Friday, June 29, 2012

Expressing Thought-Reactions in Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor and author    

How do you express thoughts and inner reactions in fiction? Thoughts, like dialogue, need to drive the story forward and be natural-sounding and appropriate for both the “thinker” and the situation.

For this article, I’ve purposely used the term “thought-reactions,” instead of just “thoughts,” as in fiction, in any given scene, we’re in someone’s point of view, so in their head, privy to their thoughts. In that sense, all the narration for that scene is or should be in their thoughts, written in ordinary font, with no special punctuation or thought tags. For example, in Sandra Brown’s Ricochet, we’re in Duncan’s point of view. We read: “Within seconds Jenny appeared. All six feet of her, most of it sleek, tanned legs that looked like they’d been airbrushed to perfection.” This is obviously Duncan’s viewpoint and his opinion/thoughts. No need to say “he thought.”

Thought-reactions, on the other hand, are when that viewpoint character (and only the POV character – we shouldn’t know the thoughts of anyone else in that scene) has an inner, emotional reaction to something that has just happened, or something someone has just said or done, whether it be anger, delight, confusion, frustration, surprise, or whatever. Or perhaps they’re actively planning something.

In popular fiction written in third-person (he, she, they) past tense, you’ll see thoughts or thought-reactions appearing in either present or past tense, in first-person (I), second-person (you), or third-person (he, she, they).

Indirect introspection or indirect thoughts summarize or paraphrase the thinker's words. Indirect thoughts are usually expressed in third-person, past tense and written in normal font (avoid italics for indirect thoughts), with or without thought tags, like “she thought” or “he thought.” This is the equivalent to reporting what somebody said, rather than using their exact words in quotation marks, only of course these words are not spoken.
-          She wondered if he’d be late again.

-          Why couldn’t she understand where he was coming from?

-          If he didn’t know better, he would swear she was genuinely perplexed.

Direct introspection or direct thoughts use the character’s exact (unspoken) words, normally expressed in first-person, present tense. They can be in normal font or in italics. This is the equivalent to dialogue in quotation marks, except the words aren’t spoken out loud.
-          Why doesn’t she get it?
-          I’d better call Mom today.
-          Where’s that phone number?
Putting direct thoughts in italics can be very effective for expressing a sudden strong emotional reaction. Showing these visceral reactions of your characters helps us get inside their heads and hearts more deeply and bond with them more. Showing a thought-reaction in italics works best when used sparingly, for a significant or urgent thought or reaction:
Leave out the thought tag, as the italics signify a direct thought, in this case.


Here are some examples of indirect thoughts contrasted with the same thought expressed directly.
Indirect: She felt lucky.   
Direct: Lucky me!

Indirect: He was such an idiot.                  
Direct: What an idiot! Or, in second person: You idiot!     

Indirect: She had to be kidding.
Direct: What? You’ve got to be kidding! (second person)    

Indirect: Did she really think he’d believe that?
Direct: Give me a break!

Indirect: She opened the curtains. It was a gorgeous day.
Direct: She opened the curtains. What a gorgeous day.

Indirect: Jake took a step back, wondering what he’d done.
Direct: Jake took a step back. Holy crap. What have I done?

Here’s an example from Don’t Look Twice, by Andrew Gross:

It was already after ten! She tried David’s cell one more time. Again, his voice mail came on.
What the hell is going on, David?
She started to get worried….


Finally, here are three basic no-nos for expressing thoughts or thought reactions in fiction:

-          Never use quotation marks around thoughts. Quotation marks designate spoken words.

-          Never say “he thought to himself” or “she thought to herself.” That’s a sign of amateurish writing—who else would they be thinking to?

-          Don’t have your characters think in perfect, grammatically correct, complex sentences. It’s just not realistic. Many of our thoughts are emotional reactions, flashes or images, expressed through a few well-chosen words.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Show Those Feelings -- and Reactions!

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor       

One of the main reasons I put down a book is because it seems flat to me, the characters cardboard cutouts, the protagonist bland, bored and boring, or even cold and unfeeling. If the characters don’t seem to care about others or react to what’s happening to them, why should I?

Most fiction is character-driven, and to get into the story, we need to be able to identify closely with the protagonist. And we won’t do that unless they have some warmth and determination and hopes and dreams and insecurities and fears – and react to things! Then we feel and react too, along with them, and start to worry about them and cheer for their small victories. Once you have your readers fretting about your hero and rooting for him, they’re hooked. 

As Jack M. Bickham says, “Fiction characters who only think are dead. It is in their feelings that the readers will understand them, sympathize with them, and care about their plight.” 

So bring your characters to life by showing their deepest fears, worries, frustrations, hopes and jubilations. If readers see your hero pumped, scared, angry or worried, they’ll feel that way, too. And a reader who is feeling strong emotions is a reader who is turning the pages.

Jessica Page Morrell tells us that in fiction, the writer’s main responsibility is to “make the readers care; that is, bring us to tears or outrage or heart-thumping worry. Stories with emotional power engage the reader’s intellect, senses, and emotions as he sees and hears the unfolding action.”

