My schedule, on the other hand, leaves a bit to be desired. But I turned in a book today and cleared another very large project off my desk, so I've got that posty feeling and a bit of time to indulge.
All the way back in the post on present participial phrases, I asked folks to provide examples if they wanted them handled here. Ever the good sport, Murphy volunteered.
Hollywood could have a field day filming horror movies here, she decided, wincing as the gates creaked and moaned, puncturing the oppressive quiet and causing a group of crows which dotted the lace canopy of trees that stretched out overhead, to burst from their perches and fly away.
There's a lot happening in this sentence, and the other commenters provided loads of good suggestions to edit this sentence. But I have to tell you, the thing that leaped out at me was not the present participial phrases, but the thought tag,
Which is something I've wanted to talk about for quite some time but just haven't gotten to it. So, thank you, Murphy, for the nudge.
What Is A Thought Tag?
You all know what a dialogue tag is, right? It's the little bit that identifies the speaker of the dialogue.
"But I thought she was going to talk about participles," the commenter said.
The part of that sentence which falls outside the quotation marks -- the commenter said -- is the dialogue tag. Easy. You all know this, I'm sure.
A thought tag is like a dialogue tag except that it attaches to interior monologue. Instead of tag verbs such as said, muttered, blurted, etc., which describe the manner of speaking, thought tags describe the manner of thinking.
Hollywood could have a field day filming horror movies here, she decided
In this sample,the interior monologue is
Hollywood could have a field day filming horror movies here,
And the thought tag is,
Still pretty easy, right? Thought tags take verbs like wondered, thought, believed, figured, hoped, pondered, and so on. They're pretty easy to spot in the narrative.
One Danger With Thought Tags
Thought tags can serve many useful purposes -- in Murphy's sentence, for example, it creates a pivot point between the interior monologue and the description which follows -- but there is one big danger with using thought tags. They can create narrative distance between the character and the reader, in some cases going so far as to convert the interior monologue to narrative summary.
(Not talking about Murphy's sentence now. Hers uses the thought tag wisely.)
Think about it like this. A dialogue tag identifies who the speaker is, right? And a thought tag identifies who the thinker is. But if you're writing in deep third person, the identity of the narrative point of view character should already be known to the reader. It should be obvious. And that means the tag should be unnecessary for pure reasons of thinker attribution.
To understand how this creates narrative distance, compare,
If she invited Sally, then the table would be full but she would have more women than men. So maybe skip inviting Sally and have an odd number of guests? No. And she couldn't invite Jim without inviting that horrid wife of his, so they were out.
which has no thought tags, to the same passage with thought tags,
She realized that if she invited Sally, then the table would be full but she would have more women than men. She wondered if she ought to maybe skip inviting Sally and have an odd number of guests? No, she decided. And she couldn't invite Jim without inviting that horrid wife of his, so they were out, she concluded.
Can you see the effect that the thought tags create? Instead of the pov character relating her thoughts directly, the narrator is "telling" them -- interpreting the nature of those thoughts as realizing, wondering,deciding, and concluding. In a more exaggerated version of this exact effect, the interior monologue is not presented at all but is interpreted in its entirety by the authorial narrator.
She thought about her dinner party seating chart and decided not to invite Sally, Jim, or Jim's wife.
This is narrative summary. The real event (that is, the sequence of thoughts leading to a conclusion) is summarized and encapsulated for the reader. Despite the presence of the tag "she thought," we're not actually in the characters thoughts at all. If you were listening directly to the character's thoughts, the words used would probably be quite different.
One Final Thought - Reflecting Character Minds
Intimate points of view such as deep third must, by extension, reflect the character's state of mind. Think stream of consciousness, which is a purist form of deep third and can make a reader crazy. (Hello, James Joyce? Just what the hell is up with that Ulysses thing, anyway?)
But this principle can be used with a lighter touch to achieve certain effects in the prose. Is your character being chased by bad guys who want to kill her? Her interior monologue might be choppy and breathless. Is your character luxuriating in the sensual pleasure of a bubble bath? Her interior monologue might be languid and loose.
For a good example of this dynamic, take a look at The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. In the early part of the book, Quoyle, the protagonist, is experiencing emotional trauma and his thoughts reflect that. The narrative is disjointed, even fractured in places. But as the book progresses and Quoyle begins to heal, his interior monologue takes on a more lucid, even graceful, tone.
If you want to avoid presenting a fractured interior monologue that might be hard on the reader, then one helpful technique would be to insert thought tags and create narrative distance. But generally, if you're writing in an intimate point of view and hoping to bond the character to the reader, you can deepen that intimacy by stripping out your thought tags.