Make your characters’ thoughts dramatic

What goes on in their minds is a valuable tool of fiction you can use to reveal people, build tension, and more
By Stephen Delaney | Published: March 13, 2012


When we hear the word “dramatic” applied to a work of fiction, thoughts, most likely, seldom come to mind. Drama means action, heated dialogue, the bustle and clamor of the stage. The truth of the matter, though, is that thoughts—the inner tumult that drives and animates complex characters—lie at the core of most compelling fiction. Whether shown directly or summarized, slipped in quietly or examined in depth, your characters’ thoughts smolder beneath the mortar and bricks of your scenes. They can instill fiction with tension and mystery, breathing life into ordinary events by unveiling the drama within.

Before discussing the dramatic uses of thoughts, let’s lay out their basic mechanics. In Raymond Carver’s poignant story “If It Please You,” the main character, James, frets over his wife’s health:

He finished the coffee and smoked and watched the movie until its violent and inevitable conclusion. Then he turned off the set. He went to the bedroom door and listened, but there was no way of telling if she was awake. At least there was no light showing under the door. He hoped she was asleep. He kept listening. He felt vulnerable and somehow unworthy. Tomorrow she’d go to Dr. Crawford. Who knew what he would find?

Notice the gradual, controlled shift into James’ inner life. First, Carver shows James’ actions (drinking coffee and smoking, watching TV, walking to the bedroom door) before moving into the character’s perceptions (sight and hearing), his indirect thoughts (“He hoped …” “Tomorrow. …”)—thoughts summarized in the story’s/author’s voice—and, finally, James’ unfiltered mind. Of course, in any given case a transition’s length will vary, but in general the pattern from outer, objective reality into inner, subjective experience holds true. An awkward shift will feel too sudden, distracting your reader and throwing him or her out of the story.

Yet absorbing thoughts aren’t just technically sound—they also pack an emotional punch. To keep them dramatic in your own work, train your sights on these three goals:

Thoughts that build empathy. One of fiction’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to impart to us, through sensory details and emotionally fraught language, other lives. Fiction grounds itself in the physical world, but it can also plunge us deeper. Quietly and unobtrusively, it can enter our characters’ minds while preserving parts of thought’s essence. We can direct our readers’ sympathies, by-passing fickle surfaces to show what’s locked within.

Conrad Aiken’s story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” begins this way:

Just why it should have happened, or why it should have happened just when it did, he could not, of course, possibly have said. … The thing was above all a secret, something to be preciously concealed from Mother and Father …

The protagonist, Paul, is experiencing the onset of schizophrenia, finding that reality and his own inner world—full of vibrantly real visions of his neighborhood enveloped in snow—are at odds. Aiken draws us in with a groping authorial voice, its restless beats echoing Paul’s uncertainty. By keeping close to Paul’s thoughts, Aiken beguiles us with their candor and logic, countering our expectations so that easy labels fall away.

Also, an inner view puts us squarely in the thick of the drama: Paul’s struggle to negotiate both realms. For Paul and readers, the snow becomes a palpable presence, a soft film over dreary life. It blankets and purifies. The snow remains a constant, relentlessly intruding while the outer world—Paul’s teacher, objects in the street, even his family—seems fleeting. In the morning, the world takes on unfamiliar hues as Paul listens to the postman’s steps: “They were softer, they had a new secrecy about them. …” Accumulating both physical and emotional weight, Paul’s visions grow more consuming, disquieting the reader as they threaten to sever his ties to others.

Thoughts that reveal character. When great writers turn our attention inward, we feel our privileged position. These aren’t things someone would tell just anyone—if they’d be spoken aloud at all. Among the ways writers show character (e.g., action, dialogue, physical traits, possessions), it is thoughts that most often ring truest, helping us decode the motivations, beliefs and values that generate words and deeds.

How much you show, however, depends in large part on form. If you re-veal too much at once, or too early, you risk slackening the plot line and lessening the reader’s suspense. (You also create characters without secrets, and, therefore, little depth.)

