Interiority

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As you know if you’ve read the blog for a little while, my favorite musician is Ben Folds. His band’s most recent album was called The Sound of the Life of the Mind. Not only is the title track my cell phone ringtone, but the idea of “the life of the mind” comes into play today.

In a lot of manuscripts, I’ve seen descriptions like, “My mind exploded with questions” or “He interrupted my train of thought with his voice.” There’s nothing technically wrong with these bits of narrative, but they fall onto the chopping block because of my aversion to filler. If the mind is exploding with questions, you don’t need to narrate that. Cut right to the interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) and the specific questions.

If someone is brought out of a meditative moment or otherwise interrupted, let’s get that in interiority instead of the simple description. For example:

Should I get the light-up pumpkins, or the little spiders? Gosh, Target is tough. Too much good stuff, but I can’t get it all. I wish I had more of a decorator’s eye. Maybe these sconces shaped like witch hats will redeem me. I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
“Sweetie?”
“Huh?”
My husband looks at me like it’s not his first time trying to get my attention. “I think we have enough Halloween stuff.”

I can’t possibly figure out what inspired this excerpt. Certainly not a trip to Target over the weekend. ;) But here we can see the train of thought interrupted in action, rather than narration. It would be superfluous to also include description of how I’m brought out of my thoughts, for example:

I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
My husband interrupts my thoughts. “Sweetie?”
I’m still thinking about candy bowls when the fantasy comes to a grinding halt. “Huh?”

Here, the idea of being interrupted is pasted on so thick that it slows down the narration. As a bonus side note, let me remind you that you can also exterminate filler on the topic of interruptions in dialogue. There’s formatting to do that work for you. Use an em-dash to denote interruption. I’ve seen a lot of writers using an ellipse and narration, but there’s a much easier and cleaner way.

Before (less correct):

“I think we need more candy. What if a lot of kids…”
Todd interrupts me. “We don’t need more candy. We have ten bags already.”

After (better!):

“And what about pumpkins? Let’s line the driveway, and get one for each step, and–”
“You’re giving me a migraine.”

The em-dash successfully communicates the interruption. There’s absolutely no need to narrate it (“Todd interrupts”) because your formatting is doing all the work on your behalf. An ellipse, on the other hand, indicates a speaker who has drifted off instead of one who is abruptly cut short. For example:

“But I don’t want any of that…”
“Any of what?”
“The stuff, the spider…”
“Webs?”
“Yes! No spider webs. We’ll be picking them out of the bushes until Thanksgiving!”

There you have it, some thoughts on filler, interiority, and interruptions! Happy (early) Halloween!

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It’s perfectly possible, essential in fact, to engage in some interiority even when you’re working in third person narration. Most writers these days are getting around the whole issue by writing in first person. For years, this has been the vogue for MG and YA (a bit more for the latter). There is the perception that first person is more “immediate,” meaning, most likely, that there’s more that readers see from the protagonist’s POV, which means access to their thoughts, feelings, and reactions in real-time (which I have always called “interiority” for short, though Word still refuses to accept it as a word).

Interiority is important. The character acts as the reader’s closest connection to the story. They also guide reader emotions. If something happens in the plot and we don’t know how to feel about it (I’d recommend that this doesn’t happen that often, because ideally you should be layering in context and anticipation for big events long before they happen), we look to the protagonist and see how they’re reacting. If they are wigging out, we know the event is bad, etc.

Without a lot of cues in the moment, or with reactions that come long after the fact, the reader is often a little stranded. A disconnect opens up between reader and character, and if you don’t nurture that relationship, or too many disconnects happen, then it’s unlikely to result in the type of connection that you’re looking to foster. So I teach that interiority is important. I’d rather know a little bit more about what’s going on in a character than a little bit less in any given moment, especially if you’re a writer who’s on the fence abut this whole interiority thing and you suspect that you don’t have a lot.

This brings me to third person. It’s first person’s more “distant” sister. And because first person POV already has the perceived advantage of being more “accessible,” third person writers (those brave souls!) need to fight a little bit harder–or at least be more deliberate–about making sure that the reader can still access interiority.

Most third person is “close,” meaning you technically can access one brain, usually the protagonist’s. Writing without this modification is really difficult. Writing “omniscient” is also difficult, as it involves “head-hopping” into many characters’ psyches, which (if you’re going to master the technique) involves pretty advanced characterization and voice development for each new personality.

So in close, you have some options. You can use the “thought” tag to voice a thought verbatim (put it in italics), then add “she thought.” Or just leave it in italics and leave the tag off. Readers will catch on to what you’re doing.

