Thoughtses!

First off, very exciting! Here’s a link to the beginning of the audio version of Writer to Writer: https://soundcloud.com/harperaudio_us/writertowriter_levine?in=harperaudio_us/sets/harperchildrens-audio. At the end, it moves on to another excerpt from a different book. Of course, you can keep going or stop. Hope you enjoy!

On July 26, 2014, Angie wrote, I have a question that pertains both to dialogue and relationship development. I have two taciturn characters who have to spend quite a bit of time together, and are untrusting of each other for a while. The result is that they are both pretty tight-lipped, which makes the scenes feel boring to me. I am hoping to develop their relationship to the point where they want to confide in one another, but am struggling with making that leap, and with creating some natural, interesting dialogue in the meantime. How do you make characters talk when they simply aren’t inclined to do so?

Elisa weighed in with, Thoughtses, thoughtses, use thoughtses! Seriously though, when no one talks, make them THINK. I like it when people have these super sarcastic thoughts about each other without saying anything, its funny. And then one of them can accidentally say a super-sarcastic remark out-loud, and they start a bit of a fight, and then end up laughing (This happens to me and my sister ALL THE TIME!). That breaks the ice pretty well, at least, for me (and my sister).

I’m with Elisa. Thoughtses can wake up our scenes! Especially if our two characters think differently. Since we can never be in anyone else’s mind, we can’t know what’s really going on. Maybe we are all alike when it comes to thinking, but I doubt it.

Let’s start by naming these characters: Victoria and Wilson, and let’s imagine some ways of thinking. I’ll suggest three and you come up with three more:

• Digressive. Wilson starts thinking about how dark it’s getting in the forest and how loud Victoria’s footsteps are and segues to thoughts of night in his bedroom at home to memories of a Halloween sleepover to wondering what his friend who was at the sleepover is doing right now.

• Methodical. Victoria is planning where to sleep tonight and whether it will be better to lose Wilson or to camp together and how she’s going to feed herself and possibly him and how they can work together without ever talking and how she can protect herself in case he attacks in the middle of the night. And she’s coming up with solutions for all of these.

• Irrepressibly happy. Yes, they’re in the middle of a forest. Yes, the king’s evil prime minister is after them. But the air smells so fresh! And listen to the birdsong! Yes, Victoria doesn’t trust Wilson. But he’s a good talker when he talks, which she isn’t, and the gift of gab could come in handy, and the prime minister is the enemy of both of them. And besides, she’s always loved hiking.

Your turn.

Of course, if we’re going to be in the heads of both of them, our POV has to be third-person omniscient. If we’re writing in first person, we have just one mind to work from, which is okay, too. If Victoria is our MC, she can speculate about what Wilson is thinking and what he’s up to.

Each of them also needs to be differently taciturn. Wilson, for example, can be uncommunicative because he’s desperately shy. If we’re not in his mind we can make him blush easily. He can walk behind Victoria on the path, because he’s too unsure of himself to take the lead. But this manifestation of bashfulness can be misinterpreted by Victoria as sneakiness.

Victoria can be silent because she’s a collector of secrets, and she’s learned that she’s more likely to be confided in if she keeps her own conversation to a minimum. Her friends call her The Clam. She’s always been completely trustworthy–although that may change as this tale continues.

There’s opportunity for fun, as each misunderstands what the other is doing. Victoria, for example, can step into a patch of poison ivy simply because she doesn’t see it in the dusk, but Wilson’s interpretation is that she wants to show him how tough she is. If we can arrange matters so that their silence gets them in trouble, that’s even better. Boredom will be banished.

We might introduce another element to create this tension. Suppose the forest is the home of a band of elves, who have been lied to by people in the past. While Wilson is asleep, an elf joins Victoria, who’s guarding the campfire, and asks why she’s in the forest. Uncertain about whether the elves are allies of the evil prime minister, she says that she and Wilson are brother and sister on their way to visit their uncle. When Wilson’s turn to watch comes, Victoria thinks about telling him of the elf’s visit, but she decides the visit is over, so she doesn’t think she needs to and stays silent. The elf returns and talks to Wilson when he’s on watch duty, and he gives a different story. The angry elves capture the two of them and hold them for trial as spies. Each can blame the other, but they’re talking, and–also good–they’re in danger.

