Question of the Week July 14 (#2)

What do you think about first person thoughts in a third person book? For example: I need to go to the bathroom, Joe thought. Let's say Joe is a main character and we have insight into his thoughts. Is this a style to avoid?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Of course, this is a subjective thing and a personal preference on my part, but I cannot stand it when characters think. Now, that just sounds wrong, but you know what I mean. I am not knocking introspection, only the kind of character thinking as shown in the example above.

There are lots of reasons for avoiding this, but here’s the major one: Most third person stories are written from a very close point of view. They are almost first person stories of the main character. When this happens, you don’t ever need to say, “he thought,” because everything that isn’t another character’s dialogue is a direct observation or thought of the main character.

The other reason is that writing, I need to go to the bathroom, Joe thought., has the author telling not showing, using summary instead of scene. Both are no-nos.

Here is the exact same information (Joe has to pee) conveyed without Joe consciously thinking:
    The rest of the class raced ahead to the mummies, but Joe stayed behind, peering at the museum map. Where was the bathroom? The toes on his right foot began to twitch. He started having trouble standing still. He needed to find a bathroom, any bathroom, even a girl’s bathroom. Now.
There’s a much greater sense of urgency in this example, but more importantly we are with Joe in the moment. It’s not the more clinical abstract “thought.”


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with this. When I read stuff and see the first person thoughts, almost invariably, they stand out like a sore thumb.

Anonymous said...

Hi Buried Editor,

I have a quick question for you. If a character has an accent, should his or her dialogue be written with an accent? Or should it just be stated that he or she has the accent and then have the dialogue look normal?

Thanks for whatever input you can give!

Lee said...

I disagree completely, including the omnipresent, omnipotent show-not-tell rule. It depends entirely on what the author is trying to do. Using 'thought' creates an entirely different effect, one which may be desirable.'Thought', for example, can create a certain cool distance. I really am rather tired of this paint-by-numbers approach to writing.

You say: "They are almost first person stories of the main character." No, they are most certainly not. There is an enormous difference, otherwise there would be no reason to use this POV.

Lee said...

To illustrate something of what I mean about 'thought', you might like to have a look at how William Trevor uses it in the short story At Olivehill, which is now online at the Guardian:,,1820809,00.html

The Buried Editor said...

What works for adult literature, does not mean that it will work in kids. They're are many things you can do in adult literature, that you cannot do in children's and Point of View (POV) is the most dramatic example. In adult fiction, true omniscent view points are still present; they have disappeared from children's literature. Even historic children's lit never used omnisceint much. Alice's Adventures, Tom Sawyer, even Little Women use relatively close POVs. They are not as close as the ones used now, but they are not omniscent books.

In modern kid's book the POV is extremely close and POV shifts are rare and clearly defined. With the exception of some multi-protagonist YA's, there is never a need to use the word thought -- except as a stylistic choice. Unfortunately, when it occurs in most children's manuscripts, it is not a stylistic choice and ruins the flow of the rest of the text. Like in everything there are exceptions, but in general children authors need to avoid these "thoughts" for actually showing what is happening.

As to the Guardian story, it's not a kid's story. It's much more introspective than even the most introspective of kid's books. A good introspective kid's book I can think of would be Speak or Feedor even Book Thief. In all of these the protagonists still do more in terms of action than the character in the story. Due to word counts, kid stuff still has to be tighter than adult. There simply isn't room in a kid's book for the kind of introspection the story character indulges in. That's not to say that kid characters can't have amazing insights. They do. They just tend to have them in a stylistically different manner.

Lee said...

Naturally, I'm aware that the Guardian story is not a kids' story. It was simply a quick way to show online how effective 'thought' can be.

Of course you are right that there are differences between children's literature and adult, though I would be more cautious about YA lit. Aren't you underestimating the YA reader? Many of them combine adult and YA reading, if they are reading much at all. What do you make of something like Chambers' This Is All,then - though not necessarily because of POV? Or even Perkins' Criss Cross, which BTW decidely uses 'thought'?

You are talking largely about conventions, which change. Though of course I fully understand that in your profession - and you publish very little YA - you are obliged to look for and edit towards the tried and true, what's known to work. (And yes, I'm aware of the counterarguments that it works because of certain innate human needs and drives and physiochemical neurostructures.)

And I will happily grant you that I don't see your slush pile!

Lee said...

I wonder whether you would have insisted that Pullman remove his use of 'thought' from Northern Lights. On p. 233 on my Scolastic pb edition, for example: 'Oh, John Faa! she thought in anguish. You didn't foresee this, and I didn't help you!' Or on p. 100: 'Lyra thought, why not? I can run faster than him, and I might need all my money later.'

The Buried Editor said...

I think we are disagreeing about two different things. You are commenting on book where the author chooses purposefully as a stylistic measure to use the thought convention. In you Pullman examples, Lyra is responding to diglogue in her head. She could have easily said these theings out loud without disrupting the story. Therefore, the thought convention would have to be used; it doesn't make sense otherwise. A person having an extenisve period of introspection would also probably use the thought convention sucessfully. What the question was asking about is in the normal course of a book a character randomly having a thought with no purpose. At these times, it always better to try to show the action, instead of the child just thinking.

Like every convention there are exceptions that must be taken on a case by case basis. However, there is a difference between intentionally flouting a convention and not knowing better. The most important thing is for the book to work, and this has to happen either with or without the "thoughts."

An excellent book that flouts nearly every convention of its every genres sucessfully would be Howl's Moving Castle. Dianna Wynne Jones even tells the reader half the time which conventions she will be breaking. I'm pretty sure Sophie has lots of "thoughts" that don't jar or break the reader from the story. A lesser author might not have been as successful at violating all those conventions.

Lee said...

Yes, perhaps we disagree less than it seems, though fruitful disagreement is always preferable to bland agreement. I would always hope that writers think carefully about why they do what they do.

Only in the first Pullman example could Lyra be said to responding to dialogue in her head.

There are certainly other reasons to use 'thought' than those you cite: rhythmic, a deliberate disruption, etc.

But remember our starting point: the rules that are laid down for authors. And whilst they can be helpful as guidelines for less experienced or self-critical authors - and useful for agents and slush pile readers who, I admit, often have to make quick decisions - I am very wary of their prescriptive nature. But at least you have begun to qualify your broad statements, and together we're trying to work out what works and what doesn't. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this - not a bad thing, surely.

And yes, DWJ is a perfect example: thank goodness for those authors who flout the conventions! That's how art renews itself; that's where innovation arises.