first person narration

thinking, contemplation, statue

Unspoken Thoughts And The Inner Voice

Readers and writers, I need advice!

What’s the best way to represent unspoken thoughts in first person, past tense?

My work in progress contains unvoiced thoughts and interior monologue, as the first person narrator shares her private thoughts with the reader and holds debates with herself.

Like dialogue, the narrator’s uncensored, unvoiced thoughts must be in present tense. The problem is that readers may perceive them as random departures from the prevailing past tense, i.e., as mistakes.

Which leads to these two questions:

a) Are unvoiced thoughts confusing or distracting for the reader, and therefore best avoided?

b) What’s the best way to tell the reader This Is An Unvoiced Thought?

Three possibilities:

  1. Incorporate the statements of the Inner Voice into the past tense narrative, with the tag “I thought” as the signal (same as the “I said” tag in spoken dialogue).
  2. Put the unvoiced thoughts in italics, in present tense.
  3. Unvoiced thoughts in present tense, but without italics or any other signal.

EXAMPLES:

She clattered downstairs, all gussied up for her big night out.

“What do you think?” She twirled around, the short pink satin number revealing her thighs.

“You’ll wow ’em, for sure.” Too short, too tight, too shiny, I thought.

“It doesn’t make me look fat, does it?”

“You look great!” Only like a sausage about to burst its casing, I thought.

The door closed behind her. Why am I so judgmental? I wondered, turning back to my crossword.

OR

She clattered downstairs, all gussied up for her big night out.

“What do you think?” She twirled around, the short pink satin number revealing her thighs.

“You’ll wow ’em, for sure.” Too short, too tight, too shiny.

“It doesn’t make me look fat, does it?”

“No, of course not!”  Only like a sausage about to burst its casing.

The door closed behind her. Why am I so judgmental? I turned back to my crossword.

OR

She clattered downstairs, all gussied up for her big night out.

“What do you think?” She twirled around, the short pink satin number revealing her thighs.

“You’ll wow ’em, for sure.” Too short, too tight, too shiny.

“It doesn’t make me look fat, does it?”

“No, of course not!” Only like a sausage about to burst its casing.

The door closed behind her. Why am I so judgmental? I turned back to my crossword.

OR?

My thoughts on this: I don’t like the first technique, of adding “I thought” and similar phrases. It works if the unvoiced thoughts are brief and few. It’s awkward if the thoughts are longer than a single sentence, or are frequent enough that a phrase other than “I thought” becomes necessary. “I thought” is more obtrusive than “I said,” and becomes irritating with repetition.

I favour using italics to designate any thought that’s not spoken aloud (#2 above). But I’ve heard that italics can be confusing or irritating.

A fairly extensive treatment of this matter, mainly with regard to third person narrative, however, may be found here. It suggests the technique used should reflect the intensity or importance of the unspoken thought, with italics kept to a minimum. Given all the unvoiced thoughts and interior monologue in my WIP, I will have to keep this in mind when I work it over once the first draft is complete (soon, that will be!)

So what do you think? Here are the two questions again:

a) Are unvoiced thoughts in a narrative confusing or distracting for the reader?

b) What is the best way to tell the reader This Is An Unvoiced Thought?

 

 

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First Person Narrator

I love fiction narrated in the first person.  Love writing it, certainly. When I began to write The Friendship of Mortals, the first novel in my Herbert West Series, there was no question but that it would be in first person. Charles Milburn, the narrator, has a story to tell. He has carried the burden of memories of his involvements with Herbert West for a decade and a half, and finally, on a night when he can’t sleep he’s ready to relive those experiences, incidentally sharing them with the reader. Nothing is better for this “confessional” mode of storytelling than first person. Think of Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne.

First person narration was right for the sequels to The Friendship of Mortals as well.  The second novel in the series, Islands of the Gulf, has three narrators (or four, possibly). Their accounts overlap somewhat, so the reader sees certain events from two different points of view. I found this to be an irresistible aspect of this mode of storytelling; it’s like walking around a sculpture and viewing it from different dimensions. I told Herbert’s story using the voices of Charles, his librarian friend, Andre Boudreau, his Acadian servant, the widow Margaret Bellgarde, and Alma Halsey, a disillusioned journalist who was once Charles Milburn’s lover. Only once does Herbert himself assume the narrator’s role, in the second half of Islands of the Gulf.

When you start to think about it, the whole business of narrative voice and point of view is an intricate one, full of subtleties.  On the face of it, it seems simple. First person is when the character telling the story calls him- or herself “I,” as in: I opened the door to a man pointing a gun at me. Second person is uncommon but not unheard of, most often encountered in short stories of the literary type: You open the door and there’s a man pointing a gun at you. Third person is the most common voice in fiction: Jack opened the door and saw a man pointing a gun at him. Even with these tiny examples, it’s possible to detect differences in tone and to imagine how the narratives may diverge into a variety of scenarios.

Third person is the most versatile. The trickiest issue in a story told this way is that of point of view. Is the narrator omniscient, that is, equally aware of the motivations and secrets of each character, or is he/she more informed about the protagonist? Is the narrative voice “close,” almost like first person, or somewhat removed? Does the point of view shift from one character to another between scenes, or even (gasp) within a scene? The latter, sometimes called “head-hopping” is frowned upon by some and must be done well if it is to be done at all.

The greatest limitation of the first person narrator, of course, is that you, the writer, are stuck inside that character. If you want to impart information that person cannot possibly have, or convey the emotions of another character in a direct way, you have to resort to devices such as letters or diaries, or to engineer scenes in which your voice-character overhears things, dreams them or mind-merges with someone else — all the time reminding yourself not to snap the thread upon which depends the reader’s crucial suspension of disbelief.

Islands of the Gulf, Part One will be available to readers by the end of 2011.