped closer to the bonfire.
“Didn’t you hear me?” She crossed the parlor, lifting her apron so it wouldn’t trip her, and ran into the yard. “You get away from there.” She grabbed him by his suspenders and yanked him back.
“Dad would let me tend this fire.” He tried to swat her hand away. “He taught me how to burn these stumps and clear this field.”
“Your dad isn’t here.”
He was wearing hand-me-down wool pants. She had taken the hem up six inches. His gingham shirt was patched at the elbows.
His voice was piping. “Dad should have taken me with him. I want to dig for gold with him. I don’t want to go to school any more.”
“Your dad will send us train money soon, and we’ll go out to California. Then you can dig all the gold you want.” She led him away from the burning stump. “I’ll walk you over to John’s. You and he can ride his pony.”
We learn about her worries without entering her mind for dull interior monologue, and it’s much more interesting for the reader because it is a scene, with action--the fire, her running out into the yard, Tommy trying to swat away her hand—and tense dialogue. We have shown the reader her worries.
Sometimes interior monologue is unavoidable. What if you can’t find a situation in which to show these thoughts, to show via action and dialogue what the character is thinking?
First, make sure the thinking is important. The character wondering whether to add mayonnaise to her sandwich isn’t worth forcing the reader to listen to her think about it. If the thoughts aren’t important, leave them out. In particular, avoid excessive introspection.
Second, make it short. Readers are smart, and they will intuit much of what the character is thinking with just a clue or two, without the writer setting it out in long paragraphs of interior monologue.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).