Writing is never quite what we expect it will be.
As we work through the daily demands of the craft, describing a character’s actions asks us to call on a particular set of skills to keep the story moving. When we try to bring the reader into a character’s immediate thoughts, all bets are off.
The techniques, the rhythms, the words, the constructions that serve us so well in describing a character’s acts: Use those same tools to represent the immediacy of the character’s thinking, and sentences hit the ground like half-filled water balloons. Instead of hitting the reader with a thrilling—even shocking—explosion of interest, they sorta just plop to the ground and lay there.
The problem is in the context; the words with which we clothe the thought. “He said….” “He thought….” (and Lord help you if you stick an adverb to the lapel): Too many writers don’t communicate the act of thinking, feeling, perceiving—they report it.
Why is that an issue?
The trappings of formal sentence structure distance us from the immediacy, the right-now quality, of the character’s experience.
In life, should we see a car rushing toward us, we wouldn’t pause to reflect. We don’t say to ourselves, ‘This was a dangerous situation, Lynn thought.’ Instead, we’d see the bumper coming way too close, too fast….we’d think “crap!” and we’d jump out of the way. In life, the perception and the reaction move together, in the same mental breath.
Are you following?
Two made-up-on-the-spot samples (not necessarily good ones) that might make the point clearer….
1) ‘He saw the flash of light. It blinded him for a moment. Lightning, he thought, with a chill of fear.’ Or this: 2) ‘Light. Blinding. Lightning—way too close. Needles in skin.”
Formal language (except, perhaps, under the hand of an exceptionally skilled writer) can take us a big, unfortunate step away from the character’s now-ness. It gives the reader an extra layer of words to wade through; makes him/her an observer of the experience rather than a participant in it, a fellow experiencer. Formalist sentence construction sets us outside what the character is thinking; does not let us discover a character’s reaction with the same agility or surprise that presents itself in the character’s head.
A deeper complication arises when the character is reacting to a completely alien situation that has no corollary in our shared daily experience. The character sees differently—and feels differently about what he is seeing; responds to the new surroundings/stimuli in a way that must at once make the reader experience the character’s situation and also his reaction to it. How do we express a world that is not among our perceptions-in-common? How do we present the form-and-function immediacy when the tempos of thought are unique and the standard expressions of living are non-existent?
That’s the challenge I’ve been dealing with recently. Any question why I’ve been such a tangled, self-challenging mess?