Or, Wilson can look up and see a tree tiger, which I just invented, about to pounce on Victoria. He shouts, “Run!” and runs, too. They both live and start talking and planning how they can avoid being taken by surprise.

What will get them talking depends, at least in part, on their characters. If Wilson is digressive in his thinking, he may get so carried away by his thoughts that he forgets where he is and starts thinking out loud. Victoria can say, “What the heck are you going on about?” Not friendly, but they’re talking.

Or methodical Victoria can reach a point in her planning where she needs to share her ideas with Wilson or they won’t work. She’s uneasy, but she speaks.

Here are four prompts:

• The elves put them on trial and appoint a lawyer, who has a very hard time with two uncooperative defendants. Write the scene or scenes. Part of the fun may be inventing the elves’ judicial system.

• Both Victoria and Wilson are starving. Both are excellent archers, but they’re sure, if they pull out their arrows, the action will be misunderstood. Write this scene.

• One of them, you pick which, is actually an agent of the evil prime minister. He or she is quiet, waiting for the other one to say something revealing or to make a fatal mistake. Write the forest crossing.

• The two are destined to fall in love. Write their gradual evolution from suspicion to infatuation.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Thinking in Person

Oh, my! Many, many thanks to everyone who sent in subtitle suggestions! I can’t say enough how helpful they’ve been. I’d been stuck in a rut of subtitles that varied by only a word or two and weren’t very interesting. You blew the rut away by going in directions I hadn’t dreamed of. My editor likes several ideas, and she’s taking them to the all-important sales team for their judgment. I’ll let you know when there’s a decision. Alas, I don’t know how long that will take.

This came into the website from Sophie in October: My problem is that when I write in third person, I don’t think I get into my characters’ heads enough. I talk about their actions, their conversation, and their instincts, but not their thoughts. Or if I do get into their heads, I often jumble up their thoughts, confusing both myself and them.


On the other hand, when I write in first person I’m afraid I’m showing their thoughts far too much, giving too much sarcastic commentary and showing too many of their likes and dislikes.
Ideas? 

Early in my writing days I took a wonderful workshop class and took it again and again for several years. Every week our teacher, Bunny, would read student work without identifying the authors and we would discuss and praise and critique. Often, when a chapter of mine was read, people said I had neglected to show what my MC was feeling. After a while, I’d hear the voices of my classmates in my mind while I was writing, telling me to include emotion. Then, when I worked with an editor for the first time, after nine years of trying, the criticisms I heard most often from her worked their way into my brain, too, and joined the helpful refrain.

We can install our own helpful voices even without a workshop or an editor. The most important word in the last sentence is helpful. We don’t want the drumbeat to go, What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I remember to show feelings? It should be more like, Let there be feelings! Feelings will bring out the terrific stuff I’ve got going.

If we already know we’re not putting in thoughts enough when we’re writing in third person, we can set up ways to remind ourselves and to get in the habit of remembering. Some writers edit the work from their last session before writing anything new. If this is what you do, you can start by looking for places to add thinking. Or, as you write, you can remind yourself every half hour to think about thinking. You can make a poster for yourself that says, Think about thinking, and pin it up in your workspace. You can put reminders on your phone or set an alarm to go off. When it rings you have to edit for thoughts. As you drift off to sleep, you can chant, Into their heads! These techniques will help you create a routine, and eventually you won’t need them.

You can use the same approaches when you’re writing in first person, reminding yourself to limit the thoughts when you’re writing a first draft and also to trim them in revision.

Here’s another technique to try: When you have a third-person scene that lacks thoughts, rewrite it in first person. And vice versa. Yes, this is time-consuming and word-consuming, but who’s counting? I toss out tons of pages on every book. I learn by trying. Writing isn’t efficient.

To recognize what warrants thoughts and what doesn’t, we keep an eye on our story elements. For example, say our MC Sharyn falls off her bike and a new character, Willard, stands over her and says, “Some hedgehogs run away instead of using their needles. I mean, spines. They’re really called spines.” Third person or first, Sharyn has got to think something. For example, she may think first about her bike and whether it’s been damaged. She may notice what this stranger is wearing. She may remember how bad her whole day has been. Or dozens of other possibilities. After the thought, but only after the thought, we can have her say something. Her thoughts contribute to the reader’s understanding of her character. If she notices what Willard is wearing, we also get more development of his character. If the bicycle or her bad day or this new character has anything to do with our story’s trajectory, we advance the plot.

