Let’s dive into something fun, shall we? The topic, writing introspection. The only thing that can kill your story faster than too much character introspection is a data dump. Introspection tends to have a lack of immediacy and can lead to your reader losing interest. It simply doesn’t matter what happened in the past unless it directly relates to the present/future of your story.
I recently did an exercise to help me better understand a character in my novel. I wrote a short story about her emotional wound. Once I finished the work I realized it may greatly benefit my reader and would certainly deepen the emotional connection to her if I include the scene of the tragedy in my novel. The problem is introspection and flashbacks for the most part leave readers yawning. Why? Readers read in the present of the story the author is telling. When the introspection and flashbacks are given in big chunks the readers are pushed back in time and have no way of escape. Well, they can escape by closing the cover!
Using introspection is useful when you apply it to what may happen in the present or future. In most writing, the past can’t be changed, however, the future is something that can only be guessed. Using those concepts, you may share as introspection to build tension, hook your reader, bring up the feelings of dread, hope, fear, anticipation. We do this by connecting the thing in the past to something in the future.
A great example is J.D. Robb’s wildly successful In Death Series. While the main protagonist shares the horrors of her past, she applies the energy for the pain to the cases she solves. There are many times she finds herself facing the past by projecting a need to right the wrongs for the victims she is investigating. The protagonist tells the story of her past as it applies to the present case. This occurs over the entire series, the author develops a deep connection with the protagonist as well as uses the nightmare introspection to build tension.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when writing the ever-important characters depth memories/introspection:
- Always look to the future or at least the now – try to make your character’s introspective moments apply to what is happening now or in the near future of your story.
- Make it interesting – You need a reason for introspection! It will need to bring something new to the story. It can be something as simple as the dread of an upcoming event because of something previously experienced, and something that could unravel the perfect world that they currently have.
- Here is an example:
Mary Lou sat in her room brooding. She didn’t want to go to the prom. She has the guy, the guy every girl wants. She thought about last year when she slithered in and stole Jake from Beth. This year Sierra has a plan to rob her of the night of her dreams. The night held no promise of blooming love, only of secrets and lies coming into the light.
Let’s look deeper at the example: First, we see character development in the now of our story. You learned a lot about Mary Lou, didn’t you? Introspection is shown by using the setting and use of “brooding alone.” These words show she is in thought. I didn’t dump the details of her stealing Jake away, you’re welcome, but there is clearly history there. Additionally, the use of the word “slithering” shows the protag revealing something about her character. The final sentence in her thoughts helps the reader to understand that the stakes are high. All that in only five sentences.
- Make sure it adds value to the current story – If you are just trying to add emotional connection through introspection with your reader, STOP. You can use it to reveal things about motives of your characters but don’t dump that backstory on me to make me feel sorry for your character. It may work in some ways, but how does it relate to the story at hand. If it doesn’t leave it on the cutting room floor, put it in the word graveyard, until you can write THAT story.
- Beware repetition – The biggest problem with introspective writing is that it tends to bring a lot of repetition. (see this post) which is boring!
- Have your character’s musings be limited to the thematic issues in your story – the ethical issues, the intellectual issues that may be the same questions your reader is asking themselves while reading your piece.
- Trust your readers – they should have an idea of what your characters voice already. In the case of introspective writing, less is usually more!
Use the tool of introspection, but do so wisely. It can be a cover closer if you overuse or misuse it.