You Don’t Need Thought Tags

In today’s Journal

* You Don’t Need Thought Tags
* Death of a PC
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

You Don’t Need Thought Tags

Level-up your game as a writer. You don’t need “thought” or “was thinking” or any of that in your stories. You just don’t.

A recent line in my current novel prompted this topic.

A little old man had just approached the POV character’s driver’s side window as she considered the house beyond the curb where she had just parked.

He ran his index finger in a small circle, indicating he wanted her to power-down the window.

I wrote (without the quotation marks and without italics)

“I did. And I grinned. Maybe I should ask him whether this is Timothy Sage’s house.”

See? You can tell immediately the third sentence in that line is unspoken thought (or if you wish, internal monologue).

But how? Why didn’t I have to write

“I did. And I grinned. I thought maybe I should ask him whether this is Timothy Sage’s house.”

Because the first and second sentences, both narrative, are in past tense, the natural voice of narrative.

The third sentence, the character’s unspoken thought, is in present tense, the natural voice of unspoken thought. The reader will know the difference instinctively, without consciously realizing it.

Remember, the reader isn’t reading critically. S/he’s reading to be entertained. And if you’ve done your job as a writer, s/he’s deeply engrossed in the characters’ world.

Remember too, in recording the story, you write what happens and what the characters say and do in response (including what the POV character does, thinks or says).

Yet in unspoken thought, the character would not think “I thought maybe I should ask….” S/he would think only “Maybe I should ask….”

If this is a new realization for you, good. But don’t revisit earlier, already published works. Let those stand as markers of your skill at the time you wrote them. Always keep moving forward.

In your current WIP (if you have one) the story will be improved if you apply this guideline. Search for instances of “thought” and “was thinking” and delete or recast them as necessary.

Having been made aware of this guideline, your creative subconscious will apply it automatically as you write more. You might slip now and then, but when you do you will notice. And with practice (a story or two or three) you won’t have to apply it at all. It will already be there.

Death of a PC

A few paragraphs into Chapter 10, which I posted along with 9, 11, and 12 yesterday afternoon at 4 p.m. Arizona time, my little HP X360 froze up. Period.

The Alt/Ctrl/Delete combination wouldn’t even bring up the Task Manager so I could restart it. Annoying to say the very least.

In fact, I couldn’t even change what I’d just typed, the first 100 or so words of Chapter 10. I couldn’t copy/paste it. I couldn’t even scroll so I could see all of it.

So I turned to my business computer, opened the file in the much-despised Word 365, and looked over my left shoulder at the screen of the X360 as I retyped what I’d written there into the document on the business computer. Pretty much grumbling with every breath.

Then I unplugged the X360, hoping when it eventually ran out of battery life it would die and I would be able to open it again and everything would be fine. (It doesn’t have a battery compartment available from the outside, and the bottom is screwed-down tightly with those stupid minuscule star screws, so I wasn’t able to remove it.)

That done, I trudged up to the house, grumbling the whole way, to grab another computer, one that runs about as fast as bricks flow through a funnel.

But it has Word 2010 on it. It was my former (now new-again) writing ‘puter. I hate standing around doing nothing, so I wrote this as I waited for my files, specifically my most recent changes to Chapter 10, to synch across Dropbox to my new writing ‘puter. Then I was able to work again. Grrr.

Anyway, despite the drama, I was able to exceed my word-count goal again.

Aren’t computers simply wonderful? Despite the fact that I make much of my living via the internet, sometimes I honestly wish somone would kick the Big Plug out of the wall and knock us all back into personal, face to face conversations, letter writing by hand, and some semblance of actual reality.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

Draft2Digital vs PublishDrive Review

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 740?

Writing of Blackwell Ops 13: Jenna Crowley

Day 1…… 3815 words. To date……3815
Day 2…… 3116 words. To date…… 6931
Day 3…… 3090 words. To date…… 10021
Day 4…… 4073 words. To date…… 14094
Day 5…… 3447 words. To date…… 17541

Fiction for October…………………… 101102
Fiction for 2023………………………… 318644
Fiction since August 1………………… 204097
Nonfiction for November……………… 760
Nonfiction for the year……………… 228650
Annual consumable words………… 543787

2023 Novels to Date……………………… 6
2023 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2023 Short Stories to Date……………… 7
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 77
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)…… 235
Short story collections…………………… 31

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Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

10 thoughts on “You Don’t Need Thought Tags”

  1. I don’t need but I might use ‘thought’ tags? Sometimes I just put them there. Sometimes I don’t. I didn’t recognize my rule here…
    And it’s different whether I write in English or in my native language. When I do the last, I might just put the words into italics. Whenever I use English, I use the thought tags more often. I will give it a thought… 😉

    • “I will give it a thought.” That’s all you can do, Balázs, then decide for yourself. Like I said, I can only put it out there.

  2. If it freezes up like that again, hold the Power button and count to 10. That will trigger a hard reboot even if the software’s borked.