But if Sharyn is merely biking along and not falling, we may want to keep her thoughts to a minimum and just get her there. Not always, though. The ride may give her a chance to mull something over and come to a decision that will move the plot along.

In my opinion, usually reactions belong with events. Suppose we delay Sharyn’s thoughts after she falls. Willard appears, says what he says. She replies. He says some other disconnected thing and wanders away. She brushes herself off and rides on and starts thinking about the experience. As a reader, while events unfold, I’m thinking, What does Sharyn make of this? What’s going on with her? Is she in shock? When she finally does start thinking, I may be satisfied. No. I won’t be. By then it’s too late for me.

On the other hand, we don’t want to interrupt an exciting moment like the fall and the introduction of Willard with a paragraph of thinking. We can drop in just a quick thought here, another there, as the dialogue develops. Then, when Willard leaves, we can have Sharyn think more expansively.

A note about sarcasm: In my opinion, a little goes a long way. If a character is sarcastic by nature, a few salvos in dialogue or thought when we first meet her will establish that characteristic. In future scenes, just one will be enough to remind the reader.

If our MC is a sarcastic-by-nature person, we’ll have to work harder to make her likable, if we want her to be likable. It certainly can be done, but we’ve added a hurdle.

Sarcasm is easy to write. For example, the first thing that may jump to mind for Sharyn to think after Willard speaks could be something like, Thanks for helping me up. In the circumstances, the thought is justified, but it isn’t the most interesting way to go. Instead, she might wonder where he lives or if he owns a hedgehog or if he knows how strange he seems. In dialogue we can resist a sarcastic comeback and consider other possibilities. Sharyn may say, “Yes, and foxes are really easy to domesticate.” If she’s kind she might say, “I didn’t know that.” If she’s mean, she could say, “Well, you’re a freak.”

Going back to the problem of including the right amount of thinking, the solutions I’ve proposed are mechanical, which I see nothing wrong with. We’re learning a skill, writing, and we need protocols to help us. When we train ourselves to play an instrument, we play scales. When we train in a sport, we practice. Same with fiction writing. And if we’ve identified the difficulty, we’re way ahead.

Here are three prompts:

• Continue the scene with Sharyn and Willard. If you like you can introduce additional tension in the reason Sharyn fell off her bike. After you’ve written the scene in first or third person, look it over and decide if you’ve included the right number of thoughts. If not, revise. If you like, keep going with the story.

• Your MC Paulette has to decide between two kingdoms. Both want her for the magic sword that she alone can wield. She’s meeting with both rulers in a neutral place, and each is trying to win her allegiance. Write the scene in first person, including her thoughts. Make her suspicious and angry. Rewrite, making her feel honored and loved, with thoughts to go along with those emotions. Rewrite again, and this time give her a secret desire.

• Try the scene with Paulette again but this time in omniscient third person. Include the thoughts of each ruler.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Describing and Thinking Too Much

On January 28, 2010, Wendy the Bard wrote, What about too much description and thought?  Any words on that?

In writing this blog I’ve often thought of the old song “Dem Dry Bones.”  I’m making up the bones to fit writers, but it goes something like, Your finger bones connected to your hand bones, your hand bones connected to your wrist bones, and so on, with a strong beat.  In writing, everything is connected to everything else.  So description and thoughts are connected to point of view (POV) and to voice and to all the other elements that make up a story.

If you’re writing in first-person POV or in a third-person POV that’s not omniscient (all knowing), only the main character’s thoughts can be reported and only what she sees, hears, smells, touches can be described.  Suppose she’s a landscape painter and sees herself as a colorist, she’s going to be alert to the hues wherever she goes.  You will certainly want to emphasize the colors in each setting she enters.  She may be emotionally tuned to colors too, so she might be distressed in certain environments.  She might even like or dislike someone according to the color scheme in his house or his clothes.  She may be too fascinated by the blue tones in the ocher mud caked on the green linoleum kitchen floor to conclude that the floor is dirty.

