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Behind the Fiction, Past
A Fiction Column
By Michael G'Francisco



Thoughts and dialogue drive a story forward. In any given scene all narration is usually the thoughts of a character. If a reader can experience a characters’ thoughts, the story becomes more intimate. But, showing characters’ thoughts can be a bit tricky.

Thoughts can also be like dialogue because they are associated with an individual character, and they can be written word for word (verbatim).

Example: He/she said, “I can talk.” (Dialogue)
He/she thought, I can talk.

It is strange but a fictional story can move a reader by what we know does not exist. Readers respond to emotion through words on a page. These words can move a reader to cry, get angry, and even to feel horror. Fictional emotional situations must make the reader actually believe the character really exists.

Thoughts in a fiction novel are not a presentation of facts. But true statements can be made about what happens in a fiction novel and beliefs directed towards those events can be true or false. Once we realize that truth is not confined to the factual, the problem disappears.

In fiction written in the third-person, you’ll see thoughts appearing in either present or past tense. To summarize the thinker’s words, thoughts are better expressed in third-person, past tense and written in normal font (not italics), with or without thought tags, such as, “She thought” or “He thought.” This actually is equivalent to relating what someone said, rather than using their exact words in quotation marks.

Example: He wondered if she’d be on time.

In most third-person stories you have a choice. You can elect to tell the story from what is known as the omniscient point of view. That’s how a reader can intertwine with actions, motivations and occurrences associated with the story’s characters. Writing in a single point of view or intimate point of view, the reader can only learn what a character experienced or heard about.

A fiction writer often grapples with the problem of how to convey a character’s inner dialogue. Sometimes a writer has to use thought tags to avoid confusion, but such tags should be used sparingly.

Tags is one of the four ways to show character thoughts. Italics is best saved for important thoughts, gut reactions and sudden insight. Deep viewpoint is usually used in a scene where the reader sees through the character’s eyes, such as, “If I scanned the group in the jammed packed square, will I see her?” Conclusions drawn by other characters:

Example: I knew she was staring at me. Her eyes revealed my thought. They were going to be arrested.

To create a scene where a character is revealing his/hers thoughts a writer must use whichever tag that fits the story’s plot. As in these four ways listed above, phases and sentences that are to be active thoughts of a character, both thought tags and italics can be used.

The type of character’s thoughts that do not need those treatments are those that reflect on the setting or events as they take place from a narrating character’s point of view. The point of view a writer uses will also determine how to write a character’s thoughts.

Most editors will not read a manuscript that says…he thought to himself.

This phase is considered a novice’s mistake and means the writer didn’t take the time to do his literary homework on a character’s thought subject.

To further explain an editor’s reasoning, unless the story’s characters communicate telepathically with their thoughts, there is no other way to think than to think to yourself.

In general, direct thoughts, those a person (character) thinks inside their head, as though they were spoken but were a thought instead, are written in italics without quotes around it, but tagged the same way as if they had quotes.

Example: Jane thought, I think I’ll go home.

Jane said, “I think I’ll go home.”

Also, when writing thoughts in fiction, a writer wants to be sure that a reader understands that italicizing thoughts are the thoughts in the character’s head as though they were spoken inside their head.

Example: (Scene with two characters)

Jim thought it would be a good idea to go home.

Jim thought, I think it would be a good idea to go home.

Ted wondered whether going home was a good thing for Jim to do.

Ted wondered, is it a good thing for Jim to go home?

A writer must try to differentiate between telling the reader a thought and showing them one.

Remember, if the writer is not in omniscient point of view, or the point of view where a character is doing the thinking, a reader can’t tell that person’s thoughts anyway because the reader shouldn’t have access to them.

In conclusion, if a writer wishes to improve his or hers skills in writing, I suggest reading Evan Marshall’s Plan for Novel Writing (2001). It’s a clear-cut 16 step break down of the complex novel-writing process. By using Marshall’s plan, a writer can have a story planned and plotted before writing the first word.


Now, go softly into the night. mgf

Comments always welcome

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