276 – Internal Narration
Character thoughts, huh, what are they good for? A whole lot, it turns out. But they can also be used poorly, and then they’re worth absolutely nothing. This week, we do a deep dive on how to narrate what’s going on inside the protagonist’s head. We talk about how close and distant perspectives affect narration, what different perspectives even are, and why you might prefer one to another. Plus, a little chat about our old friend, melodrama.
Generously transcribed by Darian. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Wes: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes, and with me today is Chris and Oren. And I would like to tell you what’s going on through very close, intimate perspective, sparing no details, no emotional thoughts or reactions, as you all stand there and wait for me to finally say something. But rest assured, this close emotional narration I’m going to impart on you is not mere exposition, but something magical and transformative that is going to make these minutes of silence between dialogue seem like it’s really worth it. Right?
Chris: We hope! Dun dun dun…
Oren: That sounds awesome. If that’s true, then I’m totally into it!
Wes: Well, so today we’re talking about that close perspective narrator. You know, first person, I pronoun, who’s telling you what’s going on, filtered through that person’s particular thoughts and emotions. And whenever I encounter it initially, I’m here for it, but I just end up usually not being as satisfied. Maybe I prefer more distant narration, but I get kind of lost in the intimacy and I get annoyed at certain characteristics of it. And so that’s why I wanted to talk about it today to see if I’m alone in this.
Chris: I also want to mention that this can also be done in third person. Obviously, if you’re writing it in first person, I think it’s more likely to be close narration. Although, I have actually read some first person narration that was surprisingly distant. A good example, I think, is Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane, where it’s a character thinking back about when he was a kid, and he feels distant from himself as a kid, right? Especially when you have those character retellings, they can actually be surprisingly distant. So it’s not exactly the same thing as what pronoun you’re using, but obviously there is a trend where if it’s using first person, it’s more likely to be close narration, whereas third person often has more flexibility to be distant and is perhaps less likely to be close.
Wes: That is an interesting bit too though, about how first can be more distant, because we don’t internally vocalize everything that we think, necessarily. And if you’re trying to do that on paper, you kind of have to vocalize everything. It’s always internal dialogue. Otherwise… I mean, it doesn’t work to do it any other way.
Oren: Well, if you’re using words to communicate, you have to use words to communicate.
Oren: Hot take.
Wes: Hey, Chris, you are the master of point of view. Can you give us just a quick rundown of the features of close narration?
Chris: Oh, well, thank you, Wes. Very flattered. Yeah. Okay, so close narration means that when you’re in the narration, you’re experiencing the story as the viewpoint character. You’re inside their head. You’re looking out through their eyes. As opposed to distant narration, which gives you a sense that you’re kind of hovering over the character’s head looking down at them. It’s kind of the subjective difference.
And when we get into the difference of what the narration actually looks like at a technical level, we see that in close narration, the general narration and the character thoughts are, for the most part, the same thing. And the way that the story is narrated, all of the character opinions are stated as facts, and it can be hard to tell when something is just something the character thinks. And when something has authorial endorsement. And for the most part you can almost assume by default all the things that the character thinks, all of their bias, is just how it is. Unless the writer specifically establishes we have an unreliable narrator. Whereas with distant, usually thoughts are put off in italics and the narration has a more objective, or—in the case of omniscient writing—instead of a viewpoint character, we have like a separate personality who is our narrator. Otherwise, we have more objective-feeling narration.
There’s subtle differences, like in distant narration we’ll hear about how the character saw something or heard something, in those words. Like, “she saw a bird fly away.” But putting her in there and using that pronoun for the viewpoint character gives the audience a sense of looking at her from the outside. Whereas if you were in close, it would just say “a bird flew away.” Cause we’re in her eyes, we’re not thinking about the fact that the character is seeing that bird. So there’s a lot of little subtle things that change in the narration with the overall tone, but close narration generally is using the characters voice. To a certain extent, the character is telling the story even if it’s in third person. And so while it’s not like the character is overtly telling the story to the audience, it’s still definitely their perspective. So that’s the basic rundown. It’s pretty complicated in practice, but the difference is, I do think that close narration is generally… yeah, I would call it more immersive instead of objective.
Wes: Immersive, in the sense that we don’t have any choice but to be pulled along for this ride of direct thoughts and dialogue and everything getting filtered through one very particular perspective, where an omniscient narrator might take us on a few different rides in one chapter. And you mentioned technical aspects, like the sentence structure might vary more in omniscient, whereas in close perspective, do you say that the sentence structure tends to lean towards more active stuff? I assume that someone might not make as many passive sentence constructions, or they might use different types of verb tenses just to convey what’s happening in the moment.
