Stephen Delaney

Writer. Editor. Manuscript Reader.

Author: Stephen Delaney

The Power of Thought

Loches, France
Loches, France

Here are two examples not included in my essay “The Drama Within: Uses of Thought in Fiction” (found on my website here). In the article, I show how writers weave thoughts into their fiction, making them both convincing and emotionally charged.

Barry Lopez’s story “The Lover of Words” relates an almost entirely inward journey. The unnamed protagonist is not merely a passive carrier of his own thoughts and feelings, but exerts some influence on them as well. Lopez sensitizes us to the mind’s quiet dramas by calmly directing our values: “he understood the power of words to draw forth feeling and to mesmerize. He understood how words healed.” In order for the story to work, Lopez must give thought its due—raising it to the level of character and action, where it can alter the narrative’s course. The man closes himself off from the prejudice of those around him (he “attended carefully to this remove”), immersing himself in his reading, gardening, and writing. Again, his mental life has consequence: “He had found, by a subterranean and labyrinthine route, some way around hatred.” Later, an inner crisis is the result of a mental shift: he begins to let the outer world in, becoming more self-conscious and judging himself by others’ standards. It’s finally through his own discipline, willingness to use words and ideas as guides, and belief in his own intrinsic value that he’s able to overcome his crisis. The story is remarkable in that it makes thought’s potency felt, and it’s a good reminder of what fiction can do.

In Sherwood Anderson’s “Death in the Woods,” the thoughts of Mrs. Grimes, a world-weary farmwoman, echo her hardscrabble life:

How was she going to get everything fed?—that was her problem. The dogs had to be fed. There wasn’t enough hay in the barn for the horses and the cow. If she didn’t feed the chickens how could they lay eggs? Without eggs to sell how could she get things in town, things she had to have to keep the life of the farm going?

Neglected by her community and family, Mrs. Grimes barely gets by. In a few strokes, thoughts reveal her motivation, the stakes at play, and the degree to which worry consumes her. Pragmatic and plodding, they form a bleak causal chain that must, we imagine, be ongoing. Unanswered, her questions taunt and nag, driving her on in a punishing loop from which death seems a quiet release.

Now apply these to something you’re working on:

1. What does your protagonist think to herself that she wouldn’t say aloud? How might she express her secret hatreds, fears, and longings inwardly as opposed to aloud to a teacher or friend? (Consider, for instance, the things we leave out so as not to hurt someone or be seen as foolish, or the words we might choose in public to be viewed in a positive light.)

2. Reread your draft marking any characters’ thoughts. Can some be cut—or replaced with gestures, facial expressions, or actions that convey them—without losing anything? Did you choose thoughts that feel dramatic and telling? Also, did you take advantage of thoughts’ “uncensored” aspect so they feel different from spoken words? If not, reenter the characters’ minds and go deeper.

The Third Sense

A field of colza (Loire Valley, France)
A field of colza (Loire Valley, France)

In a fictional scene, smells can evoke both places and emotions:

In the end, I go out to breathe in the morning, the street, the fog, all you can see in dustbins: fish scales, cans, nylon stockings; at the corner a Pakistani who sells pineapples has opened his shop; I reach a wall of fog and it’s the Thames.
– Italo Calvino, “The Name, The Nose”

Mushrooms were better. They didn’t care about having names. They had smells instead, strong, earthy smells, smells of decaying leaves, of heated iron, of oxidizing copper, some of them like rotting animals and some with mysterious smells that didn’t exist anywhere else.
– Lars Gustafsson, “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases”

He kept coming, bringing the rank sharp violence of stale sweat.
– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Now try these exercises:

1. Imagine a character in an emotionally charged situation. (For example, a former runaway returns to her childhood home.) Focusing on smell, describe a place through this character’s point of view. Once you have a draft, expand on those details that seem especially significant (i.e., ones that create or heighten an emotional state, such as joy, longing, disorientation, or fear). Can you convey your character’s feelings without directly stating them?

2. Describe a setting—such as a hospital, amusement park, or woods—in which smell plays a prominent role. Using each of the following methods, create a sense of place by evoking its wide range of smells:

  • naming (“disinfectant,” “charcoal”)
  • adjectives (“pungent,” “musty”)
  • similes and metaphors (“like maple syrup”)
  • verbs (“waft,” “seep”)

Uses of the Small

Mushrooms in France
Bags of mushrooms in a troglodytic cellar in France

Here are two examples in which small details play a pivotal role:

Small things can be used to startle, to intensify an already troubled emotional field. In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Ligeia,” after Rowena has died from a mysterious illness and the narrator stands by her corpse, he says, “At length it became evident that a slight, a very feeble, and a barely noticeable tinge of color had flushed up within the cheeks, and along the sunken small veins of the eyelids.” These details offer little reassurance, however, since his imagination and senses can deceive him. In an instant, these flickers of life are withdrawn: her “lips doubly shriveled and pinched up in the ghastly expression of death.”

* * *

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the appearance of Faith’s pink ribbon is the turning point of the story: “But something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon.” At this moment, he knows in his heart she’s lost. As in “A Rose for Emily,” an emotional bang is announced with a whisper. The reader closes his eyes, expecting a blow, a figurative punch in the gut, only to feel something else: something so light and airy, it’s even more unsettling. The ribbon is animated by qualities Hawthorne grants it—Faith’s innocence and gentle grace. But the fact that it’s found in the woods shifts its meaning, as it takes on the devil’s subtle guise.

Copyright @ 2006 by Stephen Delaney

Now try these as stand-alone exercises or apply them to a scene you’re working on:

1. Write a scene that takes place just before your main character discovers something (a body, a letter kept in an old chest, an intruder, etc.). Create an air of suspense and rising tension. Then, just before the expected discovery, have your character find something small yet even more startling.

2. Use a small or distant object to embody a character’s feeling of fear, uncertainty, or longing (e.g., a woman wears a locket to remember someone she loved yet eventually left). Draw out the passage by emphasizing the object’s miniscule features.

© 2018 Stephen Delaney

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