Deep Thoughts with Muffie the Cat

Grammar Kittens, they tell me it’s a new year. A time for fresh starts and resolutions. While many of you may be working on your vows to exercise more…

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…or something, let’s make a collective grammar resolution, okay? Okay. Here it is:

We are all going to get it together when it comes to writing about characters’ thoughts.

Is this the biggest problem that English literature faces? No. Does it make me want to shoot laser beams out of my eyes?

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YEP.

What am I talking about, you inquire? As a matter of fact, I can show you many problems with one example:

Why had his owner given him such a stupid name, Muffie the cat thought to himself?

Though fiction editors are notoriously well-adjusted individuals, this sort of thing will make your editor get emotional in the margins and have to do a little deep breathing.

Direct thoughts are pretty much what they sounds like: you are showing exactly what a character is thinking, as they think it. Dialogue shows what a character is saying; a direct thought shows what he’s thinking.

A lot of the problems in the example above can be avoided if we simply pretend that the direct thought is dialogue. If Muffie were whining to his friends about his predicament, he would probably say this:

“Why did my owner give me such a stupid name?” Muffie the cat asked.

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This cat is probably named Muffie.

You will notice several key differences:

1) Verb tense: If a thought is being portrayed as the character thinks it, it should be in the tense the character would actually use. That sounds simple. Apparently it is very difficult to remember, because sometimes it comes up. Since Muffie is as stupid a name now as it was yesterday, we’d say, Why did his owner give him such a stupid name?

2) Person: If you think of yourself in third person, we have bigger fish to fry. Let’s change that to: Why did my owner give me such a stupid name?

3) Punctuation: Remember that thing about dialogue? You would never put the final punctuation on a sentence after the dialogue tag (though sometimes that comes up too) (deep breaths). Hence, Why did my owner give me such a stupid name? Muffie the cat thought to himself.

4) Extraneous crap: “He thought to himself” is repetitive like “ATM machine” is repetitive.” Under no set of circumstances can the inclusion of something like “to himself”–or “silently” or “in his mind”–avoid confusion that the reader would otherwise have been plunged into.

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“But did he think it out loud or silently?”

No. No one is going to be confused about that. The absence of quotation marks and the word “thought” are blinking neon clues that what is being thought is being thought deep, deep inside Muffie’s head. Once again, you may think that surely this has never in the history of all literature come up in an actual manuscript, but you would be incorrect. (More deep breaths.)

Speaking of italics, they’re a handy tool for conveying direct thought. In much the same way that quotes stake out the beginning and end of dialogue, italics can be used to show the boundaries of the thought. A common practice, and generally a pretty foolproof one, is to omit the italics when a direct thought tag is present. Thus:

Muffie is a stupid name, Muffie the cat thought.

versus:

Muffie is a stupid name. Muffie gazed out the window, feeling tragic.

Note the comma in the first example and the period in the second. “Thought” functions the same way “said” would if “Muffie is a stupid name” were spoken aloud. Call it a thought tag, like a dialogue tag. “Muffie gazed out the window,” being a regular old sentence, should keep its distance from the direct thought with a period.

So there you have it. All the rules. Now it’s up to you, Grammar Kittens. Make 2013 the year of writing direct thoughts properly:

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YAAAAAAAY!

Or make it the year of editors with laser eyes.:

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Weekly Reading Roundup « How can the poet be called unlucky?

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