Chris: Yeah. I would say close narration has, generally, a greater level of immediacy and gives you a closer experience as far as feeling like you are the viewpoint character. Whereas when you get more distance, there’s more of a buffer between you and the story.
Oren: I think a lot of it comes down to consistency within your choice of when you’re being close and when you’re being distant. From what I understand, you’re not usually going to be close all of the time. You’re usually going to be close when something important is happening, but at the same time, you don’t want to be distant when something important is happening, because then it’s like “oh, well, I guess that’s happening to somebody else.” And it’s like you lose the main advantage of being a narrated story, which is that you can feel the much stronger connection with the protagonist. And that’s different than omniscient, right? ‘Cause we’re sort of talking about two categories. And then within one of them we have subcategories, because there’s limited and omniscient. And then within the limited, there’s close in distance.
Chris: Yes. I mean, omniscient is kind of distant by necessity, ‘cause your characters are generally not all-knowing. So omniscient is basically a subcategory of distant.
Oren: Huh. Interesting. That’s not how I would’ve thought about it, but that makes sense.
Wes: But you could have a limited first person. Well, before I try to put it into a bucket… if it’s a first person narrator recounting what happened, as opposed to a first person narrator telling you the events as they happen.
Chris: Yeah. We’re getting into narrative premise right now. It’s a whole nother category of thing that we can talk about, but I call… when it feels like you’re there, and events are just happening, I just call it unfolding events or the story unfolding, versus the future first person telling somebody about something that happened to them in the past, I would call that a character retelling, right? Like, unfolding versus retelling. Just to give us a little language that we can use to talk about these things.
Wes: I’m only bringing that up really because I do want to get to the source of my general frustration. And I’m already suspecting that “unfolding events” might be a bit of a peeve of mine because I think I’m less forgiving with it. I’m more forgiving with somebody who’s doing a retelling, and I know it’s a retelling, because then I know that this narrator is constructing a story, as opposed to trying to just be with the character and things are happening in that moment and unfolding and unfolding. And that’s when we end up running into tricky things of how much the character knows, and what the character is not telling me, even though maybe the character should be telling me, because why would you keep that a secret from your innermost thoughts?
Chris: I mean, certainly the retelling character has some omniscient characteristics, where they have more leeway in what information to hide from you and what to tell to you. Similar to somebody who was telling you their story, it would seem more natural if they leave things out. Whereas unfolding, there’s a lot more of an expectation that you will hear everything that the character thinks as they are experiencing those events. I do think that retellings do tend to get very verbose. I think they’re often more verbose than unfolding, because it’s like having an omniscient narrator, right? You have a person who’s just like, “oh yeah, and that day I went there, and by the way…” I think it does encourage more conversational asides than unfolding does, but maybe it annoys you less because there’s a premise, a narrative premise that explains why we’re doing those asides.
Wes: And maybe I’m more comfortable with that… agreement, initially. It’s like, oh, okay, this is very clear to me. I know the rules. I’m not going to get tripped up on it as… well, I’m less likely to get as tripped up on it.
Oren: I would say that both unfolding and retelling can get too distracted with asides. I would say that unfolding has a smaller chance of getting distracted, but if it does, it’s worse. Whereas retelling has more leeway, but by definition of having more leeway it is more likely that the author will misuse that. Because I’ve read books that have the problem in both types, both unfolding and retelling. I’ve noticed that with retelling, authors often take that as carte blanche to just say, “Oh, whatever. I can just tell whatever I want. ‘Cause technically it fits with my narrative premise. And so yeah, I’ll stop for a moment and give an info dump about the species of tree that I saw.” And it’s like, weren’t there wolves chasing you? I swear there were wolves chasing you a second ago.
Oren: And an unfolding narrator that did that would be more obvious. But authors are less tempted to do so when they’re unfolding, because it’s so much more obviously wrong.
Chris: Similar to limited and omniscient, I think, where omniscient is very powerful, but it comes with a lot of responsibility, as Uncle Ben would say.
Chris: Whereas the useful thing about limited, where you are restricted to what the character knows, is even if you can’t always work in exposition as easily as you could in omniscient, it also gives you some guidelines for what’s important, and maybe what the audience doesn’t need to know. Exposition… maybe that’s not important enough to put in there. It gives you some guardrails.