Why did I ever think calculus was a good idea? What an idiot.

Another idea is to narrate interiority just as you would in third person, only using the different POV.

“She looked at the exam in disgust before handing it over and skulking away, certain she’d failed.”

Lots of emotion in that example. For those writers who have trouble addressing interiority directly and want training wheels, dialogue is going to be your best friend. That and action.

“Thanks for nothing,” she said, shuffling out of the exam room and slamming the door behind her.

Subtle, these examples are not. But they all convey emotion, which is the point of interiority. No matter how directly you want to address the issue, whether you want to break third person for a peek into direct thoughts, or stick to third person that gets into the character’s head a little, or stay away from thoughts completely and deal with dialogue and actions, you should be thinking of ways to inject more emotion so that your characters’ inner lives rise a bit more to the surface. You’ll never regret fostering that connection to the reader and putting a little more heart on your character’s sleeve.

 

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I’ve been working a lot with editorial clients on the idea of interiority. I’ve written a lot about it, both in the book and on the blog. One of my favorite posts, which serves as good preparation for this post, is here. A lot of writers do balk on the issue of, “Well, if I share the character’s thoughts/feelings/reactions, isn’t that just another version of telling?” As we all know from the old adage, telling bad, showing good. (Here’s a handy post as to why that’s such a popular dictum.)

It’s true that, when you use interiority, you are technically telling. But if you think about it, you tell all the time in writing. A storm is brewing. She puts her phone on the coffee table, waiting for it to ring. The car is blue. Telling is alive and well in fiction and there’s no need to make it the enemy, except for when you tell about characters and emotions. (She is a bully. He is sad.) That’s what really makes prose lie flat on the page, and that is where we want writers to stretch a little and show how she treats other people, or how he’s ready to give up on himself, and what that might look like to this particular character. Of course, I would prefer that you do this without using too many familiar physical clichés (butterflies in the stomach for nerves, heart fluttering for love, etc.)

I could go on and on about this issue. And there are a lot of shades to it, as you can tell. By now, you probably feel like I’m putting you in an impossible box. “I need to tell when it makes sense to tell, but not when it comes to emotions, which I should show, only I can’t use hearts, eyes, stomachs, or any other physical clichés to show the visceral effect of the emotions… WHAT ARE YOU SMOKING, MARY KOLE, AND WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE ME CRAZY?”

Whoa, buddy. Take a step back. All of these posts are to help you think about what interiority truly is, and when you should aim to tell, and aim to show. Take what makes sense to you, leave what doesn’t. I hope some sort of larger logic emerges once you study this part of my story theory. In the meantime, there’s also another subtle use of interiority that completely circumvents the show vs. tell argument. A cheat! Brilliant!

Well, maybe not a cheat, but definitely another tool you can use. It’s subtle interiority. And the best way of explaining it is “emotion in description.” This works whether you’re in third person (usually close third is the best candidate) or first. And it’s a key component, for me, anyway, of that other frustrating concept: voice.

The key is to inject emotion toward an outward object, place, or person via description or narration. If someone is annoying, maybe your character describes them as “grating her way through the story.” Compare that to “she told a story.” Changing one verb lends emotion to it, and, without showing or telling, we come to understand that the narrator doesn’t think much of the object of the description. We get emotion secondhand without having to conquer it directly. Look at how emotion creeps in:

“He parked his vehicle” vs. “His gaudy Beemer sleazed across two parking spots” (exaggerated, of course)
“She ate a sandwich” vs. “She pecked at her food”
“He kissed her” vs. “He slimed her” vs. “He devoured her”

I’m mostly doing this with verbs so far, but you can play with adjectives, too:

“The skyline” vs. “The noxious smog-obscured wasteland” vs. “The glittering metropolis”
“The countryside” vs. “The tranquil retreat” vs. “The cauldron of boredom”
“Her face” vs. “Her luminous visage” vs. “Her fug mug”

And here’s where this all comes back to voice and character. The guy who waxes poetic about his crush’s “luminous visage” is not the same as the catty girl who knocks her former acolyte’s “fug mug.” Description should contain hints at emotion, which is another way of incorporating interiority, defining character, and developing voice. Whew! It’s all coming together, folks!

