Feb 282010


Here’s a note on what I call “novel thought” or “character thought.” It’s an excerpt from a letter to a student.

Novelists use character thought to sew the novel together. Novel thought is very stylized and systematic, unlike real thought. Characters are 1) always looking back, always remembering where they have been and why they have come to where they are. This happens over and over, repetitiously, so that the reader is always being reminded of the past story of the novel/character and the current motivation; 2) always assessing where they are now, what am I doing, why am I doing it, why is that other character doing what he is doing, what does this look like, what does it remind me of? (Thought is action: your characters don’t have to necessarily be right in their assessments, they just have to be true to themselves in the context of what’s gone before.) 3) always looking ahead: given what’s just happened what do I want to do next, what plan can I make, what do I think the other character(s) will do next, how will I react to that?

These sorts of thought should be in the text all the time. Characters should always be connecting events in their own heads (so the reader can remember and see the connection). Every chapter should have some memory or reference to previous chapters, especially the one just before. And every chapter should look ahead, have reference to what’s coming up. All in the character’s mind. Over and over in novels you’ll find a pattern. Chapter opening, then a tiny bit of backfill connecting this chapter or plot step to the last once, maybe a summary of the steps to this point, and a clear sense of what the character plans to get out of the coming scenes, then the event/scenes, then as the chapter closes a bit of reflection on what has just happened and a moment of decision or plan-making, where do I turn next. A novel is always making connections.

For an expansion of this idea with examples from novels see my essay on novel structure  in my book Attack of the Copula Spiders and also in the relevant section of my book on Cervantes The Enamoured Knight.

Douglas Glover

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