A few thoughts on introspection

Dear Carey –

What the romance genre demands of us as writers is to create a high degree of intimacy in our work. Part of the reason readers chose romance is because they want to know the details, the sensations, the feelings, and the thoughts of the characters we create. They want to get under their skin to a degree that is uncommon – and perhaps even unattainable – in real life. Perhaps that’s the attraction of reading romance, why our books have the power to capture people’s imagination, take them out of their own lives, and sometimes even assuage their loneliness.

Writing thoughts, introspection, internal dialogue, and even flashbacks heighten this sense of intimacy and is an integral part of what we do. So it’s important to learn to do it well. Let’s start exploring this topic by looking at the basic rules for expressing a character’s thoughts.

It they are fleeting, something that appears in the midst of description, action, or dialogue, the thoughts are almost always written in plain text — never with quotation marks. Only VERY occasionally are thoughts expressed in italics, and then only for great emphasis.

I will spare you my rant on overuse of italics, but suffice it to say italics is one of the most exacting tools in a writer s toolbox, and should be used with skill and care.

The use of “he thought,” “she thought,” “he ruminated,” or “she extrapolated” are all acceptable indications that a character s brain is engaged. Of course, “he thought,” like “he said” draws much less attention to itself in text than more colorful language — though an occasional “she mused” may be the exact right way to go in certain situations. If you find yourself reaching for your thesaurus to look up a synonym for the verb form of thought, your characters are probably attributing their thinking too much or, as a writer, you’re trying too hard.

All tags, be they used in thought or in dialogue, should be added with a light hand. As a rule of thumb, “he/she thought” probably shouldn’t be used unless it serve some purpose besides identifying the thinker. These seem like places where “he/she thought” does something besides run up the word count.

– For an abandoned cottage, he thought, this seemed to have an extremely well-tended garden. (To add emphasis, to cast the parts of this sentence in sharp relief, to imply that all may not be what it seems.)

– It never hurt to be prepared, she thought with a grin, and packed her Nikes for the trip to Pamplona. (Conveys attitude)

– Why on earth, his mother cried, did you propose to a woman without a penny to bless her, when you might have married an heiress? Well, he thought, the depth of her decollete might have had something to do with it. (To make it clear this isn’t spoken aloud.)

“He/she thought” sometimes acts as a spacer in a sentence. It gives the reader a moment to ingest what is being said. It can act as a transition between two bits of information. It can clarify a character s motives. It can help create that intimacy romance readers crave.

“He/she thought” can also slow the narrative and interrupt the flow of action or dialogue. So use it sparingly. As in much of life, less is more.

Which is why, my friends, I’m leaving this topic without addressing internal dialogue and flashbacks and the advantages of using point of view to create intimacy with your characters. I figure (as opposed to think), I ll take a swing at those things next time.

Have a productive month.

Part II

Dear Carey –

One of the things readers are after when they turn to romance novels, is a heightened sense of intimacy with the characters. Writing introspection is one of the most important means of doing that. The kind of introspection we dealt with last time is immediate, embedded in the action.

In this situation “he/she thought” is appropriate: “She s dealing from the bottom of the deck, the man across the table accused. Savannah felt herself pale. But that s impossible, she thought. I don’t know how to deal from the bottom of the deck! (Italics used to indicate a momentary switch from third of first person.)

Of course the “he though/she thought” kind of introspection is only the tip of the you-know-what.

Sometimes, a character just needs to THINK ABOUT THINGS, in which case, he or she needs to have an internal dialogue. This is a very effective technique, but one to be used somewhat sparingly. (Although romance may legitimately use more of this than other genres.) Using internal dialogue can be especially dangerous for beginning writers because it is easy to explain too much — things a character should reveal through action or conversation.

That said — internal dialogue is usually used in one of two ways. The first is as paragraphs of thoughts broken by paragraphs of observations or bits of action: While riding through the woods, the hero is lost in thought. His horse shies nervously. He calms it and goes back to his ruminating. An attacker leaps at him out of the underbrush…

The second is an uninterrupted block of thought, broken into paragraphs as the subjects dictate. Usually when dealing with blocks of internal dialogue there is sort of a “going-into-deep-thought” sentence that warns the reader what’s ahead. Something like: He stared out across the lake and considered how his life was going down the tubes.

There is also kind of a returning-to-reality sentence at the end of a long block of thinking. A good way to establish this is with the use of some sort of action. For example: She started at the sound of running footsteps behind her.

Two warnings — 1) While our thoughts sometimes come in stream of consciousness, a genre fiction character’s thoughts are relentlessly logical. They must segue from one to the next in a manner the reader can follow — even if the character you’re writing is a flake. 2) Don t overuse questions in internal dialogue. The “rule of three” applies here. More than three questions strung together begins to sound like an inquisition.

In a way using a flashback to tell a part of the story that happened off stage is a form of internal dialogue. Again, there is usually a going in sentence: “She remembered the day she found out she was a princess..” A verb tense may change as the character sinks deeper into a flashback: The garden HAD BEEN FILLED with sunshine when her mother summoned her, and the daffodils WERE GROWING in profusion along the walk.” (If I were an English major instead of an art major I could probably tell you what tense those are.)

Also be careful of point of view in flashbacks. Since this is sort of another form of internal dialogue, remember that we can’t know anyone else s thoughts unless the person expresses them aloud.

As a sidebar to this topic – using thought/flashback and internal dialogue to establish intimacy between the characters and the reader – I would be remiss not to mention using point of view as a tool. The obvious benefit of writing in first person point of view is that it creates a bond between the character and the reader that can be quite intense. This allows the reader to experience the book with the character or as his or her confidante.

In this way the reader has complete access to her thoughts and feelings. She hears not the author’s voice, but the character s voice. This can be extremely powerful — especially when books with strong voices are making such a mark in publishing these days. (i.e. THE STEPHANIE PLUM MYSTERIES, BRIDGET JONES S DIARY, BIG STONE GAP.) The problem with books told in first person is that we ONLY get one point of view, one set of thoughts — which can be limiting or liberating.

On the other hand, in the ever-expanding world of popular fiction, authors are experimenting with mixing first person and third person points of view — Tami Hoag’s NIGHTSINS jumps to mind — where we see the serial killers’ diary entries in first person.

Also some authors are using multiple first person point of view — in which each character tells her own story — as Patricia Gaffney’s characters do in THE SAVING GRACES.

Expressing thoughts and creating intimacy between readers and characters is one of the most difficult challenges we face as writers. These are not just a questions of attribution, but of basic storytelling and writing technique. Read to discover how other writers handle these difficult concepts. Experiment in your own work. Explore new possibilities. Give yourself the chance to expand your skills and grow as a writer.

Be happy and productive.

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