I Can’t Hear You!

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.

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48 thoughts on “I Can’t Hear You!

  1. Very true, Head Phil. Monologues aren’t so great. Or realistic. Or…yeah. Much like the best way I’ve heard to tell the reader how your character’s name is pronounced: have someone draw it out like they were calling the character, spelling it out phonetically; or have someone pronounce it wrong and your character correct them. You slip this stuff in instead of telling the reader.

      1. Cheating? Er, okay, if you say so. I think it’s better than flat-out saying, “And this is how you pronounce so-and-so’s name.”

      2. It can be annoying when you know the pronunciation already, or can guess it on your own– then the author seems to be questioning your intelligence. That’s what destroys an author.

  2. Very good point! The doctor wouldn’t get anything done if he didnt have someone to listen to his crazy rants about what could be going on. He never figures it out till he talks about it. Same with Sherlock!

  3. Thanks, Liam! did you write this for me? I’ve been struggling with the whole monologue problem for some time. I think this post may become the anthem of my first revision.

    1. I’ve written an anthem! I like the sound of that.

      I’m very glad you found this helpful. If done well, you can write an entire book in a single character’s head– if not, the book is horrible.

      1. The anthems of my first draft are ‘Falling in Love in a Coffee Shop’, and ‘Breathe Me’. That’s right, you’re up there with Landon Pigg and Sia.
        And in that case, my book is horrible. Oh, well. I’ve always been the over-ambitious type.

      2. Exactly.
        🙂 don’t worry. I’m not offended, it’s not that great of a book in my eyes, either. And having written it in one month didn’t help, either.

  4. Well…. I agree and disagree. Then again, I am a big fan of writing first-person, where I’m //supposed// to get inside of the character’s head and show her thoughts. However, you do have a point—monologues can be boring.

    Okay, maybe you made more of a point than just that.

    1. Just think what Hamlet could have done if he was talking to his father’s ghost or Horatio instead of himself– suicide would have seemed a much more real possibility.

  5. Well said, Liam! Though I do protest that the occasional internal dialogue has its uses – works well if you want to create a sense of isolation, or have the character being confused and arguing with him / herself. That said, these passages shouldn’t run on too long and, just as you said, should be very much on the point.

    1. In Iron Man (which I know you haven’t watched, sorry), they manage to make a sense of isolation by showing Tony Stark talking to the fire extinguishing robot. You don’t need internal monologues even for that. But yes, you’re quite right that internal monologues have their uses. I Am Not A Serial Killer was mostly internal, anyway– but the big infodumps were given through character conversation. That’s one thing I neglected to mention in this post: when the author has to talk to the reader directly, the main character should talk to another character directly. Thus, if something needs to be explained, you don’t explain it to the reader, but to another character.

      1. That’s why there are so many main characters who are utterly clueless and naive out there, right? At least in fantasy stories. Then someone can explain it to them and the reader at the same time.

      2. THAT, yes, I agree with. If you have to infodump, have it in a character-to-character explanatory passage, if you can’t find another way around it.

  6. Here’s a paradox for you– how can there be a group of cannibals? Do not ask where that came from.

    Have you ever read a book (third person omniscient) where the author subtley starts telling you the character’s thoughts (still in the same POV and without starting a new paragraph or putting it in parentheses) without saying outright that the character is thinking them? I can give you an example from my WIP, if you don’t know what I mean.

    1. Not a paradox at all– if two cannibals know they can’t kill each other, they’re at a standoff and they have a group. But once one weakens, it’s gone.

      I have, and I have used it for very short sequences. Of course, it would never do to run on too long, nor to do it abruptly without any precedent. If you have a habit of giving sequences of thought marked by “he thought”, then by all means, you can add a sudden section of unmarked thoughts. If not, it will be jarring and almost suicidal for you. Similarly, it has to be short. The shorter it is, the less you need a tag– the longer sections will have to be marked somewhere, or it will feel like the writer is talking directly to the reader, inserting opinions as she chooses.

  7. I can, I can! …I think.

    I should probably tell you that any (or at least most) of the posts I’m commenting on today, I’m really only commenting on the first paragraph, because I’m not actually reading the whole posts. Eh, I might even only be commenting on the title. Just sayin’.

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