Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Introspection: Useless and useful

I think a lot of writers have been told to limit introspection (the narrative expression of a character's thoughts and feelings). This was in response to the tendency in writers writing in deep point of view to paragraph after paragraph that take place entirely in the character's mind. (Hmm. I used to write whole scenes in the character's mind. "But nothing happens!" would be the editorial response. :)

So of course, everyone swings to the opposite side, so there's action, dialogue, and description, but no introspection. I've been seeing this in submissions lately, scenes which are in a character's point of view but with very little thought/feeling-- it's all action and dialogue.

Okay, so let's talk about this. When is introspection useless, and what kind of introspection?
What's useful, and when? What about discussing how you handle this in your own scenes?

Let's say there's a scene of the heroine slipping into her boss's office while he's at lunch, to steal a file folder with some important evidence he's hiding, and the hunky IRS agent comes in and she has to tell him what she's doing in there (presumably not the truth). Where would you report her thoughts and feelings, and what would you NOT do?



Jordan said...

I've had both problems, so I've revised my way from both ends.

Scenes that are largely silent action are a tough balance, too. For this scene, we'd need to see her goal early on, and that's going to come across in internal monologue, since she's not about to broadcast her intentions to anyone else.

We also need to hit on her emotion as she works in the office, but a lot of that can be conveyed by more than simple thoughts—descriptions of the office, diction, etc.

We'll also want a taste of her thought process as she searches (It wasn't here. Maybe he'd keep it there.) To keep the tension up, we'll want to hear about her deadline or noises outside the office that make it sound like she's about to be discovered, perhaps twice (and then the third time, she is discovered).

When the agent comes in, we'll need some visceral reaction probably paired with some paranoid thoughts, then she'll have to think fast. I'm on the fence about how to convey a mind racing. I think you have to do more than just state that she's wracking her brain, but if we go into every scrap of an idea that she weighs and dismisses, it's going to stop the scene dead in what's essentially a split-second decision.

Jessica Silva said...

I agree with Jordon. Inner monologue in this kind of scene would keep it well paced, I think. There are other times when I feel inner monologue stretches a scene's sense of time too much. But in this kind of scene, I think that'd give it tension.

Whirlochre said...

Depends what the inner monologue is about.

If it's "should I make another cup of coffee during the break between America's Got Talent and the re-run of Sgt Bilko", probably not.

If it's anything that really matters to the character, however trivial, it all depends on the character. One person's hairdo nightmares may be a more interesting story than another person's Hanging From Cliff adventures.

As for spinning out split-second decisions, there's an inherent ludicrousness here which I confess to exploiting on more than one occasion.

"Help me off this cliff, damn you!"

Edison glanced down, briefly, But once again, his wayward fringe brushed past his eyes, obscured his view. Tickled. He yearned for the touch of styist's scissors, some trick, some Sassoon-like wizardry to spare him his life's curse. Thin hair, easily split at the ends and mousey mousey mousey! Who'd have thought such a thing could ruin a man's life? Corral it? Imprison it? Edison stomped from the cliff face. Yowled at the unforgiving sky. "Why didn't you make me like Troy Polamalu? All my life, this fringe, this floppy fringe! Cut it, and it comes back, more feeble than before! Yet strip it away and I feel powerless! Like some deposed king, some jailed pirate, some crazed ex-smoker who can't think what to do with his hands but murder murder murder!"

From the cliff below him, a groan. The slip of fingers from the rocky edge.

"OK, have it your way. I can't take no more of this..."

Erastes said...

Depends on what the scene is supposed to achieve - if it's just to steal the item, then she needs to quickly think about how she's going to get out of it, if it's about her meeting her intended for the first time, or something, then a limited amount of how "god he's hot" would be allowable, but too much of it would just be annoying in that action-led situation.

Adrienne Giordano said...

I agree with Jordan. The scene would definitely need some introspection so the reader knows what she's looking for, how she's feeling etc. I'd also layer in a visceral response when she gets caught.