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You Don’t Say

January 26, 2015 Writing 11 Comments

Robin Black

So, here is a writing exercise it might be fun to try.  (And arguably the best part is that there’s no actual writing involved.)

For one hour, during a time when you are with at least one other person, keep track of everything you think, but do not say.  Better yet, since thinking about what you’re thinking about requires the kind of mental contortion that may result in a brain sprain, at some point, after you have been around other people, try to remember a few of the things you were thinking but did not say.

That’s step one.  Step two is to make an honest appraisal of which was more interesting, what you did say or what you didn’t say?  Which revealed more about your true character? Which carried in it more potential for drama?  Which exposed more about what was actually going on between you and the other people?

Yeah. I thought so.

Step three? Go reread your own fiction and ask yourself whether what goes unspoken is playing a large enough role in your work.

One of the joys of fiction that’s obvious but maybe not marveled at enough is the magical access a reader is given to the inner lives of other people – albeit make-believe ones.  Among fiction writers the subject of this access most often arises in the context of (endless) conversations about and treatises on the subject of point of view.  Which point of view allows an author to share the thoughts of how many characters? How does all of that work? How do you change points of view within a single scene? What the heck is narrative distance? And so on. (And on and on. . .) And I for one am a bit of a point of view junkie, or maybe I mean a point of view nerd. I love those discussion, love the strategizing and love exploring the implications of all those choices.

But what at times gets lost in the conversation, the forest obscured by all those many, many trees, is this simple fact: fiction allows us to have unlimited access to the thoughts of other people.  There are limitless possibilities! Yet the thoughts that appear in fiction are often quite limited. And in some sense they are too tied to the dialogue in a scene.  All too often once we set one character in conversation with another, we forget about the conversation that character is having with herself.  And the fact is, it’s very often that conversation that contains all the really juicy stuff.  And it’s the juicy stuff that reveals character.  And revealing character is something that we all want to do.

There’s another benefit too to a fictional wandering mind.  Including a character’s thoughts can render dialogue looser by introducing other strands, taking away that artificial call-and-response quality that fictional dialogue too often has.

The very best critique I ever received of my dialogue was:  These people say exactly what they mean too much. I didn’t take that to mean that people are all duplicitous most of the time, but that there is a wealth of tension to be found in the discrepancy between what a character says and what’s really on her mind. And tension, in fiction, is wealth indeed.

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The Novel with Many Narrators is a Multiheaded Beast


By Kathy Crowley

The idea of writing a novel with many narrators began growing in my mind years ago.  I blame it on Faulkner, specifically on The Sound and The Fury, which I read at an impressionable age. “Caddie smelled like trees.”  Yes, that may have been the line that suckered me in. The beauty, the puzzle-like complexity of fitting the various stories and voices together. And it didn’t look that hard.  How about this ENTIRE CHAPTER from As I Lay Dying: “My mother is a fish”? I mean, REALLY.

I suspect this was all hanging around in the back of my mind when I made the step from short story writer to novelist.  Like the teenager with artistic aspirations who looks at Jackson Pollock and says, “Nothing to it,” I remembered the mother and the fish and thought, “How hard can it be?”

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