But she may not be sensitive to sounds.  She may not hear the ticking clock or the teakettle hissing as it approaches a boil.  Despite the hiss, she may jump when the whistle starts.  If there is something auditory you need the reader to know about, you may have to make it deafening, or you may need to have another character mention it.

So, thinking about who is telling the story will help limit your descriptions to only what this character would notice.

However, if your main character is, for example, a detective who notices everything, the task is harder.  He sees the mud on the floor and the footprints tracked through it and the teakettle and the absence of tea in the cupboard and all kinds of things as well, the pack of matches under one leg of the kitchen table to steady it, the frog refrigerator magnets, the wildlife calendar turned to the wrong month.  Some of these observations may be important to the mystery and others may not.  You will probably want to mix the irrelevant in with the relevant to mislead the poor reader, but you still won’t want to go on too long.

How to stop?  Your detective can be interrupted.  Someone can ask him a question or enter the room.  His cell phone can ring.  Even his thoughts can change tracks.  Suppose your detective is falling in love.  The orange tablecloth can be the same color as his girlfriend’s scarf, and his thoughts can go briefly to her.  If he’s thinking too much already, you may not want to opt for this, though.

People think differently, too.  Some think in grammatically correct paragraphs, some in phrases, some in a word or two, some in images.  When a character has a problem it may cycle endlessly through his mind.  An argument can do this too, as he thinks of all the cutting remarks he could have made.  Or if he was told something that stunned him, just a few words may echo over and over.

If your character is a loquacious thinker you can bring in the same devices to stop the thinking as you used to cut off the description.  When I’m caught on a thought treadmill in real life, I often turn on talk radio to shut myself up.  Your character can do the same, or she can watch TV or listen to music, whatever will distract her.

You can switch to telling as well, as in, I stayed up half the night going over Dylan’s words.  Then the next morning comes and the story moves on to other things.  Or, Sheila couldn’t stop thinking about the secret.  Maxie came by.  They talked, but the thinking wouldn’t go away, like the crawl under the television news.  By informing the reader that thinking is taking place, you don’t have to reveal every thought.

If you’re telling the story from an omniscient third-person POV – by a narrator who’s outside the story – the narrator’s voice can help limit description.  A no-nonsense voice will not let you spend many words on the Venetian blinds in the kitchen.  It will hurry to the boy peeking through the slats to see if the class bully is waiting outside the house.

A more lyrical voice may linger, which is fine, as long as you keep the reader in mind.  You can spend a whole page on a lovely picnic scene if the reader knows that an approaching airplane is having engine trouble and may crash land there.  In fact, in such a situation, more may be better.  Show the reader the budding dogwood trees, the girl with the five-week-old puppies she hopes to find homes for, the artist sketching the family of picnickers, and the old man sleeping with the newspaper over his face.  You can even zoom in close enough to reveal the newspaper headline about improved air travel safety.

Having said all this, you may still write too much description and too many thoughts.  I recommend not worrying about this in your first draft and maybe not even in your second, not until your story is solid.  Before then you can’t be sure what you need and what you don’t.

When you’re revising, try cutting sentences and paragraphs of description and thoughts – but before you cut, save the version and continue in a new version so you don’t lose what you had before.  If you’re working longhand, cross out in pencil.  See how the slimmer version reads.  Is it better?  Or do you and the reader need at least some of what you took out?

To help guide you in your cutting, ask yourself if the part you’re thinking of cutting contributes to character, setting, mood, plot.  Even if it does, question whether those elements are already established enough without these passages.

This is my prejudice:  Don’t cut humor unless it is out of place or works against your scene.  Few readers mind extra sentences that make them laugh.

Remember, you don’t need a machete to cut.  A nail scissors works fine too.  You can cut a third of a story or even of a book with a snip here and a snip there.

F and Arya, originally I thought I would get to your questions about too little dialogue, but I failed, so next week I will.

Here are prompts:  Describe a room in your house and give the accompanying thoughts from the point of view of one or more of these:
•    a burglar who has broken in at 2:00 am;
•    a teenager who’s come along with her parents on a house-hunt;
•    the family dog or cat;
•    a grandmother who’s just moved in with her daughter’s family;
•    an interior decorator who’s been invited to redo the room.

Restrict yourself to no more than two pages for each.  Then revise and see what you can do very well without.  Have fun and save what you write!