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Thursday, May 10, 2007


I'm following a free mini writing workshop by A. Lee Martinez (A Nameless Witch) through Candace Haven's (Charmed and Dangerous) forum.

The other day, he brought up thought balloons, otherwise known as introspection. He hit on a pet peeve of mine. A major pet peeve.

Webster's defines introspection as an examination of one's own thoughts and feelings.

Oh sure, it's a nice word. Goes to church on Sundays and calls its mother twice a month. It's also as boring as leftovers.

My eyes glaze over like frosted windows whenever it shows up. That's not to say that occasional reflection is bad in a novel. But the key word is "occasional".

There's nothing worse than dumping the reader with the mc's baggage. I don't want to play psychologist. I don't care if he has issues with his family or he thinks he's too young, fat, skinny, old, or crazy. I simply don't care.

If he has issues, I want them manifested in the way he responds to his situation and the characters around him. If he has an intimacy phobia, I don't want him telling us all about his rotten relationships or how he was abused as a child. I want to see him struggle and make critical errors deriving from his phobia because then it will become more real for me--and certainly more interesting.

When I write my characters I try not to let them think too much. Not only does it slow down the story, but it also steals the plot's thunder. Wouldn't it be more stirring to let the mc's psychological peccadilloes show up at inconvenient times so as to escalate the tension?

Alex gave us some examples. But rather than borrow his, I'll give you something I made up.

With Thought Balloons
David didn't want to go down that tunnel. It reminded him of when his mother used to lock him in the closet whenever he wet the bed. He only wet the bed when he had nightmares, but that didn't matter to her. She'd lock him in the closet for hours. And if he cried, the punishment was longer. He hated her. She whined like a cat in heat, her sharp voice stabbing him between the eyes whenever he did something wrong. That tunnel looked too much like that closet of so many years ago. He could almost hear his mother screaming at him.

Without Thought Balloons
Cold sweat trickled down David's chest. His hands pressed against the moist face of the surrounding rock as if that alone could keep it from closing in on him. The tunnel beckoned and there was no turning back. The she-wolf was on his trail.

A shriek echoed behind him and David froze. In the silence, a stream of urine tinkled off his boot like little raindrops. All at once he was six years old again.

Not only is the example without introspection shorter, but it also tells you more of the story. I don't have to tell you he had issues with his mother. It was enough to know he was scared enough to wet himself, and for one brief moment he felt like a child, with all the vulnerability that comes with childhood. I also told you something about the conflict. A she-wolf was chasing him.

Introspection done selectively and occasionally is a wonderful thing, but if you give your mc thought balloons every time he has to figure something out, you're robbing your scene of great emotion and tension.

At home: I've had serious problems with carpal tunnel lately. I am limiting my computer time for a few days. I think I need a new desk. The one I have is very nice but it's never been a comfortable height and I can't raise my chair without putting the rest of my body out of alignment. It's hell to be short.


Anonymous said...

Mostly I agree with this, Maria. Acting out issues is more interesting.

On the other hand, the advantage of a book over a movie is that you get inside the character's head in a way only a voice over provides in the movies. I hate to give up that advantage.

Actually, I wonder if we expect less introspection now because we're used to movies. And movies use fewer voice overs, I think. Maybe they used to use them more because people were accustomed to books and looked for the intimacy of introspection.


Maria Zannini said...

I do believe you're right, movies normally don't rely on voice-overs and we've come to expect that as an audience.

I'm not opposed to introspection within a novel. I just feel it should be used judiciously, as a tool and not a crutch.

Consider too, as we interact with one another, we don't have the option of seeing thought balloons over the other guy's head. We respond to whatever is outwardly manifested, whether it's someone smashing dishes or dead silence. That's why I feel novels that use introspection sparingly tend to involve me more as a reader.

If it tells me all the whys and wherefores, I feel I don't get the satisfaction of discovering the character for myself. For me at least, the pleasure is in the discovery.

Excellent observation on the movie aspect, Dorothy.