Catching on the points of light
Letting it work

Not hilly enough

I've been thinking about thinking, in between eating too many Easter eggs: specifically, about thinking - the consciousness of characters - in fiction. The editorial report on a friend's novel says it's 'too introspective', and it's something which is said by a lot of agents and editors about a lot of aspiring novels. It's true that there's all the difference in the world, to the reader, between the novel reporting what someone has thought, and giving us thought as it gives us dialogue, and the two work differently. But the depiction of consciousness is the only unique thing about prose fiction, however you tell/show it, when you compare it to other narrative forms and arts. So how do you put that to best use, while not making your novels too thinky in the way a play may be too talky or a film too... what's a better word for 'see-y'? And it's a pretty feeble novel (or possibly it's a highly successful, all-action SAS thriller) whose characters never reflect, never change, have no awareness of their own affective selves and those changes, and so don't end up, emotionally speaking, in a different  place from where they started. So there I was, munching away on the FairTrade organic choc and my friend's problem, which is compounded by the fact that although plenty happens in her novel, the core of her main character's change is a mental and emotional one: that's what the book's about (and I know it's good, because I've read some of it.) 

I started thinking about narrative drive, because when editors at the commercial end of things don't like something which writers do like, it's usually because it's slowing up the story. Storytelling is king, and there's no denying that 'introspection' doesn't sound terribly forward-moving. Nor, really, does 'thinking', 'reflecting' or 'brooding'. And then I had a bit of a brainwave - or I hope it's a brainwave. Maybe Aristotle had also OD'ed on the Green & Black's when he said that drama (i.e. narrative) is character in action, because as usual, Aristotle is where my brainwave starts. The same editors who are wary of introspection love dialogue, because it moves the story on. By definition, it is something happening. Action. It's verbal action, if you like. Usually you choreograph your verbal action with physical action: some scenes are physical action alone. And then there's scene-setting. I don't know about you, but I always make sure that any physical description of a scene has coherence and movement, in the readerly sense: zooming in or zooming out, moving in space, time, weather or season, shifting from the sublime to the ridiculous or from the petty to the grand. It has a sense and a shape, in other words. What shall we call it? Background action? (not very good - any offers?)

In which case, thinking/reflecting/introspecting/brooding is clearly mental action, isn't it? And when I saw that, I realised that, of course, being action, it must conform to Aristotle and everyone else's basic demand: thinking in a novel must have its own asymmetric hill. 'What does he want?' may need interpreting loosely (though one can sit down consciously to think something out, can't one?) but add in 'What gets in the way?' and things begin to move: it's not enough for thinking to be recalling something (though it's a classic way to slide in backstory), or brooding round something, even if that something was a highly eventful conflict or a terrible heartbreak. The character now needs some kind of relationship to what they're thinking, the thinking needs a sense and a shape, and the reader needs to see it, and see how the action of thinking, the event with its own resistances and tussles, reaches a climax which changes what the character feels and therefore does in the present.

Hmmm. Now I see what's wrong with some highly-wrought love letters in Kindred and Affinity, which I've been worrying about for weeks. Not hilly enough. Time for some mental action of my own: maybe some more chocolate will help.

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