Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Give Characters Time To Think

I think, therefore I am, according to Descartes, and characters need to be thinking too.  You, as their writer, need to give them the time to think.

'I made a stew for this evening. Have you seen who moved in next door?'

This doesn't work because the character's dialogue shows that their thoughts have moved (from stew to next door) but the writer has allowed them no time to do it.

'I made a stew for this evening,' Clarice said.  'Have you seen who moved in next door?'

at least gives Clarice some time to change direction.  I think that because it's quite a change in direction, Clarice really needs a bit more thinking time:

'I made a stew for this evening,' Clarice said, tidying away her apron.  She moved to the kitchen window. 'Have you seen who moved in next door?'

Sometimes more thinking is required, such as making a major decision.  You may want to outline the character's thought processes as they go through the pros and cons.

Clarice could understand Bill's point of view.  Yes, she knew you had to speculate to accumulate, that he was going to invest in the future of the business and indirectly their future happiness.  But was buying a pig farm the only way to go? Wouldn't it smell?  And was Bill cut out to be a pig farmer?  She knew she wasn't.  A tea shop, on the other hand, would occupy them both - her making cakes and Bill dealing with the customers.  And people always wanted tea and cakes.  Everyone knew that, whereas vegetarianism was on the rise.

Too much thought processing can be dull for the reader - there's lots of action in the character's head, but not much elsewhere.  The solution is to give them something to do while they ponder.

Clarice pushed the trolley into the supermarket, inhaling the scent of freshly baked bread as she went through the doors - strange when the bread counter was at the far end.  She slammed a paper into the trolley, clocking the headlines about interest rates.  That was what Bill had been going on about.  They needed to invest their nest egg. But was buying a pig farm the only way to go? She sniffed a melon to see if it was ripe.  Wouldn't a pig farm smell?  And was Bill cut out to be a pig farmer?  She knew she wasn't. There was that delicious bread smell again.  It just went to show: people always wanted cakes.  Surely a teashop would be a better idea than a pig farm.

But you don't have to do it this way; you can summarise the decision making process.

Clarice pondered the pig farm idea over the next three days. On Friday morning she woke up, her mind made up.  'Sorry, Bill,' she said.  'It's no go.'

But whichever way you choose, make sure you've given your characters enough time to think.


Alison Morton said...

I'm a big fan of smells, whether pig farm or melons and often let my characters become aware of smells before they open their mouths.

In real life, a smell is the first thing that hits us when we open the car door or walk into somewhere new and I bet we all stop and analyse it before saying anything.

Thank you for setting this out so clearly, Sarah. A great technique for smoothing transitions and introducing new iseas and situations.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah,

Just wanted to say yours is absoutely my favourite writing blog. Common sense advice posted regularly --and it doesn't take an absolute age to read. Really useful, thanks.

-- Mark

womagwriter said...

Hear hear, Mark.

Sarah Duncan said...

Alison - I have a poor sense of smell so often leave it out, and have to consciously remember to put it in!

Mark - thank you so much. And Kath too.

*blushes furiously*