Nothing can quite kill a story’s pacing like a big hunk of rambling introspection, except, of course, its cousin, the info dump. The reason for this is that the more time we spend reading a character’s thoughts, the less immediacy the story has, which means the less the audience cares about it. And yet some stories have whole passages of introspection. So what gives?
Here are some tips to help you master introspection that makes your writing stronger, not weaker.
Less is More
Because beginning writers love character depth (who doesn’t?) and are trying hard to get the audience to feel close to their characters, they will often write huge chunks of introspection, especially in the opening.
In reality, writing less is more. If you truly want your audience to love your character as much as you do, you need to let them discover the character themselves—you don’t need to spoon-feed them with chunks of introspection. You need to let them come to their own conclusions about your character.
To get your audience interested in your character’s interior, you need to show them just enough. Keep it short enough to stay interesting, but long enough to cover the character’s point. A glimpse of an interesting interior will make us want to come back, without slowing the pacing in your story so much we want to get away.
You can sneak in bigger chunks after we already know and care about the person. But almost never put big chunks in the story’s opening.
Look Forward, Not Back
A mistake that is easy to make is to only include introspection that looks back at something—something that happened earlier in the story, or, that really naughty thing, a flashback, and have the character relive it in his or her thoughts.
Since introspection naturally takes away immediacy, it’s often better to have your character think forward on something. What could happen. The past can’t change (unless you shift context). But the future is something we can only guess at. And having your character think forward on something can create anticipation, tension, hooks, fear, dread, or hope, and then makes the audience want to read more to see what happens.
It’s not necessarily bad to look back and sometimes you need to, but it’s problematic if you only look back. Ideally, if your character is going to look backward, see if you can connect it to something that is forward–how a past experience is going to affect an upcoming one, how a past experience makes the character fearful or hopeful of a future one.
Make It Intriguing
A chunk of introspection can hold the audience’s attention if it’s intriguing in some way. This means that the character’s thought can’t simply be a recap of something the audience already knows or read. Introspection needs to have a reason to be in the story, which usually means it needs to bring something new to the table.
While it’s common for introspection to take away from tension, because it takes away immediacy, when used well, it can actually add tension, through your character’s interpretation, perspective, and predictions. If you character is dreading something that could happen, and how it will completely unravel her world if it does–that can kick up tension.
Introspection can be used to create character depth, which can be intriguing–but only works if it’s something new or unusual. Rehashing what a character thinks for a full paragraph is boring if we already know what the character is naturally thinking. Rehashing isn’t depth. It’s repetition. To achieve more depth, you need to peel back your character’s layers to reach something deeper—an inner motive, thought, or feeling. And it should be interesting.
Introspection can be very intriguing when it asks thematic questions. Remember the key here is the questioning. If your character is musing about thematic answers without having considered the questions, it’s more likely to be boring. But if they are legitimately questioning something moral, ethical, thematic, or intellectual, that can stir the reader’s own mind, which makes it interesting.
Introspection can be intriguing when the character brings a new interpretation, or new context, to the story. If you need to have your character think back for a bit, one way to keep it interesting is to have them change the context and interpretation of what they are thinking back on. That gives us an interesting way to interpret the past event and it gives us more character.
When working with passages of introspection, make sure it adds value to the story, instead of taking value away.
September C. Fawkes is a freelance editor, writing instructor, and award-winning writing tip blogger. She has edited for award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. Her blog won the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Award, Query Letter’s Top Writing Blog Award and has over 500 writing tips. She offers a live online writing course, “The Triarchy Method,” where she personally guides 10 students through developing their best books by focusing on the “bones” of story.