If observing each other’s thoughts were a normal part of communication, society would have crumbled in its infancy. The food your ancestors stashed away for the winter would be common knowledge and gone, ailment and weakness within families would be public domain and liability, and any ambitions about climbing the social hierarchy would be flushed out and likely suppressed. The status quo would achieve permanent status. Nice for those in charge, but what about you? What about the protagonist of that story you’re writing? Can there be a story, a chance at change, if the actions taken were known before being taken?
Maybe. But it wouldn’t be very interesting.
Concealing the interior thoughts, especially of the first-person protagonist leading your tale, is essential in retaining tension and interest in the story. This is not only because mystery=suspense=climatic jibberjabber, but because revealing interior thought of any character pins their limbs to a rubber-lined tray and forces participation in a dissection of the story’s why, almost always too soon. If characters are plot, then the thoughts of those characters run the risk of selling that plot out before it blooms.
Consider film. Unless done in some kind of humored irony, character voice-over narration is a scarce phenomenon, and is usually only done to ground the observer early in the plot. Outside of this, film relies on setting, events, and acting to advance the plot. Characters don’t borrow the camera and spill their personal beans; they keep those beans canned and act upon them. In fiction, it’s too easy to supply protagonists with access to the reader’s mind and move the plot through that connection, but doing this cheapens the reading experience in the same way an over-zealous Star-Wars fan can ruin the most recent installation by pausing and explaining the subplots underlying what’s happening on the screen.
How to guard against this is simple: forego the interior. We can’t read each other’s thoughts in life, so we read word choice and tone, body language, and overt concerns. The same practice should be applied to writing fiction. In Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” the developmental stages of the plot pass inside Louise’s mind. While the reader is given glimpses into her internalization of her husband’s death, these moments are used to explore an unknown rather than establish some static truth of the story, and physical effect comes with those thoughts:
There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearful. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.
Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back[.]
There is physical, observable ramification to the thoughts. They are slight and personal, but her state of mind is established in these moments through her body’s expression. Her elocution doesn’t express her feeling, only what she’s experiencing. The reader is made to interpret her response to these thoughts and derive their effect from them, and that is what they want. Silver platters get returned.
Jason Wilson is a third year MFA candidate for fiction at Florida Atlantic University.