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.