Dipping into the mailbag today with a great question about writing a smooth narrative:
Could you do a post on how to weave description of character actions with what's going on in their head? I'm stuck on a scene in my current WIP where the main character is fleeing an embarrassing situation, and I want to show both the actions involved in her leaving with what's going on in her head. Every time I write it, it reads like too much interior monologue without enough action.Considering how much of a novel is action mixed with internal thought, this is a biggie. Tip the balance too far in either direction the writing can come across too slow (too much in a character's head) or too flat (all description, no character).
How writers mix these is part of their style, so there is no hard and fast rule. I like to aim for a balance between them, where what the character does flows smoothly with what she thinks. Her thoughts and actions work in tandem to tell the story.
If someone is fleeing an embarrassing situation, I'd think about the state of mind of the POV character and how she'd interact with the world around her because of that. What might she be doing as she thinks about her situation? Looking for places to hide? Heaping more embarrassment on herself by tripping or missing the door when she reaches for it? Fighting physical symptoms? Reacting physically as well as emotionally? What might she notice?
Let's look at an example from The Shifter. Actually, let's have some fun and look as a re-worked-to-make-it-bad example. First, all action:
I sang a soft good morning to the little hen. The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head. She didn’t squawk, just flapped her wings as I lifted her off the nest. I tucked her under my arm and she settled down.Hear that flatness? There's no soul in this, it's just bland description of what a character is doing. Look at how there's no judgment or opinion from the narrator, just statements of fact. This is what I did. This is what I did next. Here's what happened after that. -yawn-
One reason this reads so poorly is that there's no variety. The rhythm is all the same and that kills the prose and makes it feel stagnant. There's nothing for a reader to care about here.
(More on rhythm of the prose here)
Now, let's shove it over to too much internal thought:
Good morning little hen. Chickens are so cute when they wake up. Sleepy little eyes, cocked heads. I could live without the squawking, but as long as she just flapped her wings as I lifted her off the nest I'd be okay. She’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week.Makes you want to yell at her to get to the point, doesn't it? All she's doing is thinking here, she doesn't do anything. She's explaining the situation before she does it, which feels a little self-indulgent. It can also be bad if the next bit actually goes into her lifting the chicken and sticking it under her arm. It's a form of telling, and bloats the manuscript since you're saying things twice.
(More on too much internal thought here)
Finally, the original paragraph:
“Good morning, little hen,” I sang softly. The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head at me. She didn’t get to squawking, just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest, and she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week.
This has a nice mix of all the narrative pieces. Dialog, action, internal thought. The narrator is acting, but since she's describing it in her voice it doesn't feel like bland description of her actions. You can see her picking up the chicken and putting it under her arm, and understand why she's doing this. Even better, some of those thoughts hint at what could go wrong, which adds stakes and tension.
Let's break it down further:
“Good morning, little hen,” I sang softly. (Dialog, which is active, giving the paragraph a sense of movement. The protagonist is doing something, even if it's just singing to a chicken)
The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head at me. (Action--the chicken blinks and cocks her head. But there's a little voice in her that keeps it from being straight description of action. The "blinked awake" and "at me" makes it personal to the narrator)
She didn’t get to squawking, just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest, and she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. (A mix of internal thought (narrative) and action. "She didn't get the squawking" is a thought, but it refers to the action at hand so it feels like it's moving the action. This is what the narrator expected, and I bet a lot of readers imagine that squawking chicken, and how this might be a problem to her. "just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest" is action, but again, with a little voice to connect it to the narrator. "she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm" is internal thought, yet the thought is about the action and moves the story. You don't see her tuck the chicken under her arm, but you feel that she does it because she's already acted in this paragraph. It doesn't feel static)
I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week. (Internal thought (narrative), but it relates directly to what's going on in a way that doesn't duplicate what was done)
So what can you take away from all this?
1. Aim for balance between action and internal thought.
Different scenes will require different ratios, but I like a modified rule of three here: Don't use the same type of sentence three times in a row. If you have two action sentences, make the third an internal thought or line of dialog. Two internal thought sentences, then break it up with a third action sentence. Combine them in one sentence to further mix it up. Variety keeps the pace moving and keeps the rhythm of the prose from being flat or list-like.
(More on fixing pacing problems here)
My example would break down to: Dialog--action--internal thought/action mix--internal thought. For those curious about the next line in this scene--It's action, followed by dialog.
This doesn't mean that if you happen to have three thoughts in a row that's bad, but if you think a passage feels heavy in one area, or off in general, look at how many sentences of one type you have in a row and if varying the types fixes the problem.
2. Connect the action and the internal thoughts, but don't duplicate them.
Thinking and acting the same basic thing feels repetitious, and bogs down the passage with unnecessary words. Try to offer new information with each line. If your character thinks how much she wants to cry in one line, don't have her cry in the next line. Find another way to show that sadness or give a reason why she's crying.
3. Don't forget the power of dialog and description.
A smooth narrative mixes it up so the prose doesn't feel stale. If you feel there's too much action, toss in some dialog. Too much internal thought, describe something. Use all the tools available to you. In my example, my protagonist is alone, yet she talks to the chicken, enabling me to use dialog to keep the scene from feeling too much in her head.
Writing exercise time! (Yes, they're back)
In 250 words or less, write a well-mixed scene using character action and internal thought.
The catch: Let's help out the original question-asker with some specific examples, and write a scene where someone is running away from an embarrassing situation.
Post your entry in the comments section. Deadline for entries is next Monday, June 17, at noon, EST. I'll choose the winner and post the finalists on Tuesday, June 18th.
Winner gets a 1000-word critique. It's been a while, so previous winners are eligible to win this time.