 

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The Blurt

No, I’m not talking about blurbs, the juicy quotes you try and get as a soon-to-be author that (may or may not) help sell your book. Though I probably should at some point, because it’s a pretty hot topic in the publishing world and ahuge source of anxiety for new authors. This post is actually about the action of blurting. No, I haven’t run out of things to talk about. I have about 100 ideas in the “soapbox file” on my computer. (Lucky you!) I know this sounds very specific, but, as usual, I have a larger point to make by delving into something small.

You know those times when you open your mouth and…the worst possible thing just seems to fall out, as if on its own. I know I’ve had this happen. A few times. Usually during fights with my mother. And I hear about it for the rest of my natural life. Ha! Well, in addition to this happening a lot to me, I’ve noticed that it happens quite a bit with fictional characters. A lot of big events in manuscripts I’ve seen seem to spin on characters blurting. The big secret. That they love the guy. That they’re not who they say they are.

I understand the urge to throw one’s arms up and hinge an important scene on a blurt. It’s easy. Your character would never do something so silly until, she just does it! You know how that goes, Reader. Sometimes ya just run your mouth! But here lies the problem. It’s careless and unintentional and often feels like a cheat. Especially if blurting is out of character for your blurter (new word). It tells me that the writer needed certain information to emerge but didn’t know how to go about it. This technique is especially disappointing when the character has, elsewhere, been in control of themselves with interiority and being present and vulnerable with the reader. A blurt under those circumstances just feels wrong and a little too convenient.

So how do you get around the blurt cliché? If you think I’m going to say, “interiority,” you would be correct! You’re writing compelling MG and YA fiction with great access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, yes? Great. Since you have spent time making your character mindful and aware, they must know that what they’re blurting will have ramifications. They will know the risks of confessing their love to their crush. They will know what awful things might happen if they let their true identity slip. They will think about it. And instead of blurting it once their author has painted himself in a corner, which is passive, they will make the choice to say it with intention, which is very much active.

Make the moment of your blurt a conscious turning point! Get in their heads when you feel tempted to blurt and have them make the decision to say the Big Deal thing instead. Anyone can blurt anything. But we will learn so much more about your character if they take the risk and do the stupid thing with full agency. If blurting is careless, then knowing the risks and going for the reveal full-bore is ballsy. And that’s the kind of action that gets me more invested in your character.

Are there any blurts in your manuscript? Can you make it work as a choice instead? How will that reel your reader in or reveal a new shade of your character?

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With Feeling

On a completely unrelated note: Moving is the worst. And I’m bleeding money left and right on all sorts of home-related purchases. On a better note: I am sitting in front of my new fireplace, so things could be worse! I look forward to getting to know my new home of Minneapolis. Now (ahem) moving on…

I was reading a manuscript recently for a freelancing client and noticed a lot of pretty shocking things going on…without the usual reactions that should accompany shocking things. An example would be a character developing a really painful physical condition and then shrugging it off. And his friends noticing that something is off and saying, “Well, I guess he’ll tell me what’s up eventually” instead of confronting their ill companion.

Here are two missed opportunities to deepen the reader’s connection with the world of the story. The first happened when the character refused to allow events to impact him. Or maybe he decided to keep up an illusion of normalcy and was therefore nonchalant.These are both realistic choices–there are certainly people like this in the world, lots of them. But are they good choices for fictional people to make?

A character who keeps everyone at arm’s length is only good if they have cracks for the reader to crawl into. The reader isn’t a character, for the sake of talking about fiction. And they’re not really a person. They are a sort of mind-meld creature that can and should get just a bit closer to the bone, especially in parts of a story that are full of fear or anger or hurt. The toughest characters in the world can have their walls, but they should also have their vulnerabilities, especially if the reader gets some access to those (via interiority, for example).

The second missed opportunity in our example scenario is the lack of reaction to whatever is weird. If one character is doing something to disturb the status quo, the characters around him need to take notice instead of taking the path of least resistance. I know there are some worlds, like totalitarian societies in a dystopia, for example, where any kind of out-of-line behavior is frowned upon and maybe it’s a bad idea to react. Even in that case–and maybeespecially in that case–characters should be tough on other characters. That means confronting them, forcing them into the vulnerable places, throwing open closet doors and letting the skeletons out. If something is weird, it needs to be weird for the POV characterand those around them.

This level of reaction helps the reader get context. Classic story theory dictates that a story really begins when a character’s normal gets thrown into a state of abnormal. They spend the rest of the story trying to either get back to normal or establish a new normal. So events that leave the status quo behind should be reacted to with feeling, and lots of it. Both internal and external. By everyone involved.

