Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 36: Too Much Introspection, Not Enough Interaction

The best character development is often found in the heart of his personal narrative: his introspective observations and reactions to the events of the story. As I’ve preached many a time, if a character’s not reacting to what’s happening in your story, then what’s happening doesn’t matter. But the irony here is that the eternal balancing act of the writer leads us to yet another of the most common writing mistakes: too much introspection.

Character thoughts are awesome. They’re the single greatest advantage of written fiction over other narrative artforms. The ability to get inside a character’s head and see the world from his unique viewpoint is what brings life to great stories–everything from Catcher in the Rye to True Grit to Poisonwood Bible. Stories that are too sparse in the internal narrative department are often two-dimensional, lopsided, and less than engaging–sometimes the point of being outright boring.

Catcher in the Rye J D Salinger True Grit Charles Portis Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver

But introspection can never take the place of interaction. When you end up with characters doing more observing than acting, that’s often (although definitely not always) a sign you’re avoiding the best parts of your story.

How to Bore Readers With Too Much Introspection

There you are, writing an epic romance–the relationship story of all relationship stories. Your hero and heroine are super-duper charming and fascinating. Their chemistry zings right off the page. Your readers can’t wait for them to get together. But, first, naturally, comes the part where they have to work through all their reasons for not being together. Conflict and obstacles ensue. Otherwise, the story ends, right?

So you figure your characters better do a lot of thinking about this possible new romance of theirs. After all, there is a lot to think about. They’ve both got backstory baggage to work through, fears to overcome, and, of course, doubts about whether or not the other person returns their feelings. If you don’t logic through all this stuff, then readers won’t feel the progression of the relationship, and their suspension of disbelief might be endangered.

So you have Mr. Hero ponder everything happening to him:

Romeo stood in the stable door and watched Juliet feeding the chickens. Gosh, but she was beautiful. That glorious golden hair. Those huge violet eyes. He thumped his fist against his heart. But, alas, who was he but a poor servant boy–and wanted by the law to boot.

Juliet peeked up at him from under the lavender kerchief that tied back her hair. She batted her eyes.

His heart flipped over in his chest. If only–! But, no, he could never endanger her chances for a better match or put her in the way of his enemies. He would have to hold his peace and keep his great love to himself. He went back to mucking out the stalls.

Romeo and Juliet Frank Dicksee

How to Rivet Readers With the Right Amount of Character Interaction

Right about now, I’m wanting to grab Romeo by his ruffed collar and tell to stop wasting my time with his mooning. His attraction to Juliet is important info, and his concerns about the feasibility of their relationship do him credit. But frankly, I don’t care. I get the picture already! Let’s get down to the good stuff, shall we? You know–the talking, the flirting, the arguing, the occasional face slapping, the interaction.

Sooner or later, most good stories are going to be about characters doing something. Most readers would rather it be sooner than later. By the third time the character thinks about talking to the other character, readers are going to want to skip ahead to the part where the talking actually starts happening.

Largely, the cure for this thirty-sixth of our most common writing mistakes harks back to one of my favorite bits of writing advice: “Skip the boring parts!

I try to leave out the parts people skip Elmer Leonard

Let’s give Romeo a second chance shall we?

Romeo stood in the stable door and watched Juliet feeding the chickens. “Gosh, but you’re–” Beautiful. He wanted to tell her she was beautiful. But, no, that would lead them both places he couldn’t let them go.

She straightened and stared him in the eye. “Gosh, but I’m what?

He cleared his throat. “Late. Those chickens have been squawking for hours.”

“That is not what you were going to say.” She sauntered over. “Why don’t you just tell me the truth for once?”

“I’d like to–but I can’t.” The truth would get them both killed.

Was that disappointment that flickered across her face?

Nope, she tilted that pert nose to the sky. “You’re right. You’re just a stable boy. You shouldn’t even be talking to me.” She spun on her heel and stomped back past the chickens.

Ahhh, that’s much more interesting. Not only did we get to skip that fat lot of nothing happening in the first example, but, in its place, we got to add conflict, dialogue, subtext, and some juicy hints about our character’s past and motivations. What’s not to like?

When You Should Use Introspection

Naturally, I’ve got to add a caveat in here. Don’t take Romeo’s misadventures as a warning against all introspection/character thoughts/internal monologues/narrative. Narrative is a crucial part of any story. It is vital to character development and advancing the causality and realism of your story. Very likely, Romeo’s original line of thinking would fit into the right story without ever slowing readers down.

It’s also true some stories are meant to be more introspective than active. Many a literary classic is all about the character’s thoughts rather than his actions. But for most popular novels, you’re going to want to make sure you’ve properly balanced the two.

Consider your work-in-progress. Is your character thinking about what he should do more than he’s doing it? Are there lengthy passages in which he’s going over (and over and over) things in his mind, rather than discussing them with another character, or simply working them out as he goes? It’s possible these introspection-heavy scenes of yours are just fine as they are. But it’s also possible you might double your literary investment by lighting a fire under your character and forcing him into action.

 Tell me your opinion: How have you balanced your narrator’s introspection with his interaction?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 36: Too Much Introspection, Not Enough Interaction

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Sheryl Dunn says:

    Although beta readers and my editors believe my novel is a page turner, one agent thought I was in my characters’ heads too much. I suspect that the balance might be a bit off, but not much, but I’m not going to change it now (to be released in February.) There is lots of dialogue and action, however.

