Describing What the Mind is Doing by Writing Thoughts

In a lot of manuscripts, I’ve seen attempts at writing thoughts 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. (Filler should be trimmed in your writing revision process — click the link for more info.) 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. (Confused on interiority meaning? Read more here.)

writing thoughts, how to show thoughts in writing
If someone interrupts your character’s VERY IMPORTANT train of thought about Halloween decorations, make sure you know how to translate that interruption into your writing.

Tips on Writing Thoughts

Let’s look at some examples.

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–
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 example about how to show thoughts in writing. 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?”

Em-dashes Denote Interruption

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 how to write an interruption in dialogue. There’s formatting to do that work for you. Use an em-dash when you’re writing thoughts 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.

Ellipses Indicate Drifting Off

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…”
“Yes! No spider webs. We’ll be picking them out of the bushes until Thanksgiving!”

There you have it — some thoughts on, well, how to show thoughts in writing! Happy (early) Halloween!

If you’re struggling with interiority, hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work on it together.

2 Replies to “Describing What the Mind is Doing by Writing Thoughts”

  1. Christina C. says:

    It’s good to remember that when you’re interrupted, you don’t know you’re being interrupted until it occurs – ie have him interrupt his wife first, write the dialogue for him, and then she can say she’s being interrupted. Otherwise it’s like she can predict what’ll happen.

    But as you say, no need to actually “tell” the interruption or whatever jumble is in her mind. Show it 🙂

    And awesome reminder about using an em-dash. 🙂

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