1. dizzyspell
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    dizzyspell Active Member

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    Having characters alone without falling into a stream of consciousness?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by dizzyspell, May 2, 2011.

    This is my biggest flaw as a writer at the moment, and it's something that annoys me to no small degree. I don't want to be writing pages and pages about what Andrew thinks, and how he feels about that, but I seem to be.

    What are some techniques to avoid doing this, while still getting the important thoughts across? Good authors that manage this?

    Thanks a bunch!
     
  2. Flakjacket098
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    Flakjacket098 New Member

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    i would like to see some tips on this as well because i am writing a story right now that has my MC spending a lot of his time alone figuring out the answer to the obstacles i am putting in front of him.
     
  3. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Show not tell.

    If your MC is scared, don't say it. Instead, describe him picking at his fingernails (do guys do this?), fidgeting, looking around quickly, putting his hand on his weapon if he carries one, etc. Likewise, don't say why he his scared, but mention objects and other details that are similar to his fear or that indicate what the fear is.

    If he's sad, don't say it. If he misses his ex, don't say it. Instead, have him pace around his apartment, move furniture around to get rid of the feeling of empty space, drink a six-pack of beer while blasting rock ballads etc.
     
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  4. dizzyspell
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    dizzyspell Active Member

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    One of my characters spends about a quarter of the novel trapped in a cold stone labyrinth. In this time, I'm only planning on visiting her once or twice, but how many different ways are there to show how frustrated and trapped she is, without lapsing into 'telling'? Surely in that circumstance you would spend a lot of time thinking?
    I guess I'll smooth it out when I'm rewriting...

    I don't think I tend to say 'Andrew was sad', it's more like. "Andrew stared at his empty coffee cup. Damn you Elizabeth! How could she do this to him?"

    But that's a bit stream of consciousness-y for my liking. You reckon just cut out all his thoughts like that?
     
  5. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Does your character have things to do in this labyrinth? Are there tunnels to explore, ways out to hunt for, survival-threats to face (i.e. starvation), or creepy clues to suggest she may have unpleasant company lurking somewhere? If so, work on these - if not, just don't focus on her too much and use other POV characters. But one panicky trapped-in-a-labyrinth scene isn't bad....I'd use the scene where she finds herself trapped there, maybe one other, and that's it unless there is something else in the labyrinth going on.
     
  6. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Is it first person or 3rd? In first person it's harder to avoid, but as long as you fill the scene with actions and have some progress (so not all head scratching, fingernail examining, wall-tapping pointless little actions) then whatever they think will have to be punctuated with thoughts on what they're doing, which will at least break up the narrative. Generally you should not be cutting to scenes just to tell us what a character is thinking, but to move the plot along, so there has to be something for the character to do. If not, cut them out from the moment they get trapped until after. But a bit of fun wandering a labyrinth action would be a nice thing to have in a story, so try and think of obstacles and challenges instead. :p

    If it's 3rd person write the scene initially with no thought at all, and no silly little emotive actions. Focus on what's actually happening. If, like I said, nothing does, cut the scene. If something worth writing does happen, edit in the thoughts you like around it.

    One thing is, characters alone (and people!) talk to themselves. Having her vocalise the most important parts of her monologue or even arguing with herself would really brighten the scene up and introduce snappier paragraphs. :p
     
  7. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    excellent advice, Imo. I will follow it myself. :)
     
  8. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    There's various things that I can think of. First of all, if your character is alone, and, for example, he's traveling, why not spend time describing the setting? Also, what if you keep falling into this stream of consciousness because nothing else is readily coming to mind? Could your plot need a little more to it? Maybe some sub-plots or another main character or two? I find that with a little more planning one will be able to think and write more clearly.
     
  9. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Sorry, but this is only partially good advice. Of course, nobody should write "He was scared" as independently of 'show, don't tell' it's just bad writing. But it's also just a big a mistake to play a game of literary charades where your character starts acting like a mime... oooh, oooh, he's nervous, he's got to pee, no, wait, he's paranoid because he stole a salami! Oh, yeah, he's scared, I guess I could see that.

    Don't state why a character is scared? Why not? This is only good advice if you're writing a very distant, non-omni pov (which is one of the least effective rhetorical strategies in fiction). In an omni pov, we're going to expect relevant details like why a character is afraid. In a limited/close pov, we're going to expect insight into the character. So, while you don't want to say 'there's werewolfs in the woods' you sure as heck will want some insight into what the character is thinking/feeling if his family got murdered by werewoofs and one night outside his window he's hearing howls.

    I hate having to harp on it, but 'show, don't tell' is one of the most worthless adages I've ever heard, and in not only reading, but studying and working directly with hundreds of student writers, I can tell you not a single one of them produced a good manuscript on the back of this adage, nor even strengthened a manuscript with the adage in mind during revision. Why? Because it's literally irrelevant to the production of good writing, and is little more than a descriptive tool people use to sound smart on blogs.

