Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My Radar Works Fine, TYVM

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,

she decided,

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,

she decided

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.



Jami Gold said...


Thanks for the great examples and list of tags. Several of those words weren't on my radar screen, so I'll add them to my list of "distancing words" to watch for.

In case anyone is interested, here's my list:
knew, know, heard, saw, seen, felt, feel, noticed, observed, watched, realized, thought, wondered, believed, figured, guessed, hoped, pondered

I was just mentioning to one of the other posters here that I try to avoid these words unless I'm trying to point out some conscious action of the POV character. They weren't watching before, but now they are. They weren't realizing before, but now they are. Etc.

Hope this helps!
Jami G.

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Oops! I've used 'wondered' a lot in my latest first draft. I knew it was a problem, but I couldn't figure out why. Thanks for the heads up.

(Dashing back to Word to search & destroy all versions of 'wondered', 'decided', etc.)

Julie Harrington said...

I catch myself inserting thought tags and try to dump each and every one of them. It can be so simple to let one slip in there when it doesn't need to be.


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

I'm madly cutting out thought tags, but I've found one that I can't figure out how to reword.

For example: "He hoped that Emery hadn’t seen the blood."

I have a fair few "He hoped someone didn't..." and I'm stuck.

Any thoughts? Your help is greatly appreciated!

Jami Gold said...


An internal monologue would probably reword that to something like:

Had Emery seen the blood? Hopefully not.
- or -
Hopefully, Emery hadn't seen the blood.

But that may not be appropriate for every scene, so trust yourself to pick the right one for the situation. Sometimes, you might point things out after the fact:

Luckily, Emery hadn't seen the blood.

Etc., etc. You know how to do this, it's just one of those things that if your brain gets stuck in a rut, it's hard to see the way out. Hopefully, these have given you some ideas.

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Deb, think about cartoon thought balloons. It might be natural for a character's thought balloon to read, "I hope Emery didn't see the blood." And that could be translated to, interior monologue as,

He hoped Emery didn't see/hadn't seen the blood.


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

I like the idea of cartoon thought balloons! That makes it easy. Some of my characters might use "hopefully," but the character who is doing all the hoping wouldn't. Thanks!

Liane Gentry Skye said...

I have to say, Theresa, that stripping (most) of my narrative tags was one of the most valuable tricks you've taught me. It's allowed me to dig deeper into my characters because I'm not feeling the distance between myself and them. (I know, clunky sentence there, need caffeine!)

So creatively speaking, killing tags is a good way to crawl inside my characters' heads and let them write the stories. Which is a good thing since plotting and I are genetically incompatible. :)

Riley Murphy said...

Thanks for doing this, Theresa!

Oh, man! More stripping? No wonder you guys deal primarily with erotic stories. You’re really good at getting to naked! Gee, I imagine, even your authors feel nude after a round of edits.

Hi Liane! Care to share any of those ‘Secrets’? (Hehehe) And, hey, I’m with you on the (most) idea. Because, now that I have had time to read Theresa's words of wisdom, I'm thinking...and reading my work back. And you know? I'm seeing a progression in the scene that I never saw before -in that it starts off at arms length and moves into a more character intimate narrative - the closer she gets to her final destination.

I bring this up because although, I never put this into terms of thought tags and distancing - I guess subconsciously, I used this as a method of controlled introduction to the reader - interesting. Of course, now that I see it there, it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure this is a good thing, though. I mean, personally I like the way the scene flows because the reader is not hand fed any expectations of the heroine. She starts off as a stranger - a blank slate and without dumping any of her history (at this point) for the reader to connect to - the story begins. The reader is walking beside the heroine, following along - becoming invested in what is taking place - in the situation around both of them, experiencing all of it, with her - until gradually the perception becomes that of an intimate point of view and the reader is experiencing things as her. Does this make sense or am I back to that chopping block?

Wes said...

Thanks, Theresa, this helps me greatly. I'm trying to achieve deep POV, but I've felt the need to insert thought tags, even though I didn't know what they were. I see now how they change the internal monologue to narrative and distance the reader from the character. I've got some fun editing ahead ripping them out.

Edittorrent said...

I thought she was going to talk about participles. :)

Jami Gold said...


In your example, I think your approach makes sense. After all, both Teresa and Alicia have said that Deep POV is not the right approach for every paragraph/situation. When you write, do you picture the "movie in your mind"? If so, then it sounds like this scene starts with the "camera" zooming in on your POV character until it eventually settles into her head. That makes sense to me.

I have scenes with more thought tags on purpose because I'm trying to create a bit of distance when a character is doing things the reader may dislike them for. I'm hoping that with the distance, the reader won't be too disgusted and abandon the story. I don't know if it works that way, but that's my current approach.

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Murphy, in Alicia's book on point of view, she presents pov as a spectrum and discusses ways to move along the spectrum. It's a common technique, to start in a more distant third and ease down into something more intimate.

It's all just a matter of technique -- different techniques have a different impact on the reader. If you want to start by grounding the reader in the setting and then pulling them into the character's viewpoint, then that's the way to handle pov. You give up something of reader-character bonding but you gain something in world-building.

who thinks everyone should buy Alicia's book on pov

Patience-please said...

Thank you! This was most helpful.(She says, whipping out the credit card to go buy the book.)

Riley Murphy said...

Hey, I have Alicia's book. I have also pulled up her writer's corner and read everything posted there as well. So, it would be more correct to say that I should revisit her book.:)

Thanks Jami. And yes, when I write it's like a movie, very visual - so your comment about a camera hit home.