Bewitched, boggled and... now what?
What's your project?

Small things are more crucial

On a forum the other day, on one of those threads which starts off with a post about the kind of small technical thing that we all go blind to sometimes, and ends up (all too often) as a general letting off steam about Annoying Things Ignorant People Write, someone said that "I thought to myself" is a tautology, and must be avoided. But of course my contrarian reflex made me start thinking about whether that's really true.

Jane thought Ian was nice is clearly the basic statement about Jane's view of and/or feelings about Ian (and grammatically Jane thought Ian nice is legitimate though not so common these days.) Jane thought that Ian was nice is an option, but the extra stuff in Jane thought to herself that Ian was nice seems to say nothing more. Whereas "Jane said to herself" is different from "Jane said to Anne", thoughts are, by default, to oneself. Indeed, if we're firmly in Jane's point of view and working with free indirect style so that Jane's voice and thoughts are allowed to infect the narrative, you could argue that we don't need "Jane thought" at all: "Ian was nice" is enough, because we read it as Jane's thought reported. But with the short version there's nothing (lacking the context, obviously) to make clear the status of Jane's perception about Ian. Are we to believe that Ian is actually nice? To me, adding the "that" adds a whiff of subjectivity. And in "Jane thought to herself that Ian was nice" we are nudged further - conciously or unconsciously - towards the possiblity that Jane may be deluded: others (us?) might think him horrible.

And there's something else (although, again, in context it might be clear). In Jane thought that Ian was nice, is the narrator telling us about Jane's feeling in general - like "Jane hated porridge" - or is it something that Jane is doing/thinking, now this minute? Whereas Jane thought to herself that Ian was nice pins the thought to a particular point in time: the "now" of the story. Logically it's over-determined, but as a technique of storytelling, it allows for the possibility that on another day she might think Ian a bore.

I know that I quite often commit a similar "crime", which is to write something like:

1) I watched John getting out of the car and thought that he looked tired.

Many of the creative writing fascists would demand that it be

2) I watched John get out of the car; he looked tired.

or even

3) John got out of the car. He looked tired.

The fascists would have a point, of course (it took Mussolini to make the trains run on time, after all). Often stuff like "I thought" and "I realised" are the remains of our first draft - the Common Scaffold I blogged about a while ago - and undeniably, much of the time, less is more and those tacking stitches need to be picked out and thrown away. Indeed, the simple syntax of the first half of (3), the flat, separate phrases, have a lot of strength in their simplicity. I would never say don't do it.

But sometimes less is less. For one thing, each of those sentences has a different rhythm: which is right for this paragraph, this voice, this novel? Too much of (3)-shape can be as drearily relentless as the pain of a headache. Does the prose need more density, or more air, just here? But, more importantly, what's this sentence - this moment - really there for? John's tiredness may be central to the plot, or it may be quite trivial (although I would suggest that it should have some relevance to something else in the story, otherwise you should pick another description of John to work with). If it's trivial, then why am I writing this moment at all? Why not cut to the chase?

Because maybe this is the chase. At the very least, it may be a small stone in our building sense of how they relate to each other: she watches him, but doesn't go to him, nor wave and turn back into the house to get the kettle on. But maybe it's a bigger stone: maybe this is a moment when "I" acquires a whole new consciousness of John. It might even be a veritable boulder, if it's the first moment of her new awareness of her new consciousness of him. If this is the point of the scene, and if this scene is one pier of the bridge, then I really need the reader to be aware of the narrator, as a character-in-action, watching John, (as Harriet observes Peter in the punt) and then noticing/thinking about his tiredness.

If that's so, then "I watched... and thought" aren't scaffolding, but crucial parts of the structure. And although good engineers know that strength as well as elegance comes from using the minimum means, they also know that many an accident has come about from those who come after them not understanding the significance of those small but crucial bolts. Sometimes soi-disant plain-prose purists are actually like the people who thought that they didn't really need the extra layer on the hull of a ship called the Titanic...

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