Interiority: On Using Your Character's Interior Thoughts Wisely
Recently, I've been rather obsessed with interiority. This is because I'm often guilty of having my first-person POV protagonist narrating more than they should. The key, of course, is to create a balance between action, interiority, dialogue, and setting. Getting inside a character's head is imperative and having a first-person narrator who is able to say'in voice'what's going on in their head and heart is essential to good storytelling. HOWEVER, there are a number of ways to overdo it. I turned to some of the masters to help me figure just how much interiority is too much. When should I use it' How can it best serve the story''I recently wrote a paper on Carolyn Mackler's'The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, so I'm going to use some of that material to illustrate the journey I've been going on here. Here are a few resources that really helped me:
Cheryl Klein's craft book,'Second Sight, was enormously helpful because she provides some great examples. She divides interiority into Commentary and Reflection. So, when is your character commenting on events and when is she reflecting' The difference here being that reflecting is going to go deeper - your character might be thinking about an event in relation to the larger picture. Commentary can be more synonymous with narration, in that she might be noticing that someone looks sad or that the house looks like a dollhouse, etc. It's important to look through your work and see how much commentary and reflection your character has, especially within a scene. Make sure you're not guilty of what author Tim Wynne-Jones would call a Pause Button Violation. Are you putting the action on pause so that your MC can wax poetic, thereby reducing tension within the scene' Are you stuffing in backstory between every line of dialogue, so that it no longer feels like it's happening in real time and causes the reader to lose the thread of the scene'
This type of violation can break what John Gardner calls the "fictive dream" that the reader is having - basically, their suspension of disbelief. Too much commentary and backstory might draw attention to you, the writer, or simply remind the reader they're reading a book because the action has been put on hold.'Klein's thing is that you want to stay with the "immediate narration" - be in the moment.
Another thing Klein talks about is "elbow-jogging." According to critic Anthony Lane, elbow-joggers are 'authors who can't stop shoving us along with jabs of information and opinion that we don't yet require' (Klein 260). 'An example of this in Mackler's novel is at the beginning, when Virginia, the protagonist, tells the reader a boy is trying to get up her shirt. Then she pauses the action to spend two and a half pages telling us about the boy, the etymology of his name, and other bits of backstory. Meanwhile, the reader is thinking - what's happening in the bedroom right now''! This is what we'd call an "info-dump." Rather than placing the information throughout the narrative as needed, the author instead puts it all in one place, to get it out of the way. It reminds me of the theater, with old-school plays that begin with loads of exposition like, "Well, you know, Sally couldn't come to dinner tonight because she's still terribly broken up about her husband's death in a tragic fire that killed nineteen people, including the mayor who was my next-door neighbor, and Sally's also torn up over the fact that her sister had been sleeping with Sally's husband for years. And now she's worried about how her house hasn't sold and she has to spend time with her new puppy that she got from the pound..." You get the idea.
This sort of thing is placing your first-person narrator on narrator duty, meaning that instead of them experiencing things and acting and reacting and doing it all in voice, they instead step away from the immediacy of the moment so that they can catch the reader up. Instead of being in their own skin, the character begins acting like third-person narrator. So, it's a good idea to go through your MS and think about places your proto might be on narrator duty and then revise those scenes.
Another thing, very similar to this, is considering whether you as a writer are being, as my mentor Rita Williams-Garcia puts it, "on mission." This is when you start putting things into your character's mouths or thoughts in order to get something across to the reader. It might not be something they would think or say, but as the writer you want to get your message out there or fill in some backstory. It stands out and breaks the fictive dream. Not only that, but the writing won't be up to snuff because you're not in voice - it's almost like when an actor briefly goes "out of character" or "breaks character." We talk about this in the theater, when an actor reverts back to themselves or does something that is very different form the character they've built thus far.
Another thing you want to do is work on the art of silence. In her craft book,'Steering the Craft, Ursula LeGuin says that we must'allow scenes to speak for themselves and create 'silence around the [narratorial] voice' where 'only the relevant belongs' (Le Guin 142). I've been going through my MS, looking for those places where I need more silence. Is my MC commentating or reflecting too much, when active verbs, powerful images, and dialogue full of voice and truth will get the job done better' Am I allowing these things to speak for themselves, or am I over-explaining' Sometimes, it could mean that you haven't quite done the job with a scene and having to add that extra bit of commentary might mean that you need to go deeper with the action or dialogue.
Below is an illustration form Mackler's book that I hope will be helpful:
Virginia has all the makings of a great first-person narrator. Her self-deprecating voice is strong and she has revelations make her journey toward self-acceptance clear. A highlight of Virginia's interiority comes near the end of the novel, when her father takes her to a Knicks game. After he makes yet another comment about her weight, this time in the disguise of praise, she thinks: A few months ago, that kind of compliment would have made my day. But I don't want that kind of feedback from my parents anymore. I don't want them to think they can discuss my body like it's the weather forecast on 1010 WINS (Mackler 235).
With the first line, Mackler is setting up a contrast with the Virginia at the beginning of the novel. It's not necessary to remind the reader of how far Virginia has come, but it works on an emotional level. However, the following line (But I don't want that kind of feedback from my parents anymore.) should be eliminated because the sentiment is contextually clear. If Mackler took that line out, it would keep the tension in the scene and highlight the last line, which is spot-on with Virginia's voice. This segment of internal thought works because it keeps the scene focused and allows Virginia to stay in the moment rather than weighing down the dialogue with elbow-jogging. It also propels her into action; following these thoughts, she confronts her father about his behavior.
This is an example of what Ursula Le Guin calls 'leaping''anything an author leaps over are details that they omit because 'what you leave out is infinitely more than what you leave in' (142). With the above scene, Mackler showcases the old adage that less is more: by limiting Virginia's internal commentary to a few hard-earned realizations, the scene packs an emotional punch and the protagonist soars toward the end of her arc with aplomb.
Obviously, I'm just grazing over what is a very important topic that deserves a lot of in-depth study. I know I'll be blogging about it more, as I continue to find new ways to improve the interiority of my novels. The best thing to do is to just be aware of these things in your reading and then, when you sit down to write, you'll be paying more attention to when you do it.
What works for you' How do you create that silence around the narrative'
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