    However, while plotting my current WIP, I’m trying to focus on changing the balance by introducing a couple of extra characters (Reflections, Michael Hauge calls them) so that my important characters have someone to talk to (a bit difficult if much of what the dramatic characters do is supposed to be a secret) And since the Reflections ideally should be dramatic characters, too, (or, at least, influence what the dramatic characters do) I have to figure out ways that what they do and/or say impacts the action.

    Another way is for my characters to have conversations with other dramatic characters, but the actual words they say have double meanings, i.e., the reader knows the subtext but the other character doesn’t. I find this really challenging, but since I like challenges, I’m looking forward to it.

    So far in this project, I don’t have a strong male character, although I do have a potentially strong male character, so I have to do more work on him to ensure that he becomes a dramatic character, i.e., moves the story forward.

    Thanks for posting this. It has made me think about these issues, i.e., this is the first time I’ve realized that I really do need a strong male character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This isn’t a mistake that’s going to kill your story (unless you’re *totally* overdoing it). It’s just one of those things we’re always needing to refine, book by book, to find the right balance.

  2. Like with everything in life, it’s all about balance.

  3. Can you think of many well known authors that had more introsoection than action or dialogue?

  4. Good tip. Certainly there are times when we have to follow our MC’s internal thoughts. But more often then not, we see, as you showed, more from how characters interact. I had one scene in my novel that involved only the MC, out for a run to “get away” from some terrible things that had happened, and in the course of it, he has an epiphany that clarifies for him things that have been circling just outside his understanding. It’s a moment of realization that had to happen with no one to interact with (although there are distant characters who spur the epiphany.) But for the most part, I tried to keep the story moving by showing the characters interacting. Of course there are brief internal observations, but brief. I tried to hold to the old saw of showing, not telling (which, in itself, is often over-interpreted.) Good to keep this in mind when tempted to dwell inside someone’s head and bore the heck out of the reader. Unless literary, contemplative fiction, we are telling stories, and stories move forward by what the characters do. What they think motivates what they do, for sure. Too much introspection is like a film with voice-over while the character sits and looks out a window. Because we are in a more visual world, one where more people see films than read books (sad commentary, but true,) we might think in terms of “seeing” our stories played out. Or maybe that’s just me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Introspection is only a problem when the story would be *better* featuring interaction. If there’s no other character whom the protagonist can (or should) be interacting with, then it’s definitely the right choice to show the introspection.

  5. thomas h cullen says:

    The Representative isn’t a story that gets kick-started with an offer, it’s “about” that offer. You see! The answer to knowing how to balance between introspection and interaction lies in great portion to knowing your story – what is your narrative geared around? The event itself, or the prelude to or the aftermath of that event?

  6. This is my personal biggest flaw. I commented on your blog once before on the topic of show versus tell. And this kind of goes hand in hand with that. I tend to tell what the character is thinking much more than show what the character is doing.

    Recently I wrote 40,000 words in my NaNoWriMo novel and soon realized that nothing much “happens” in my novel. I mean there aren’t that many scenes in the novel. There are very few scenes that are all about action and most of the scenes are contemplative. I realized how boring the novel would be for a reader!

    Now I’m working on developing the plot scene by scene and I’ve added a lot more scenes in which something happens. I like contemplative novels. My favorite novel is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But in that novel I think Pirsig has found a great balance between introspection and interaction. The subject matter is very deep and heavy and the main character is always introspecting everything but there are also a lot of interactions and the story moves along nicely. And then after every heavy introspective piece there is a little section that has only action and not much introspection. And actually you can say a lot through action scenes without actually spelling it out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The key to keeping scenes interesting is always making sure the character has a specific goal, which is then met by specific obstacles, thus creating conflict. As long as the introspection influences or is influenced by one of those factors, in an interesting way, then it’s unlikely to bore readers.

  7. This post is absolutely right, and too much introspection is one of my pet peeves. If a book I’m reading has too much, I’ll give up on it and go on to one with more immediacy. Great post – thanks! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      At the end of the day, too much introspection is nothing more than a lack of respect for readers’ time. Readers want to enjoy a story, not wallow in it.

  8. Paula Bergstrom says:

    Wouldn’t where or when you include introspection be influenced by the pacing of the story – not much introspection when there’s fast action (no time for it), and maybe more introspection after a big event?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Pacing definitely plays a big role. The question at stake here, though, is whether or not the introspection is contributing enough value to the story–or if its information could be better conveyed through interaction.

  9. The thing I have to watch for is that when the interaction is dialogue, to make sure the characters are doing something as they’re talking, instead of just sitting there like a couple of old toads on a log. I get focused on what they’re saying and forget about the other stuff that creates continuity and moves the action forward.

  10. Excellent post! Thank you, I have been lurking for a while now.
    I have my latest character explain a lot of things to her cat as they go about their daily business. The cat is mostly interested, but at times just wants a belly rub.
    I find that this works very well for the story, especially as the cat can’t reveal any of my MCs secrets. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That definitely sounds like it has the potential to be humorous and interesting–and keeping it interesting is really the bottom line.

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