(Don’t) Just Think About It

I hate when characters think in books.

Let me clarify.

I hate when the writer stops the story dead in its tracks so a character can think. It doesn’t really matter what thee character thinks about. It’s usually plot or conflict or character. But, jeepers, it is boring having a character just think for pages at a time.

Sometimes, it isn’t even a character thinking. Sometimes, it’s just the narrator stopping the story to explain something. That’s just as dull.

Characters in books will have think, and narrators will have to explain sometimes. It’s not these moments that I find dull. One of the great things about novels is that they allow the reader to experience a story on so many levels at once. One of those levels is the thoughts and feelings of the characters. This is such a potent tool that movies created voiceover in jealous imitation. Something that isn’t even necessary and actively hurts many films, and it does so for the exact same reason thinking or explaining can hurt a novel.

It’s a tired old chestnut: Show, Don’t Tell. And one that I believe is often misapplied. Some things in stories are definitely worth Telling, Not Showing. A single-minded devotion to the Show, Don’t Tell rule is why we end up with stories where nobody “walks”. Everyone “ambles”, “moseys”, “bolts”, “speeds”, “trots”, etc. And that’s not terrible, not every action or moment needs one to break out the thesaurus. Because not every moment is worth that attention. Granted, most of those moments can be skipped in a story, but not all. And it’s okay to save your literary heavy lifting for better moments when you simply need your character to “walk” across the room.

But rather than think in terms of Showing or Telling, I tend to ask myself: “Is this scene interactive?” Does the central character interact with something in the moment that relates to what they’re thinking about? If so, then the scene is usually interesting.

By Interact, I don’t mean direct, obvious interaction. The character doesn’t have to say a word or touch anything. But something in the moment should relate to what they’re thinking about. While writing visually can be another element misapplied, other mediums such as TV, movies, or plays can be great examples.

A most basic example is a character going through a breakup, walking down the street, seeing a happy couple holding hands and laughing. The character might not say a word to the couple, might not even be on the same side of the street, but the connection to what they’re going through emotionally and what is happening in the physical world is obvious.

Good visual media does this all the time. And this is why I find most voiceover (or the modern equivalent of having the character stop and talk directly to the camera) to be more annoying than informative. But that’s subjective. Competent voiceover, even if it isn’t necessary, can at least give a story some extra personality.

A rule of thumb I’ve adopted over the years is that if I have pages of internal monologue that would be portrayed in a more visual medium as a character sitting in a chair, thinking, with nothing else happening then I’ve probably written a boring scene. Or I could at least make the moment more engaging.

This is why the Ferris Bueller’s style narration of directly talking to the camera has become more popular. It can add a bit of personality to otherwise uninteresting voiceover, though I’d argue that it still often creates unnecessary interruption of the story that could be illustrated in a better way. But that’s subjective.

For narration, I view the opening crawl of any Star Wars movie. The longer that crawl goes on, the more time I view my audience sitting in the darkness, watching words unspooling for five minutes, just waiting for that star destroyer to show up and get things started.

As novelists, this is why you must never underestimate the power of minor characters and props. Both can imbue your scenes with that extra touch of life and engagement. They don’t need to be big or fancy or overwrought. But if you can illustrate your moment with a single element, you’re probably on the right track.

In particular, paying special attention to introductions. When I introduced Mack Megaton, giant killer robot, he’s having a neighbor help him with his bow tie. It tells us everything about him: Attempting to be civilized while being hampered by his own innate made-to-smash giant hands. It also sets the relationship with his neighbors, which becomes a driving element of the plot.

The first time we meet Constance Verity, she’s applying for a normal job and seemingly failing. Then, she gets the job and things look up for a moment before…well, that would be telling.

Like everything about writing, this Rule of Interaction is more of a rule of thumb than an absolute. But it’s something that I always consider whenever I’m creating a story. It can be discarded, but like any rule or any subversion of a rule, it tends to work best when it’s done with intent. Whether any choice works or not is always a matter of opinion, but at least if the author deliberately makes that choice they can also accept the consequences and criticism that come with it.

Well, as much as accepting criticism is ever fun.



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