This is something I’ve discussed a lot on the blog, but it never becomes less important. Writers are notorious for taking shortcuts and making it easier on themselves. That’s why characters shrug off bumps in the night until it’s convenient for the writer’s plot to finally involve the monster. That’s why they ignore a friend’s mounting pallor until–oops!–they’re found in the cemetery at midnight, feeding on a fresh kill. If your protagonist and the other characters in your world have such tight control over themselves and their reactions to events, there are fewer opportunities for your reader to get to know them.

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You’re writing a novel and putting a lot of images, events, characters, settings, and objects into it. Grand! A lot of manuscripts don’t take the necessary step after this, however, and connect the dots. If you introduce a character early on, they should work their way deeper and deeper into the fabric of your plot. Images should reappear and gain significance each time. A bird in chapter one will ideally have new shades of meaning halfway through the book, and then even more in the final chapter. Settings should change as the plot unfolds, meaning that the quarry your protagonist runs away to on a carefree summer day might change drastically when she takes a boyfriend there at night. Not only might your character experience these images, events, places, and people, you should keep in mind how your protagonist reacts to them.

Imagine a photograph of two people you’ve never seen before, young girls playing table tennis. To a random stranger, this elicits little or no reaction. But imagine if you were the girls’ mother, looking at the photograph? Or one of the girls, but maybe thirty years down the line? That object has now become imbued with some very personal emotions. Give the important secondary elements of your manuscript significance by building a relationship between them and your main character. These relationships can change and evolve over time.

Mimic the human brain and don’t let your characters think linearly. This means that you shouldn’t just bring an important secondary element to the page when it’s convenient or right when it’s needed. In between encounters with that bird that keeps reappearing or a character who is crucial to the plot, let your main character remember them or wonder about them. That’s too convenient, and it plays on the surface. Free yourself from only referencing one of your carefully chosen story points when it’s needed and let them form a richer tapestry using your character’s inner life.

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There’s one tool available to writers that I find is often underused: reaction. This is a missed opportunity. Even if you’re in third person but especially if you’re in first person, you need to highlight big moments in your story and call attention to emotion and character relationship by making sure each noteworthy exchange or event lands with your character.

How your character reacts to something gives your reader valuable clues as to how they should be reacting, what they should be learning from whatever just transpired, and how significant it is to the overall story.

For example, a character is staring out the window at night when, suddenly, she sees a firefly turn into a fairy princess out on the lawn. What is her reaction? If she thinks “Oh, no! Not again! That means dad will make me go out there first thing tomorrow and wash the fairy dust off the grass…” then that tells the reader that fairies are common in this world, and a bit of a nuisance. Not only do we get the character’s attitude about the firefly fairy, but we get valuable worldbuilding information (especially if this is the first time we see that this world has magic/fantasy elements to it). If she thinks “WHAT THE F*** IS THAT?!?!?!?!?!” and runs screaming from the room, we may take that as our cue that firefly fairies are not the norm and that something truly odd is going on.

This is an example of how a reaction could fill in larger world context. It also gives us information about character. (Does she like magic? Is she over it? Etc.) You could also define relationship through reaction. If a girl we’ve never met comes up to a boy in the cafeteria and says “Hey,” and he says “Hey,” back, then that’s a rather bland scene. However, you could fill in a lot with reaction.

Two possible scenarios:

“Hey,” she said.
How could she be talking to him so casually after what she’d done. Now she was staring at him. Great. He couldn’t be the one to make this awkward. He bit down the string of obscenities that she deserved hurled at her and mustered up a rather bland, “Hey.”

“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said, and immediately regretted the wasted opportunity. This was Cassie Price, of all people! Talking to him! The moment he had been waiting for his entire life and it was over just like that. Now Cassie had moved on, taking that musky scent of her jasmine perfume with her, and he didn’t know whether he’d ever have this chance again.

Same dialogue, two completely different scenes and relationships. And yes, for those of you wondering, I consider reaction to be a very important–if not the most important–function of Interiority.

Use it to make things seem important, too. If something is a BIG DEAL, make the corresponding reaction big, whether through dialogue, Interiority, or action. Draw attention to the things that matter by letting them matter more to your character. I bet there are a lot of such missed opportunities in your work.

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Protagonists have to be emotional beings. Without being clued in to their Interiority–thoughts, feelings, reactions to what’s going on in the world–and without getting a sense for their emotional lives through voice and the way that they describe everything and everyone in your story (this applies to third person, too), we won’t truly know them.

As a writer, it’s your job to clue the reader into emotions at every turn, but always through Interiority and showing. Telling when it comes to characterization and emotion is probably one of the biggest problems I encounter in manuscripts.