Wes: Just the word “exposition,” we’ve put out plenty of advice on Mythcreants about being careful with it. A little goes a long way. But I feel that when it comes into… thoughts of the narrator as exposition, I get more of that than I do with omniscient narrators. I wonder if the writer feels compelled to almost overshare because we’re in that character’s head, and then you can encounter things like repetition, or just short little abbreviated punctuation marks, or maybe just the same curse word over and over and over and over and over again, and I’m sitting here reading it saying “yeah, I get it. Can we get back to what’s going on?” I don’t know why I don’t have as much patience, but I do know that I don’t care that much for repetition. And, fair enough, if it’s a character trait for the narrator to maybe muse on or obsess over certain things, or features of a city, or a person that they care a lot about, and that keeps coming up… It’s gonna stress test my patience a little bit because I want to see something new, maybe, as the story carries me forward? It’s like, I know that this was established in chapter one that this person has this obsession. And every time the object of the obsession comes back into play, I don’t really need to hear again about how you’re overwhelmed with feeling about your obsession. I know that that’s there. Nothing changed. You don’t need to remind me.
Oren: I feel like you might also be touching a little bit on melodrama?
Oren: See, that’s not necessarily the same thing, but when you mentioned “you don’t have to keep telling me how you’re overwhelmed with feelings…” I’ve read a couple of books recently that had characters who were constantly overwhelmed with feelings. And it felt very melodramatic…
Chris: And knowing that you just got through The City in the Middle of the Night…
Wes: We’ll talk more about that, extensively.
Chris: We will talk more about City in the Middle of the Night on another podcast. But I mean, certainly there are lots of writers who are still working on “how much is too much,” and a sense of pacing, or they’re feeling through the story without really thinking intentionally about what narration they’re putting down, and then it has to go through editing, and it doesn’t get chopped as much as it should get chopped. I mean, there’s just… not a sense of pacing. The thing that’s so difficult about exposition is that having the right exposition in your story is actually really important, but it takes an immense knowledge of storytelling before you know “this is what information needs to go in here,” and also have the restraint to know “this doesn’t need to go.” I’ve read about as many stories that are missing information that they really should be telling readers to raise engagement, as ones that are just… info dumping everywhere. And that’s just a really hard thing to do. But melodrama, beyond just the repetitive “oh, I already heard this. Do you have to tell me again?” is a showing versus telling problem, for the most part.
Oren: I feel like this might be another situation where melodrama might be more likely in a unfolding close perspective than in a more distant retelling perspective. Possibly because the author, in attempting to get in the head of their character as events are unfolding, feels like they have to just give us more emotion, bigger emotion, all of the emotion.
Wes: Yes. I’m just agreeing with you so much.
Oren: Because all of the emotion is how this character is feeling right now, and I almost feel like the author would be a little embarrassed to do that in a retelling? Because if you’re getting into the head of a character who is retelling a story, they’re not going to sit there being like “and then I was so overcome by the howling void of grief” because you would never describe yourself that way if you were telling a story to somebody else.
Oren: Now, I’m not going to say that there aren’t any retelling narrative premises that are melodramatic. I’m sure there are. I just feel like in my gut—you know, we talked about writing with your gut, this is my gut talking—that a close unfolding narration is more likely to have melodrama, because a lot of authors think “more is better” when it comes to emotions.
Chris: And melodrama’s created by, like, “I really want my readers to feel something here, and I don’t actually know how to do that technically. Okay, well, maybe if I just say the word fear over and over again in this paragraph, and use elaborate metaphorical imagery for fear, and how afraid I am, and talk about my insides squeezing and writhing and how my heart wants to escape my body… if I just hammer that really hard, maybe my readers will feel fear?”
Chris: And it’s like, no.
Chris: That’s not how it works.
Wes: That’s a good point, because okay, we’re in the character’s head, and then enter… stimulus, and the character needs to have a reaction, and the author knows that readers are reading and want to have the reaction too. And so, reactions to things: fight, flight, freeze. And more often than not, it’s just, like, “okay, I’m not sure which one this really falls into, but I’m just going to overwhelm you with this, instead of have the character maybe have a strong emotional reaction that either takes them deeper into the event, away from the event, or paralyzed with some kind of thing.” But I don’t need to really hear about how your entire body froze up for a whole paragraph.
