Authorguy's Blog

I’m thinking about it

Posted on: September 4, 2016


I was just trying to read a YA novel my daughter got from the library a while back, far enough that I have overdue fees and one renewal on the damn thing, and tripped over yet another thing that really bothers me but not so much that I’ll necessarily pull up a computer and start ranting about it. I actually see it quite often, and it almost always puts me off reading the rest of the book. ‘It’ in this case is the use of internal monologue as a substitute for expository prose.

(Hmm, that’s weird. When I wrote ‘monolog’ the stupid spellchecker prompted me to write ‘monologue’, but when I wrote ‘dialog’ it didn’t prompt me to change anything. Stupid spellchecker.)

As anyone who’s read my posts knows, and hi, whichever one of you that is, I really don’t like expository prose. Expository prose, in a third-person POV context, is the author telling me what everything looks like in some static, how-clever-am-I sort of way, or at least it feels that way to me. Even leaving aside the imagined self-congratulation, it’s still static, a description of what the world looks like before some character comes along to muck it all up, and I don’t really care about any of that. Stories are characters in motion, and I care about what the character currently moving is currently moving through, which isn’t what expository prose describes. Since the character doesn’t see the state of the room before he enters it, I don’t want to know about it either, and I certainly don’t want to know about from the author. If and when the character sees the room, I want to know about it from the character, I want to know what he is seeing, not necessarily what’s there. (This is related to something known in philosophical circles as the noumenon-phenomenon distinction, a distinction between the thing-in-itself versus the thing as it is perceived by anybody. )

Another way to deal with this is to skip out on the third-person POV entirely and use a first-person POV instead. At first blush this looks like an ideal solution, as everything in the story is or should be described as the character is encountering it. This is where I had my little problem with the book I was reading. When writing in a first-person way, a person travelling alone would be perceiving and thinking instead of talking, and thought is a very tricky thing to render. In a first-person story, the character is both narrating and participating in the story. Narrative thought should be kept very distinct from real thought. Narrative thought is the character describing the scene as objectively as possible, as if they were the author. As long as the character is doing things they’ve never done before, or talking to people other than themselves, this is fine. But when this is not the case, I often see this problem.

Most people treat thought like speech no one hears, but that’s a mistake. Speech is a string of words for people who aren’t the speaker. Thought is direct. If I was writing a first-person story I’d be going from perception to reaction with barely a growl or a hmm to indicate whatever cogitation is needed.  Putting thoughts into words is a lot of work, and no one goes to that much work when no one will hear it. Okay, maybe someone does habitually go to the trouble of putting their thoughts into words (who isn’t an author), but it feels very phony and artificial to me, i.e., like narrative thought. It gets even worse when it gets done for paragraphs at a time, since those paragraphs would likely be written in italics and who wants to read paragraphs of that?

There are ways to get around this issue in a third-person POV story. My personal favorite is to do all the description of the setting phenomenally,  which in this case means ‘as the character perceives it’. (I also try to do it very well.) There may be a rosebush by the door, or seventeen panes of glass in his window, but psychologically normal people don’t notice those things after a while. They notice them when it matters, such as when the rose is in bloom and the scent is forcing its way into your nose, or when they’ve been kidnapped and put into a room that looks just like theirs except for the eighteen panes of glass, and something doesn’t feel quite right…So when I write a story, I write what my characters perceive, which is like seeing but it’s really seeing what they care about and not seeing the rest. The words I use are the words they use, so a person from a landlocked culture won’t use nautical terms or idioms casually, unless he goes to someplace nautical, and the change in his word choice would indicate a change in him. The story is about him, and the setting is part of the story.

 

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