But even when you manage to convey emotion correctly in your novel or picture book, don’t be content to play on the surface. In a good book, there should never be just “happy” or “sad.” All emotions have causes, degrees, and consequences. The more complex the emotion in every situation, the more specific you’re being, and the more engaged your reader will become.

For example, prom is something a lot of teens look forward to. But “happy and excited” can also be cliché and boring. Not to mention unrealistic. A much more authentic experience for your character might be that prom is actually bittersweet. Sure, it’s the event of the year, but it’s also a rite of passage for graduating seniors. It’s a signal that the year is almost over and that this is one of the last times all these friends and enemies and peers and teammates will be under the same room ever again. For every emotion, find it’s shadow or highlight, search for a deeper layer, and give your reader several facets.

You can easily do it in Interiority. If we run with our prom idea, planting seeds of melancholy can be accomplished quickly and efficiently like this:

“Cheese!” Lacey grinned at the camera, clutching her date. As the flash went off, she felt a pang of nostalgia sharp enough to make her draw a quick breath. This will all be over so soon, she thought. But then the thumping bass beckoned her from the hotel ballroom, and she marched off toward it, ready to be lost in a crowd of her friends.

Ideally, we’ll get the primary emotion–excitement–and then hints of something else. No matter how you accomplish it, this kind of layered narrative is always infinitely more interesting to me as a reader, and it makes for much richer character.

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Let me tell you a little story about how I fly. If y’all have spent any time following my blog or Twitter, you know that I seem to wind up on airplanes a lot. Last year, I logged 75,000 miles, with my longest flight lasting 12 hours. It may come as a surprise to you, then, that I am not a good flyer. In fact, I’ve resorted to many possible solutions for my flight anxiety, from hypnotherapy to whiskey. (Both happen to work, but the latter makes for a rather groggy arrival, just FYI.)

These days, the only real problem I have with flying is takeoff. Landing is fine, being in the air is fine, but takeoff always gets me. (In the air, you don’t really realize you’re going 500 mph because you don’t have the ground as a reference point. On takeoff, you can see exactly how fast you’re going and you can feel yourself pulling against gravity, and I think that’s what bothers me. It’s a physical reminder of the forces involved and I don’t like to think about it.) Turbulence used to really bother me until someone I sat next to once said, “Imagine a stick bobbing in a river. It’s not comfortable, but it’s safe because it’s behind held up by water. Water has mass, and so does air. We’re floating on top of a choppy current, but we’re being held up by the air in much the same way.” That really helped.

Until I got my head straight re: turbulence, though, I would sit in my seat, pinned down with worry, operating under the mistaken notion that my constant vigilance was the only thing keeping the plane in the air. I wanted to note every noise, feel every g-force, monitor every bank, and otherwise white-knuckle it until landing. Flying is completely out of a passenger’s control, and through the sheer force of my anxiety, I flew for years in a state of hyper-vigilance, hoping to regain some of that lost agency.

If I were to give you my Interiority on a plane–my thoughts, feelings, emotions–there would be a lot going on. Every second would be consumed with my brain’s whirrings. Worry is a very familiar, specific, and active thought process. (And here I arrive at how all this applies to writing…) There are lots of novels where I read characters worrying, and it’s a very natural emotion that helps raise stakes and build tension. In fact, I think that a lot of characters don’t worry enough, and a lot of writers miss great opportunities by not sharing their protagonist’s anxieties with the reader.

But there’s also a danger in writing a character who is constantly worrying. Think back to me in my window seat, monitoring every aspect of the flight and gripping my armrests. Internally, I am a hive of activity. But, to the observer in the seat next to me, I look like I’m…just sitting there. Worry is great in doses, but you can’t build a plot on a character whose entire tension is internal. Because it’s static. I happen to find my thoughts as I fly fascinating. But Mary Flying would make a terrible movie because it is physically passive and static.

So use worry to amp up tension and raise stakes and definitely include it as Interiority. But remember that you need to balance it well with external conflict, or you risk your character…just sitting there. At one point, they have to cross the thought/action barrier and do something about all of their anxieties. They need to be proactive and to make something happen in the world of your book. We learn a lot about character through Interiority, but I’d argue that we learn more as they actually get out of their heads and take action. (There’s also the juicy tension of them thinking one thing and doing another, for example. But, again, you can only get there once you put them in motion.) As for me? You’ll often find me 30,000 feet above your heads, but these days, I’m more often than not (thankfully) asleep.

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