Oren: I do also think that amongst some writers there’s an issue where they think that it’s clever to have a character who freezes in a difficult situation? Because they’re reacting to the opposite extreme, which we see a lot, of “cool guys don’t look at explosions,” right? Of action heroes who everything washes off of them like nothing matters, and they are islands, and nothing affects them in any way. And so some authors overcompensate and are like, “Oh my gosh, a conflict! This character is completely frozen.” And they sort of seem to think that that’s clever. Very often they will call your attention to it, cause there’ll be like, “you know, in a story, I would have done a cool thing, but since this isn’t a story, this is real life, I didn’t do a cool thing.”
Oren: And it’s like, okay, I guess, sure. That doesn’t really increase my enjoyment in any way. Believe it or not, there is a balance there. And I do, in general, prefer that characters do things rather than not do things. And there are ways to show that your character is, in fact, affected by what happens to them other than just having them freeze up every time a difficult situation comes along.
Wes: True, because they’re… Hearing a lengthy expression of their thoughts and emotions in reaction to something is not action. You can dump as many evocative words as you want in there, but it’s not action. It’s internal. It’s not affecting the world outside, unless you’re showing us that character taking the emotional reaction to go do something about it.
Chris: And I do think that you can have internal conflicts that are important, where there’s a conflict that is unfolding in the character’s head, but it’s good to know that whenever you’re narrating about the character’s thoughts and feelings, it—particularly if you’re on an unfolding premise—that takes time, right? That makes you feel like time is passing. And so if you have that moment where the character is running for their life… yeah. We don’t have time pauses. Well, the character thinks really hard, right?
Chris: The clock is still ticking! And certainly the thing that happens when people do too much thoughts in general is just, the pacing is ruined. Especially if it’s during dialogue. Dialogue is pretty sensitive to pace, and characters are expected to respond to each other. So one thing that I’ll do is if a character asks a question, and then the other character thinks for a while, I’ll have the other character react like that character just stood there and didn’t say anything. It’s like, “hello!” Because that’s what it feels like when that character just, like, thinks a bunch, and doesn’t… you don’t write an answer down.
Wes: Yeah. We do that in roleplaying games sometimes. You’re asking a player what that player wants to do, and there is like, “Well, I walk up to the storekeep and I…” And then everybody around the table is waiting, and then you’re like, “Okay, well, the storekeep has decided to help somebody else. We’re not all waiting here.”
Oren: And just, if you’re not sure how this feels, try it the next time you talk to someone. Like when they ask you a question, try to have a several paragraph long think to yourself about what they asked you.
Oren: And see how long it takes you to do that. Because contrary to what some people think, our brains don’t process thoughts as words that quickly. We tend to think in about real time. We’re not going into bullet time compressed acceleration, right?
Wes: I wish.
Oren: Yeah, it doesn’t really work like that. Although again, it’s a little more flexible when you’re doing a distant or more retelling-focused story, because you can have that freeze frame effect, right? Like from a movie. You’d be like, “Yep, that’s me. I bet you wonder how I got into this situation.” That kind of similar thing, which is harder to do when you’re unfolding.
Chris: I also want to mention that there’s a lot of fuzziness between retelling and unfolding. A lot of stories that are retelling, the character starts retelling, but as they retell, they actually go into the head of their previous self and things unfold more. There can be a lot of transition and fuzziness there, so it’s definitely not binary as far as just either retelling or unfolding, when it comes to a first person narrator that’s retelling. A lot of times they will dive into the head of their previous self.
Wes: Which is always interesting when you’re encountering that first person thought narration and then you get a sentence, and it’s probably meant to be put on some kind of stylized meme background and sent out into the world of quotes. But I sometimes do this where, like, you read the quote and you think, wait, who’s that for? Who said that? You know, like that’s a grand observation about life. And in the midst of what’s going on, that seems really out of place. What are we trying to do here? Trying to just nudge something in that’s not quite jiving with what this character is currently experiencing?
Chris: Yeah. I mean, one of the problems with character retellings in particular, especially if they’re diving into the head of their previous self, is sometimes there’s a real lack of clarity about which present or future character is actually thinking these things. You have a lot of flexibility, but sometimes it can be confusing if you’re not careful about clarifying. It does make a difference.
