Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shifting Interior Monologue

Puffing a bit as she reached the top of the stairs, Anita stopped to catch her breath. Maybe Nathan was right--she was getting a bit old. Since when had a flight of stairs been so daunting? For once, she wished she'd picked up one of those crazy neon sports drinks from Marty's instead of her usual coffee. Thinking of him, she tried to stifle a silly grin rolling across her face; trying to get her breath under control and stop smiling at the same time only led her to lapse into a terrible coughing fit.

She was so loud that she drew Peri to the doorway. "Anita, are you okay?" said the tall young woman, reaching out to pull her inside. "Gosh, you sound awful. Here, I'll take the drink; you go sit down in the office." Georgia looked over from where she was stocking yarns, worry all over her face. She knew Anita well enough not to make a huge fuss; still, she was watching the older woman's every move.

"I'm"--breath--"fine," Anita insisted, a wave of her hand as if to swat them all away. "Quit fussing." She let Peri take her to the back office, if only to avoid the prying eyes of all the customers. That was something that had been lost with her generation, it was true--the fine art of minding one's own business. Okay, okay, a sip of water. Why did everyone seem to think water cured everything? All it did was wet the throat. Still, she took the glass, nodded a thank-you to Peri, leaned back into her seat with relief when Peri left the office.

~~ from The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

The parts highlighted in green are clean interior monologue, unmixed with other narrative elements like action or description. Take a look at how she brackets that interior monologue. That's fairly important when you're trying to keep some kind of narrative distance, but still want to dip into the thoughts of a particular character. You do things like bury the IM in the middle of paragraphs and surround it with other narrative elements, especially exposition that disguises itself as interior monologue.

Why especially that? "Telling" the character's internal state (rather than showing it directly with interior monologue) can serve as a sort of depth midpoint between the more distant feel of the omniscient and the more intimate feel of the interior monologue.

Let's pick apart that first paragraph as an example.

Sentence One:
Puffing a bit as she reached the top of the stairs, Anita stopped to catch her breath.

That's action. Action is dynamic motion of a character or object in the narrative world. So the dynamic movement is a body climbing stairs and a chest huffing for air. It doesn't matter that Anita "stopped" because stopping describes her activity (we all stop climbing when we reach the top of the stairs, right?) and allows her to engage in another activity (puffing).

Sentence Two:
Maybe Nathan was right--she was getting a bit old. Since when had a flight of stairs been so daunting?

That's interior monologue, a character's direct thoughts presented without any narrative filters. Anita is remembering something her son said, something she's been resisting. And she asks herself a rhetorical question.

Now, the next bit might initially seem as though it's also interior monologue:

For once, she wished she'd picked up one of those crazy neon sports drinks from Marty's instead of her usual coffee. Thinking of him, she tried to stifle a silly grin rolling across her face;

But it's not. We have a narrative filter in place here. This is "telling" the reader Anita's thoughts. The "telling" comes mainly from the use of the phrases "For once, she wished" and "Thinking of him." (By the way, we've already been given to understand that Marty's coffee is always piping hot, maybe too hot to drink.) If we were to recast this as a cleaner form of interior monologue without the filter, it might read something like,

She should have picked up one of those crazy neon sports drinks from Marty's instead of coffee. Marty. The silly grin rolled across her face. No way to stifle that.

Yes, this does change the voice slightly. This isn't an exercise in preserving voice, but in interior monologue and exposition and ways to use them to achieve certain effects. Can you all see the difference now?

If you're writing in deep third -- the limited or subjective form of third person -- you won't need these midpoint bits to transition the reader from the omniscient narrative to the interior monologue. In fact, you won't always need it even if you're writing in omniscient. In the third paragraph of this excerpt, the final sentence is a list of actions. It's not separated from the preceding interior monologue by anything at all. We move straight from IM into action, and it works just fine.

Anyone care to propose a theory on why that works in that particular spot? I think there's a reason, and the reason can be found in the final sentence.

One more thing about this excerpt. But I think I'm also going to pose this as a question for all of you. What do you notice about the middle paragraph?

For those of you who read this blog on a feed reader, here's a gentle reminder that we have really smart people making comments on the last Friday Night Knitting Club post. They all had worthwhile insights, and if you have a moment, it might be interesting to take a look.

One final note--
I've been invited to participate in a Pitch Party at Book Roast on March 17. See the Book Roast blog for details. It looks like a fun event.



Riley Murphy said...

For the record? I hate going first!

You ask: We move straight from IM into action, and it works just fine.
Anyone care to propose a theory on why that works in that particular spot?

