Can you hear what I’m thinking?
I doubt it. Even if you could, your brain would be steaming right now, trying to process the double time paradox I was just concocting. (Even I don’t try to process those.) So if you could hear what I was thinking, you’re probably dead right now.
Now can anyone hear what I’m thinking?
You can hypothesize, you can deduce, or you can try for a telepathic connection, but chances are you can’t hear the thoughts of other people.
In a fictional narrative, authors frequently write in the viewpoint character’s thoughts. It’s a luxury prose writers have, to tell the audience exactly what’s running through the character’s head. Unfortunately, it can often be too much to know what the character is thinking, especially since it often runs afoul of the “show, don’t tell” advice everyone gives. I posted recently about a character’s imagination and the importance of writing that into a narrative, but not all thoughts are the greatest.
As I watch TV shows, I try to come up with rules that govern them. CSI, Fringe, even Doctor Who– they’re all formulaic in structure, plot, and characters. Even if you have an ageless time lord flying around in a police box, you still have to follow the same rules as the guy writing four cops trying to solve a murder in NYC. One of the big rules I’ve found, which works for any screenplay, is that in a scene, there are never less than two characters.
Think about it. A character has all these puzzle pieces jumbled around in her head and on the walk home from work, she tries to put them together. Would you rather have her talk to herself the entire way and get strange looks from the entire town population? Or should she have a friend upon whom she can heap all her tangled thoughts? Or, worst of all, would you like a voice-over the whole way? Or you could do it like reality and have two minutes of her walking home in silence, making faces like she’s mentally inspecting a jar of moldy pickles.
The only real yet practical option is the second, speaking to a friend. When have our ideas not come together when we get it all out into the open air? It doesn’t matter if we’re talking to a cat or a genius (or both– can’t have those feline-lovers making a fuss). And sometimes you just need someone to ask the obviously stupid questions that the audience can’t ask. To keep the second character in his correct role, you’ll have to make sure he isn’t familiar with this concept before he asks dumb questions about it, but other than that, any character will do.
Occasionally it’s possible to convey thoughts through facial expressions or actions. If so, good for you! Most times, however, the audience doesn’t realize that the traitor was actually the main character’s best friend from just an expression of shock. She could be thinking about dinner, realizing that she just left her friend the Desolator of Refrigerators home with the leftover cheeseburger she thought she’d eat.
Characters interact in pairs. Two people are walking through a decrepit building. One brushes aside a spiderweb and says, “This place is creepy.” The other shines a flashlight on the rat chewing its way through a priceless antique and says, “No, this is cool! Think of all the history!” You can generate either emotion easily on its own– creaking doors, unknown noises in the walls, a cat scare here or there; or else an original painting, a beautiful armchair, and a framed photograph of Julius Caesar and Brutus giving each other bunny ears. But to do both at once, leaving the audience to decide which they like best– it can’t be done with setting or description.
And then there’s practicality, conciseness. Two characters need to argue in the course of the story, and you’re building up to it. At about the same point, your main character needs to investigate something. Why have two scenes when you can have one? Even using that last example, say the main character is the history person: simply have the argument escalate from that difference in opinions. “You never care about anything but the history! Want to know some history I’ve never forgotten? [Airing of old grievances here.] I hate you!” And the creeped-out character stomps away as the curtain closes and the scene changes. Remember my post on contrast? Here it is, in all its glory. The elation of the history-oriented character to find so much about his past, clashing with the loss of a good friend. I keep getting the urge to write “Boom”, so I will. BOOM! It’s emotional to the extreme.
These character foils erase infodumps, clear up dead space, and keep things concise. No more monologues about “Nancy thought…” Of course, as a prose writer, you’re still allowed those every so often, but it shouldn’t be the only way the reader gets inside the main character’s head.