Donald Maass wrote a whole book, The Fire in Fiction, dedicated to putting passion into your writing. In discussing your opening, he says, “Too many manuscripts begin at a distance from their protagonists, as if opening with a long shot like in a movie. That’s a shame. Why keep readers at arm’s length?” 

He continues, “Novels are unique among art forms in their intimacy. They can take us inside a character’s heart and mind right away. And that is where your readers want to be. Go there immediately.”

And emotions take the reader into your story world, too. As Maass says, "It is the combination of setting details and the emotions attached to them that, together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story's characters experience it." 

So always take time to show the characters’ feelings, thoughts and reactions to what’s happening around them. Don’t let a stimulus go without a response, an action without a reaction. And as your characters respond, so do your readers.

But don’t go overboard with it — you don’t want your protagonist to come across as gushing or hysterical or neurotic. It’s important to strike a balance so the readers want to relate to and empathize with your main character, not get annoyed or disgusted with her and quit reading.

As Morrell says, “Emotions also help propel a story forward, but it’s not easy to strike the exact balance of emotions in each scene. No emotions on the page, no emotions in the reader.” BUT “Melodrama on the page and you inspire indifference in the reader.”

She continues, “Beginning writers often fall into the trap of overdoing with shrillness or silliness. Their characters have hair-trigger tempers and are forever howling in fury, throwing tantrums, and issuing ultimatums. On the flip side, sometimes beginners pen a sob story of misty-eyed sentiments or a way-too-cheerful and saccharine, gee-whillikers tale.”

But you don’t want to have a story that leaves readers “feeling nothing besides shades of boredom.” So how do we strike that balance? How do we as writers find the emotions to bring our characters to life, but also find a happy medium between flat, emotionless characters that bore us and hysterical drama queens who make us cringe?

Morrell advises, “Since emotions are embedded in the human condition, you need to find a way to portray jealousy, betrayal, grief, misery, rage – the whole gamut of strong emotions – with nuance yet believability.” Friends, beta readers and critique groups can be an invaluable help with this.

Jack M. Bickham advises us to consider how we’ve felt in similar circumstances, then over-write first, and revise down later. “I would much prefer to see you write too much of feeling in your first draft; you can always tone it down a bit later…. On the other hand, a sterile, chill, emotionless story, filled with robot people, will never be accepted by any reader.” He counsels writers to “avoid the impulse to play safe.”

Do you have any techniques for bringing out your characters’ reactions and feelings? And for ensuring that you don’t go off the deep end with it?

Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION,  CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie on her Amazon Author Page, at, and on Facebook. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Style Blunders, and Stimulus-Response

I've got two craft-of-fiction blog posts up today on other blogs. Here's the first, on Elizabeth Craig's awesome blog, Mystery Writing is Murder:

Style Blunders in Fiction—by Jodie Renner

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor, @JodieRennerEd
Style Blunders in Fiction
No, I’m not talking about the fashion police coming after you. I’m talking about those little errors and bad habits that creep into your manuscript, weaken your message, and add up to an overall feeling of amateurish writing. The good news is that, unlike the more critical creative flow of ideas for plot and characters, these little bad habits are easy to correct, resulting in a much more polished, compelling manuscript.

1. Take out wishy-washy qualifiers, like quite, sort of, almost,...

For all 12 of the tips, with examples, click here.

Also, I've got a blog post up on Crime Fiction Collective today on the topic:
Write stimulus before response, cause before effect, action before reaction:

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor
Have you ever been engrossed in a novel, reading along, then you hit a blip that made you go “huh?” for a nanosecond? Then you had to reread the sentence to figure out what’s going on? Often, it’s because actions are written in a jumbled-up order, rather than the order they occurred. When writing fiction, it’s usually best to show actions and events in chronological order, and to describe the cause first, then the effect. Something happens, then the character reacts to it, not the other way around.

So when showing actions and reactions in your fiction, pay attention to the syntax of the sentence. State the cause before the effect, the action before the reaction, the stimulus before the response. This way, the ideas flow more naturally and smoothly, and the readers don’t have to skip back in the sentence to figure out what’s going on, which confuses them momentarily and takes them out of the story.
As Ingermanson and Economy say in Writing Fiction, “Here’s a critical rule: Always get the time sequence correct and always put the cause before the effect.”
Here are some “before and after” examples, disguised, from my fiction editing....

 For the rest of the article, click here.

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Please check out Jodie’s website and blog, as well as her group blog, Crime Fiction Collective.
Jodie’s craft of fiction articles appear regularly on various blogs, and she has published two popular craft-of-fiction e-books in the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller and Style that Sizzles and Pacing for Power.

Both are on sale at Amazon, and you don’t need to own a Kindle to buy and read Kindle e-books – you can download them to your PC, Mac, tablet or smartphone. Style that Sizzles will be out in paperback soon.