I think this works because the interior monologue subject transitions into the subject of her next action. She’s thinking about how pointless a glass of water is and then her actions connect the point of accepting the glass of water with the use of the word ‘still’ - that invites the reader to move seamlessly forward with her. The word ‘still’ is an important word, too ( repeated from the second paragraph) which I think also blends the rhythm of the narrative, somehow.

You ask: What do you notice about the middle paragraph?

I notice the shift of POV to further highlight Anita’s advanced age...which is what all three paragraphs are trying to bring home in a big way. Packed in the middle paragraph are the phrases: ‘tall young woman’ and ‘the older woman’s every move’. The break comes between dialogue but I think because she used: ‘tall young woman said’ as the tag instead of Peri, there was a distance set and then using the more intimate: ‘Georgia looked over’ and: ‘she knew Anita well’ there was an intimacy established. It’s like drawing you in and holding you at a distance at the same time. Kinda cool. I mean, how else are you going to bring home this point, if not from multiple perspectives (that felt almost generational to me. Peri saying 'Gosh' comes off as young and Georgia, wise enough not to make a 'fuss', immediately establishes herself in my mind, as the older one out of the two). Anita can say that’s she’s old (like she alludes to in the first paragraph) but it isn’t until the reader gets unbiased opinions during an occurring action happening in present time established - that the reader gets a good feel for her age.

As for the last sentence? Does anyone else see this? Where the list of actions of one character is broken by the words ‘with relief’ against the bookend of one final action by another character? (insert head scratch here) and then she identifies Peri twice by name in this one sentence? I guess she couldn't transition from IM seamlessly if she identified herself (as in said: ‘Still, Anita took the glass’) instead she had to take the reader from her interior perspective right into her action, as in: 'Still, she took the glass,'...

And, again for the record...I STILL hate going first!

Julie Harrington said...

It probably wouldn't be fair to just say, "Ditto what Murphy said" would it. Hm. Didn't think so.

The funny thing is, when I read the example passage, I thought, hey, I do this! I like the intimacy it gives the reader by letting them get directly into the character's head to hear their thoughts as if they're, like, narrating straight to the screen (so to speak). I think you can learn a lot about a character, their attitudes, and such through that technique, and it (imo) helps avoid that whole passive telly thing all the time. At least, that's how it usually works out for me. Plus I think you can pack a ton of personality in those types of direct passages.

I think that effect has a lot to do with the answer to the questions posed in this particular blog entry. You get to hear the character remark on things and so, when the story rolls on into the action, you don't get to interprete what the actions *could* mean, you know what they mean, why she's doing things, what she really thinks about events and actions even though the action in itself (accepting the drink of water, etc) conveys the opposite.

If we were to just see the action of her coming up the steps, being helped and fussed over, and then her accepting said fussing without knowing why, we'd draw a totally different picture of her character. But because we're allows that glimpse straight into her mind, we know actions aren't all they're cracked up to be.

That middle paragraph does a couple of things. It shows a contrast between the two other women involved in the story -- the older generation vs. the younger, one who knows her very, very well and one who doesn't. And it all rolls together to let Anita comment directly on it all before moving on into the action of accepting that help even though it's really the last thing she wants to do. It showcases the contrast a lot more than if you didn't have that direct commenting.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. :) I'm glad to see some techniques that I can use in writing omniscient. So many resources just give a poor example and then say, "It's distancing. Don't use it." No one explains techniques in how to write it.

One other thing caught my eye--the reference to it telling. Telling looks like a function on omniscient. In fact, I can see some obvious reasons why telling might be appropriate for some stories (i.e., too tedious to show). I was imitating some of my favorite writers in omnscient and got crits back saying, "Tell not show." I know some of this is lack of familiarity with omniscient, but I'm guessing there's also a way to offset some of the telling as well. Perhaps a future post?

em said...

JT: I'm with you, Murphy took all the good stuff.:)
I do like the way that the IM moves and connects with Anita's actions (I'm ashamed to admit that I stared at this for a while and then read a couple of comments and went back to check it out)and it started making sense.:) I also agree with the generational feel and the contrast in the middle paragraph as previously stated.

The pitch party looks like fun. I've never done one. 75 words will be tough!:( But I'm going to try it any way.

Riley Murphy said...

Hey Em, next time you go first. I dare ya.;P

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Excellent post, Theresa, thank you. My current WIP has two pov. One is deep first and the other is deep third. It's getting so that I try to work on one pov per day instead of going from one to the other. I started noticing I was mentally exhausted by dinner time other wise.

Your explanation helps a lot. Any chance I could prop you up in the corner so I could drill you every time I need help? Food and lodgings are included! Fishing in summer!