    More often than not, a student will follow 'show, don't tell' to a tee, end up with a meandering, meaningless manuscript, be confused why it was utterly boring and forgettable, why nobody connected with an emotionless, empty husk of a character being pushed around a stage like a wax figure, and the real breakthrough in their writing usually involves them angrily asking why the hell anyone ever told them to 'show, don't tell' when one can do exactly that and come nowhere near producing an effective or engaging manuscript.

    The only thing 'show, don't tell' has ever done for writers is give them something to sound smart about at parties and on forums full of people that don't know any better, so follow the advice, and then I guarantee some day will have a break through in their writing related to realizing the mantra was at best ineffectual, and at worst wasted a lot of time trying to live up to a rule that is purely descriptive, not prescriptive, and has little bearing on producing quality fiction.
     
  10. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    My advice is to do like we do in real-life and filter out inconsequential thoughts and details. Just as I was writing that sentence, I was listing to sports talk radio and thinking I was hungry, but I didn't include it in the sentence. Just because something did occur doesn't mean it was relevant.

    If you're writing in a limited, close perspective, I would advise trying to capture the truth of the moment of a character. How this is done is by taking an inventory of the character's experience in that setting, at that time, etc, and then filtering out what is and isn't relevant to the character him or herself in that moment, and what is/isn't relevant to the story you're trying to craft as a writer.

    So, there may be a million little sensory details your character is noticing, but which is the character actually paying attention to? He may be breathing hard, but if he's running from a ghost is he going to intellectually consider the state of his breathing? Probably not. Though, that breathing may manifest as an experience.

    Now, if the character is sneaking down a hallway and hears something around the corner, I'd recommend not doing something clumsily like having them shrug their shoulders and scratch their head and put their finger to their brown, and instead just having something that's direct, simply, true, authentic for that character by getting their insight in that moment, since it's a moment that begs for internal reaction. Whether it's that the character is hoping not to be eaten alive or wonders if there are still trolls in these caves, it will give us insight not only into the world, but the character, as what the character things about and is afraid of is relevant to the story, because it's relevant to the moment and the character.

    One tool I used to use when I was learning to build scenes is making a list. Column 1, what the character is experiencing externally, seeing, touching, hearing, etc. Column 2, what the character is experiencing internally, emotions, thoughts, wondering, hoping, considering, etc.

    So, column 1: it's cold in the room, it smells like cinnamon, the walls are really clean and white, the mug of tea is hot, steam is still hissing out of the kettle.

    And then, column 2: he's wondering why his sister is here, he's hungry and wants to eat, he hopes it isn't bad news, he remembers how his sister used to never wait to tell bad news and instead would just blurt it out when they were kids, he hate the color of these counters.

    Then, match them up, keeping in mind all things written down may not be relevant or needed.

    And not saying that's good writing on a first shot example, just trying to demonstrate how scenes are build based on the natural pairing of external and internal actions and reactions. This sort of exercise also helps balance a scene, as an action scene is going to naturally have a lot more external things listed than an quieter, more introspective scene like I added, and as such the building of scenes will have to keep the 'truth of the moment' in mind (meaning in the middle of a car chase people, especially characters, are not usually waxing poetic on their thoughts about the likelihood of cold fusion).
     
  11. dizzyspell
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    dizzyspell Active Member

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    Thank you so much! That's really helpful.

    I think I lapse into the stream of consciousness because being that the novel is set in the Afterlife, they can't feel much physically. I mean, they notice things like heat/cold, but it can't affect them, being dead, so it's more part of the setting. Very difficult! But your advice is great, all of you, so I'll definitely try and incorporate it into the story, and hopefully things will work out :)
     
  12. Gothic Vampire Queen
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    Gothic Vampire Queen Member

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    *Bookmarks thread* thanks for the advice Mallory.
     
  13. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    If the character is walking around in a dark labyrinth without real physical form a lot of the time, you may need to become creative. You could play up their memories of past events as scenes - make it more coherent than stream of consciousness. Through their memories, you can show their loneliness, regrets, pain, or whatever you want.

    Depending on how your afterlife works, they could still experience physical sensations. Some fiction assumes the astral form remembers the physical form and imagines itself to have physical needs - much like you can still feel pain in a limb after it has been amputated.
     
  14. Drusilla
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    Drusilla Active Member

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    Try to make a good mix of everything: descriptions, character's thoughts, dialogue and humour. You could write some pages only centering around the character's thoughts when the character is alone in his/her room or daydreaming, but it would be weird if it happened in the middle of a dialogue. If you want to describe the character's thoughts in the middle of a dialogue, try to describe it as short as possible (one or two sentences).
     
  15. dizzyspell
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    dizzyspell Active Member

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    Thank you! I wrote the problematic dungeon scene, and I think it's alright. I'll go over it of course, in my rewrite. At the moment, she's yelling at rats a lot, but she's the sort of person that would.

    And to clarify, my characters do have physical forms and can technically feel things, but it doesn't have any affect on them. There's a whole system which trains them out of physical sensations, so that they can make the most out of their afterlife. :)
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Focus on what the character is doing, not what he or she is thinking and feeling.
     

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