DON’T JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS, PART 1: CHARACTERS

Continuing on the general subject of point of view (POV) and “show, don’t tell,” let’s talk a bit about drawing conclusions. This, like lapses in POV, often shows up in dialog attribution, often in the form of the dreaded adverb:

“My sword isn’t magical anymore,” Galen said sadly.

This tells us Galen is sad about the state of his sword. Information has been conveyed. But as author Chuck Palahniuk pointed out in his essay “ ‘Thought’ Verbs,” “Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.” So then…

With a tear in his eye Galen muttered, “My sword isn’t magical anymore.”

…starts to show him being sad. If the scene is in another character’s POV, maybe that character can start to draw conclusions:

With a tear in his eye Galen muttered, “My sword isn’t magical anymore.”

Bronwyn had never seen him look so sad.

Now it’s clear that Galen’s sadness is being conveyed by Bronwyn’s experience of him in that moment. Is she right? Is that how he feels? The truth is your characters might not even know what they’re thinking in a particular moment, or have the desire or sense of urgency to draw some concrete conclusion. In “The Spirit of History” Ted Pinkard draws some conclusions about Hegel’s not thinking we necessarily draw conclusions:

No one ever conceived of a more sophisticated and dynamic philosophical history than Hegel. His system is built around three fundamental ideas. First, the key to human agency is self-consciousness. For people to be doing anything in any real human sense is to know what we are doing as we do it. This applies even when we are not explicitly thinking about what we are doing. Here’s a simple example: as you are reading this, suppose you get a text message from a friend: ‘What are you doing?’ You immediately reply: ‘I’m reading a piece on Hegel.’ You knew what you were doing without having to have a separate act of thinking about it or drawing conclusions. Without any further thought, you knew that you were not skydiving, taking a bath, gardening or doing the crossword. You didn’t look around and infer from the evidence. You didn’t need any particular introspection. In fact, in Hegelian terms, when you are doing something and you do not know at all what you are doing, you’re not really doing anything at all. Instead, stuff is just happening. To be sure, sometimes we are only vaguely aware of what we are doing. However, even our often more distanced reflective self-consciousness is itself only a further realisation of the deeper and distinctly Hegelian self-relation: all consciousness is self-consciousness.

What if Galen has no idea he’s as “sad” as he looks, and Bronwyn can’t really know just by what she sees (the description of Galen in her POV) that he’s “sad,” per se? Sure, you, as the author, may know exactly what Galen is feeling, but your job is to show that to your readers through the experience of your POV characters. If you do that well, readers will pick up on it and be sad along with them.

Always remember that reading is itself a creative act. Let your readers bring themselves into your work!

—Philip Athans

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In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.

You’ll learn what monsters can (and should) represent in your story and how to create monsters from the ground up.

DON’T JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS, PART 1: CHARACTERS