Food for Thought

As I mentioned in a previous post, my son is writing his first novel. He’s working on the first draft and is almost 5,000 words in. This is the most he’s ever written. It’s a little choppy and filled with action scenes. I contribute most of this to being a boy; he’s all about the doing.

At this point, we would call the folks in his story cut-out characters. They don’t have a lot of depth. They’re quick to react, and we don’t know why they are reacting like they are. But they are moving forward and they are doing things. The story is getting written.

The first draft is like this for many writers. It’s supposed to be imperfect. It’s supposed to be a little choppy. It’s supposed to be messy like a three-year-old eating chocolate pudding.

The one thing I noticed my son’s story lacked was thoughts. Any and all type of thoughts. The characters never shared their thoughts with readers. They talked and they acted. I pointed this out to my son, and he began adding a thought here and there. I told him not to worry about it too much; this was the first draft and things like thoughts can be added later.

There doesn’t need to be a lot of thoughts in a story, but thoughts help readers identify and sympathize with the characters. They also give readers a glimpse into how they are feeling and why they are doing what they are doing.

Here’s a passage without thoughts:

“It was a beautiful day for a walk on the beach,” said Francine. She tossed her cloth bag over her shoulder and walked towards the boardwalk.

Fred followed, carrying the orange cooler. “We should do this again.” He paused. “When we have time.”

“It’s a wonderful idea,” she said. She reached the wooden boardwalk and led the way across the field of beach grass.

They reached the car, and Fred set down the cooler and unlocked the doors.

Francine stared at the ocean, the waves gently spilling onto the grey sand. The bright sunshine forced her to pull her hat down to shield her eyes.

“Are you ready?” asked Fred after a moment.

She nodded, climbed into the passenger’s seat and closed the door.

Here’s that same passage from Francine’s POV with thought added:

“It was a beautiful day for a walk on the beach,” said Francine. She remembered the many trips to beaches when her children were young. They were happy times. The sand, sun and water always brought out the playfulness in them and in her. How she longed to return to those carefree days, but they were gone along with her health. She scanned the shoreline, taking in the reflection of the sun on the ocean, the grey and white terns sailing just above the water’s surface and the driftwood brought in by the latest storm. She burned this into her memory, hoping she could remember the smells and sights long into the future. Yet she knew this was impossible. She tossed her cloth bag over her shoulder and walked towards the boardwalk.

Fred followed, carrying the orange cooler. “We should do this again.” He paused. “When we have time.”

“It’s a wonderful idea,” she said, knowing full well time was not on her side. Returning was a pipe dream. She reached the wooden boardwalk and led the way across the field of beach grass.

They reached the car, and Fred set down the cooler and unlocked the doors.

Francine stared at the ocean, the waves gently spilling onto the grey sand. The bright sunshine forced her to pull her hat down to shield her eyes. She wished to return to the ocean, run and frolic in the waves as if she was ten again, but her legs would not allow it. They would fail, and she would be once again reminded of something she longed to forget. She released a heavy sigh. This would be her last trip to the beach. Her personal affairs were a priority, leaving no time for the simple joys that made life worth living.

“Are you ready?” asked Fred after a moment.

She nodded, climbed into the passenger’s seat and closed the door.

The first passage gives the impression that it is a simple trip to the beach, but the second one reveals the importance of it. We understand why Fred hesitates, why he is quiet. We sense he knows she is seeing the beach for the last time. And because we are reading Francine’s thoughts, we begin to understand why this trip was so important.

Humans are always thinking regardless of what they’re doing (except sleeping—then we’re dreaming), so it’s only natural for thoughts to appear in stories. But there is a limit, and you don’t want to burden readers with too much thought.

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