Consider Katherine Anne Porter’s story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” As Granny lies in bed close to death, she grasps at memories that prove her resilience and the correctness of her life. Yet since we’re in the mental realm and her thoughts are under pressure—she’s afraid she might die before she’s ready—their path can’t be controlled. Porter holds our interest by conveying the mind’s spontaneity (plans to clean the house, for example, lead to a fog that rises over the valley and Granny’s lighting lamps with her children) while gradually closing in on the source of her distress. Little by little, her thoughts wear down her defenses, forcing her to confront her own weaknesses, buried resentments, and fears.

In literature, this connection between thoughts and vulnerability is, in fact, quite common. After all, in the extremities where fiction tends to dwell (and help is hard to come by), the mind may represent a character’s last resort. In Joyce Carol Oates’ “Naked,” a peppy suburbanite, walking alone in a nature preserve, finds herself attacked by a gang of young ruffians. They hit and taunt her, emptying her pockets and stealing her clothes. Humiliated and shaken, the woman decides that instead of seeking help she’ll keep to the woods and walk home, venturing the two-mile distance while trying to avoid being seen. As she reflects on possible outcomes, her personality takes shape:

Even people who wished her well would repeat the tale and thrill to it; some would wonder why she’d been alone in the wildlife preserve; some might even hint that she’d had it coming to her. … So the ugly tale would be told and retold numberless times, out of her control. She would be, simply, the woman who was found naked in the Meadowbrook Wildlife Preserve.

By entering her protagonist’s mind, Oates raises the stakes: Being seen wouldn’t just embarrass her, but would threaten her pride and sense of self. The success of her marriage, her belief in her own uniqueness, her supposed lack of prejudice (the children are black)—all are put in question by the thoughts that rage inside her. Voices erupt insistently as if in psychic battle: “This is what you deserve.” “It’s all right. You’re going to be all right.” “I am not a racist.” Such thoughts highlight her isolation, her inability to let down her guard.

Thoughts that add tension and suspense. To make thoughts active, consider their potential effects. In Oates’ story, a second, sketchier narrative—the series of “what ifs” that vex the main character—steadily sharpens in focus. This “what if” aspect points her thoughts toward physical action and consequence (i.e., whatever real-world dangers she might imagine). When rendered most dramatically, thoughts have one direction. Characters plan; they obsess on fears or longings; they let resentments stew. Their reflections accumulate, gaining force, threatening to boil over. What they actually portend or elicit depends on the work. Yet when effective, they engage readers and brim with the promise of becoming more.

In “Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf asks writers to describe thoughts in their full course: “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” Using interior monologue, writers like Woolf, Faulkner and Joyce produced masterful illusions of mind’s-eye views. The breaks in continuity, linking of disjointed ideas, collisions of impressions and memories can all persuade us we’re seeing thought in action.

Even if your goals differ from Woolf’s, however, the movements of thought can enliven your prose. In Wright Morris’ “Drrdla,” for instance, a man, investigating a noise, finds an unknown animal in a basement corner:

Walter and this creature had just stared at each other. Abat, possibly? No, the head was too large. In Walter’s experience it resembled the slender loris, a bizarre creature he had seen only in books. Ahead that appeared all eyes.

Moments like this are disorienting, pulling apart the world we think we know. (The “creature,” it turns out, is a starved cat.) Inchoate and unstable, they come precariously close to wordless states, before thoughts have been molded and set. Tracing a person’s perceptions—toward insight, self-knowledge or brief, if faltering, recognition—puts characters and readers in sync. We share the characters’ confusion, feeling their struggle for meaning.

The elements of thought, then, draw us closer to the core of great fiction: They reveal us through other lives. They slip us into the minds and skins of others. And if the writing succeeds, their discoveries, in the end, are our own.

Writer and editor Stephen Delaney has had work in many publications, including Crazyhorse and Mid-American Review.