When I was learning the craft of fiction writing, being able to write inner thoughts was very important to me, as I wanted my stories to be character driven. During my studies I was introduced, and was taught to recognise, stream of consciousness, which is the continuous flow of sense perceptions, thoughts, feelings and memories, and the blending of mental processes, often presented in a disjointed form, and frequently compared to an interior monologue. And let’s face it, we all have one of these going on, so within fiction writing I feel it’s vital that the reader should have access to the inner lives of our primary protagonist characters through their thinking and feeling. When we are writing from their point of view, we can show this interior monologue going on, whether it’s simply a single thought, or a stream of thoughts firing off in many directions. The term, stream of consciousness, was first conceived by American philosopher and psychologist, William James, in his 1890 work, The Principles of Psychology, and this style of writing was most notably used by James Joyce in his modernist novel, Ulysses. However on my actual writing courses I only found very basic information on conveying inner thoughts, and I wanted to know more. I wanted to sort out the confusions I was coming across, the differing opinions, and to find my preferred approaches, in order to write inner thoughts smoothly and weave them together to achieve some degree of stream of consciousness, which I really enjoy writing.
After all, it’s through inner thoughts that we can ‘show’ the inner conflict within our primary characters, where they can be thinking, and thereby feeling, very differently compared to what they outwardly express in direct dialogue, or appear to be feeling from their outward demeanour. It’s what’s going on underneath that is so very fascinating. And so began my quest, and I’d love to share what I have so far gleaned, including the grammar conventions I’ve found for a smoother read, and also from reading my favourite writers. I’m basing the examples on third person, past tense narrative, but it’s easy enough to adapt them for first person or present tense.
We’re going to look at :
Indirect thoughts and reported thoughts
Free indirect style –this is where the indirect thoughts of a character’s point of view are presented, combining grammatical features of direct speech, which features indirect reporting. This style enables a third person narrative to exploit a first person point of view.
Here are some methods for you to consider, based from a simple inner thought to a more complex approach. I’ve underlined the actual thoughts only for clarity.
Simple direct thoughts are written in the present tense, first person. They sounds like the character is really talking to themselves. Some writers would use italics for the inner thought, or quotation marks, but for me, it’s too clunky and not smooth enough in the reading, so this is what I like best:
‘I would rather not go. Do you mind?’ she said, thinking, there’s no way in hell I’m going!
You’ll pay for that, she thought, you little know all.
Get on with it, she told herself, be brave.
‘Stop it,’ she told herself. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ (self admonishment)
Simple indirect thoughts are written in the past tense, third person, and when they build up they can be termed as ‘free indirect style’
She had lost the path in the thickening blanket of darkness. Where was she now? she wondered.
‘Look, pet,’ she said, reaching over and patting Lucy’s hand, ‘I don’t hold grudges. That’s bad karma, that. You are me are fine. Okay?
‘Good. Thank you,’ Lucy said, surprised at how relieved she felt. What was it about this woman?
What was wrong with him. Why wouldn’t he say anything? Oh, no, he looked angry. And why wouldn’t he look up from his prescription pad?
A simple kind of reported thought:
She thought the whole thing was a waste of time.
She was afraid of what he might say.
Blending them all together – free indirect (present tense and past tense, first and third person) and slowly losing the personal pronouns and attributions ( eg she thought, he wondered), and just letting it flow as it builds:
First direct, then moving to indirect:
Lucy sat transfixed by the tombs. She stared at the frowning façades carved into the rock which shaded the coal-black chambers within. She’d read about them when she booked the holiday – some writer waxing lyrical about them in a brochure. The tombs overlooked the labyrinth of the estuary to where the Aegean and Mediterranean seas coalesced, whilst their dark interiors were open to the shifting seasons and were explored only by the scanning rays of the sun and the moon. So haunting, Lucy mused, gazing at them. They seemed to be ordering the living never to forget the dead. That’s how it should be, she decided, and she thought of her father. He would have found them fascinating, he’d have wanted to meet a local historian for a good long chat.
Rhea stiffened, but she let herself be squeezed and she managed to crack a grimacing smile at Lucy. Oh no, she winced inwardly, not the hugging thing. They’d somehow ended up hugging now and again when they’d been sorting things out after the funeral. Lucy had started it. But that was then, when they hadn’t been themselves. Surely they didn’t have to carry on?
Thoughts can begin with indirect , then build to direct, for dramatic effect:
Dalyan was relatively quiet, and a safe bet for couples and more mature people, shall we say, who didn’t want children around, or boozing young ‘adults’ who couldn’t hold their drink, swearing their heads off in the early hours, then vomiting up semi-digested kebabs in shop doorways. No, in this respect, Dalyan was a veritable haven. Rhea and Lucy had agreed it ticked all the boxes and booked it.
But really! Rhea thought. What was I thinking of? Going on holiday together? I must have been mad.
Or they can move back and forth for confusion and conflict, in really dramatic moments where a stream of consciousness emerges:
She reached into her bag for a tissue. After blowing her nose, she straightened up her blouse, crossed her legs, then unzipped a compartment in her bag and drew out her mobile. Maybe she should ring Rob? It would be so good to hear his voice. But what to say? She decided to text instead. So she punched the keys with a bland enquiry as to how things were going, then forced herself to look at the scenery of threadbare fields. Of course, Lucy would insist he be told the truth. How would he take it? And what about Poppy? And how many others would Lucy insist on telling? She groaned. Maybe she could persuade her that it wouldn’t do anyone any good. Oh, why did I have to come on this stupid trip? she asked herself. I’d have been better off with some quiet time by the pool. Now I’m tied to a whole day of people buzzing around me. And she vowed to try to find a quiet corner in Ephesus.
So that’s about it! As I was learning the craft, I found myself really wanting to understand this area of writing, technically. But of course, once you’re doing it, it begins to fall into place within the narrative in a natural process and rhythm. It’s a bit like learning to drive a car, one day you use the controls and change gear without thinking much, it’s become automatic – it’s become second nature.
I hope some of you find this useful and I’ll be printing this out for myself now!