Some Thoughts On Thought

Before we get into the nature of emotional thoughts, I want to examine the role that thought, the internal workings of the character's mind, plays in story. Thought occupies an especially important place in the written story because the written story is the only story form that portrays the mind well. The written story can portray the mind exactly as it happens, word for word, moment by moment, in the character. That can't be done on the screen or on the stage. Those forms have their virtues, but the characters have to speak their minds if we're going to experience them at all. Stage plays used to use asides and soliloquies (the character addressing his thoughts to the audience). Movies use voice-over once in a while, but a little bit of it goes a long way, and it usually seems artificial or comic (often unintentionally) or melodramatic.

In the movie Alfie it was done for comic effect. Alfie turned and addressed the audience directly. It was clever, charming, and funny and worked well. The old Bogart detective movies used it and got away with it in their day, but by today's standards it seems stilted. The classic movie Sunset Boulevard had a fair amount of voice-over narration, although a case might be made that it succeeded in spite of rather than because of it. More recently, the movie American Beauty used it well. Maybe moviemakers will find a way to use more of it and use it effectively. Whether they do or not, it won't change things for the written story.

Since we can move freely about the landscape of the mind and since the mind is a major part of the experience, it's an expected and necessary part of the written story. The doorway to the mind is always open in the written story. Since we can go inside, we must go inside. If we don't, it will always feel as if something is missing.

Without the mind, we don't get much from the following:

"Hey, Uncle Harry. How are you?" I said. "Fine," Harry said. "You look great," I said.

"Thanks. How are you?" Harry said, extending his hand. "I'm good," I said, shaking his hand. "Good to see you, Harry. Listen, I've got to make a call. Be back in a bit."

Now let's try it with the mind:

Good Lord, Uncle Harry's here. Why didn't someone tell me? Damn, here he comes. "Hey, Uncle Harry. How are you?" Look at that alcoholic flush and that booze nose.

"Fine," Harry said.

"You look great," I said. Wrinkled clothes. Matted hair. He doesn't look very clean either.

"Thanks. How are you?" Harry said, extending his hand.

Christ, now I have to touch him. "I'm good." His hand is mushy and slimy. Who knows where it's been? "Good to see you, Harry. Listen, I've got to make a call. Be back in a bit." Keep this hand away from everything until I can wash it. Where's the bathroom in this place?

Could the reader possibly have any idea what was going on with the character without his thoughts? The character can be having wild, frantic thoughts while acting perfectly calm in the presence of someone else, and we have no problem portraying both happening together.

Another reason the mind can reach a level of intimacy beyond that on film or stage lies in the nature of the mind itself. In the written story, we can explore what E. M. Forster called "the secret life" of the character. The secret life is the private thoughts the character will tell no one. Such thoughts can be enormously revealing, since we seldom speak exactly what's on our mind or in our hearts. What the character thinks as it relates to what he says and does is a critical part of who he is.

He loved her, but at times she disgusted him-for no reason. And sometimes he disgusted himself. Was it him? Or was it just the way life was sometimes—disgusting? Familiarity bred contempt. But how much and how often? Maybe he should see a shrink. How did you pick a shrink? He wasn't asking his friends. They'd think he was nuts. Maybe he was, but he didn't want them knowing.

That's one level of the mind. There's another. That level is the part of the character that the character doesn't want to reveal even to himself, the part of himself he tries to avoid, tries to keep secret even from himself and wishes he could forget.

A character who trampled an old woman's prize rosebush to death might later in life feel the following:

Oh, God. Why did I do that? No reason. Cruelty. Plain cruelty.

What a bastard. What a lousy bastard I am. What was wrong with me? But I've made up for it. But not to her. Too late for that. Christ, forget it. Quit punishing yourself. How long do you have to atone for something?

So, in the written story, we can go to this deepest level without any concerns about how to make it real. It exists as language, so we can portray it exactly as it occurs in reality.

Our ability to reach such a level of intimacy in this way with the written story is why a good novel will always be lacking on the screen. The exception is when a weak book is translated into a strong screenplay.

Midnight Cowboy is an example.

All great stories involve the internal conflict of the character—the struggle in his mind with himself. This conflict is a way of expressing the relationship the character has with himself—how he feels about himself and how he manages himself. We're all of more than one mind. In a sense, we're more than one person, since different aspects of ourselves can be pulling against each other while we're trying to hold things together and function. That's part of what goes on whenever we're facing a crisis. And all stories are about crisis.

But all stories and all writers aren't great. Writers use the mind to different degrees. There are some excellent writers/storytellers, not great, but damn good, who don't go into the mind so much. They never reach the complexity of character that's possible by getting into the mind, but they give us enough. Since his thoughts are not revealed, the character has to speak, or express in some other way, what he's feeling. We need to know what's going on with the character emotionally, or we can't relate or identify. Literary novels tend to be more internal. Action-adventure novels tend to be less internal. The literary mystery is one that is much more internal than the run-of-the-mill whodunit.

Pay attention to this when you read. Almost always, you feel the strongest connection to the character when you're deeply into his thoughts. Creating the workings of the character's mind is the most difficult part of storytelling. It's the most demanding, but it's also the most rewarding. The more deeply you go into the character, the more deeply you must go into yourself. As in life, the most difficult part is often the most fulfilling.

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