Oren: I’ve read a couple of books where there was clearly a retelling, but as I got further into the book, I was like, “Okay. Does the character at the point the story is at think this, or is this the future version of them thinking this?” And that confusion has made it harder for me to empathize with the character, because I’m having a harder time telling “Okay, this thought that the character’s having seems out of step with what’s going on. Is that because the writing has made a mistake? Or because this is supposed to be a thought from a more informed character later on?” And that’s one of the reasons why unfolding has this distinct advantage, is that you don’t have any of that. You are just in the character’s head right now. And you can get closer to them a little more easily because you aren’t tempted with all these other distractions.
Wes: That’s a good point. Because a frame story… The first one that comes to mind, Oren, you’ve talked about Lovecraft’s “Dagon” before—you know, frame story—but even though there’s a break and then we get the events, it’s still a retelling no matter what. And I wonder, is that okay if you set up the frame and then you go into the next paragraph, there’s a clean break and it just starts immediately as if it’s unfolding? As long as that transition is clear, does that take care of these potential issues of narration, or at least help mitigate it?
Oren: Well, it’s been a while since I’ve read “Dagon,” but if I recall correctly, we start off with the framing device. And then there’s a pretty clear point where, for the most part, the story is then directly in the character’s head and it’s effectively unfolding at that point. And I think that that works fine. I think the issue is if you start zooming in and out.
Wes: That makes sense.
Chris: I would say that if you set the expectation that “this is going to be unfolding now,” as long as you don’t do anything that feels odd—that feels like it’s not a match for that—you’re fine. Everyone is just going to assume it’s unfolding until you specify otherwise.
Wes: So make good use of your sectional breaks. Make good use of white space. Just put a chunk of white space in there to clarify that “whatever just happened, this is now different,” and we’ll be more forgiving, I guess.
Chris: I don’t know. You might need more than white space. I would have to look at it. Depending on…
Oren: You might have to deploy the power of the three asterisks.
Wes: It’s so strong and mighty.
Chris: But as far as internal conflicts can go, it’s like, thoughts can be tense. They are not always slowing things down. Particularly, again, when you know what information your readers need and you know what exposition will actually make the story more engaging, that’s pretty powerful because having your character worry about what could happen if they fail their goals, for instance, that raises tension in the story, right? ‘Cause we’re specifying what are the consequences for failure here, which we recently talked about [in a podcast] as being important for tension. And you know, we can have conflicts at critical moments. Where the character has to figure something out, or the character is facing a dilemma and they have to decide. Perhaps even a battle of will—they have to gather their willpower to do something. My general tip for that is just if you’re doing an internal conflict where a character is feeling indecisive, try to organize it a little bit?
Chris: And generally you want to group your reasoning so that we have, for instance, one paragraph arguing for one side of the dilemma, another paragraph arguing for the other side of the dilemma. If you mix it up, a lot of times it’ll just feel really disorganized and confusing to readers if we’re like, “Oh, this, but this, but wait this,” and then kind of going back and forth. If you keep that organized, it comes across much clearer.
Oren: This is why I always literally describe an angel and a devil on each shoulder, and then just have them say it as dialogue.
Wes: Perfect. So much easier.
Oren: It fits in every story, believe me. There’s no issue of theme clash.
Chris: Oren, what I’m saying is that they each need to monologue. They should not have a dialogue with each other.
Wes: So I think one of the main takeaways that we should probably leave you guys with is that internal narration has a lot going for it, but make sure that there’s—if you’re going to include a lot of internal conflict, like Chris was talking about—that there’s an external outlet. And where the character might be tested initially, and react a certain way internally, consider how that test could maybe reappear later in the story and then how the thought process around that has maybe changed, if you’re wanting to show character growth. It’s not a written medium, but—Chris, I think this was in a post of yours awhile ago—where Marty McFly from back to the future gets called “chicken,” and you can almost see the internal monologue going through his mind as he gets set off by that. But then by the end of the trilogy, he gets called “chicken,” you think he’s set off, and then he changes his behavior, you know? So there’s some kind of growth there. And I think that that’s something to keep in mind, because as much as we can raise the stakes with internal conflict and narration, you need to show it has an impact on the events of the actual story for it to be satisfying.
Oren: I mean, the job of an actor is often to portray what we would do using internal text, and that’s why actors get paid the big bucks, because that’s hard.
Wes: Yeah. It’s real hard.
Oren: All right, well, I think that is going to be enough for this episode. Thank you, everyone, for listening. If those of you at home have any questions, you can leave them as a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who is a Marvel fan and urban fantasy writer, and finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week!