  3. I’ll sometimes use a “he thought” or whatever when it feels like a beat is necessary to the flow of the story. (We use different terms for similar processes, I think; I don’t hear my characters the way you do, but I do get Story given to me in a flow of words. Sometimes, the flow needs a beat/break.)

    That said, I do note such beats show up more often in third-person narrative than first-person. (I also write more often third-person, so that may be a factor.)

    As always, thanks for all you do!

    • First, thank you for your comment.

      I understand what you’re saying, and a few years ago I would have agreed with you. But first or third-person, Every Word of the story should come through the POV character(s).

      It took me awhile to “get” that, but it’s true. And it all comes down to trusting the characters completely. The more you revise what happens in the story or what the characters say or do in response, the farther you’ll get from their authentic story and the less fun you’ll have.

      First, if “it feels like” something is “necessary,” that’s you intruding on the story. Try not to do that. Just write what comes as the characters live the story. If you don’t hear the characters speaking, then you’re making it up.

      If the story is “given to you in a flow of words,” you’re very close to breaking away from the myths and having more fun than you ever imagined. That “flow of words” is the characters speaking and the story unfolding around you as you run through it with them.

      Yeah, Jim Bell over at TKZ famously calls them “beats.” He also sells a lot of nonfiction books that say pretty much exactly what 99% of the others out there say, except he adds a bit now and then like “mirror moments” and all that. All things the writer should consciously think about and apply. Ugh. “Beat” is another term for something the writer has to think about and “apply” (conscious mind) so I usually avoid the term. But labels don’t matter.

      Whatever you call tags or beats, any story is made up only of narrative and dialogue (again, all of which should come directly from/through the POV character[s]). The dialogue tags (he said, she said, etc.) are narrative, but they aren’t descriptive narrative. They don’t “show” the reader anything. They introduce (best), interrupt, or follow (worst) dialogue, and their only purpose is to let the reader know almost subliminally which character is speaking.

      Brief descriptive narratives used in conjunction with dialogue (She smiled, He put his hand on his chest, etc.) can replace dialogue tags. They might be considered better that dialogue tags because they allow the reader to see an action AND indicate who’s speaking.

      Any regular narrative and any of the POV character’s unspoken thoughts (and dialogue, of course) should come directly from the POV character without interruption or intrusion by the writer. Again, the writer’s only job is to record what’s going on and what’s being said and done in reaction to that.

      But thought tags (or beats) are simply never necessary. Writing “she thought” and then writing WHAT she thought is no different than writing, before a second character replies to a first character, the narrative line “She didn’t miss a beat” or “She replied immediately” or “She didn’t hesitate”. She might not have missed a beat or hesitated, but the reader was forced to because he had to read that extra, throwaway line. (grin)

      Just a thought: I’ve read a few of Bell’s novels. I can tell at almost every turn what’s going to happen next. That’s because he plots and plans, consciously. But whatever we, the writers, can plan for and decide, so can our readers.

      When we simply report what happens as we run through a story with our characters, we are continually surprised by those characters. And if we remain true to that, the reader will be too. Makes for much more interesting reading.

      A final note… If You Want To, if you practice WITD, you will get it eventually. Like I said, if you’re “given the story in a flow of words,” you’re already close. But if you don’t get it, that’s perfectly fine too. Different strokes and all that.

      Wow. I’ve almost written another whole blog post here. (grin) Sorry.

      • So, I will get there? In this response I get it more, but actually during writing I cannot look after all the tags… But, hey, I have a little happiness here alas in my native language we don’t prefer the tags, we like the descriptive narratives more. But using them too much or in a conscious way can be just as harmful, if the WRITER thinks every time they need to be there…

        • Of course, Balázs. (And Peggy, I hope you read this and see that your comment helped others.)

          And yes, anything the writer “thinks” is necessary probably isn’t. If it was the POV character would have added it. Quieting the critical voice is difficult, but it gets easier the more you write, the more you practice.

          • Well, your response more than my comment, I think. GRIN

            One point to stress is that it’s critical to learn to differentiate between what the writer “thinks” is necessary and what the Story feels is necessary. (I don’t know that’s the best way to explain it, but I hope the meaning is clear.)

            At first, it’s easy to believe the two are the same – but they’re very clearly not, once you learn to distinguish them. Always follow Story!

            (Or, as Harvey says, always listen to your characters!)

          • Thanks for the generous comment, Peggy. But you’re absolutely right about the need to distinguish between what the writer thinks should be included or added and what’s actually in the story, or will be as you run through it with the characters. Easy to fool yourself too.

            But the critical voice is always negative. Always. The negativity is often expressed in doubt: “Should I add…? Is that room dark/light enough for a library/kitchen/living room? Would the character really say/do that?” Any thoughts like that are from the critical mind, not the creative.

            Also, the creative mind (the characters) tend to rush through the story because they’re living it. That’s why it’s hyper-important to watch and listen closely, and if the POV character notices or says something (including his/her opinion of the setting), to trust it and write it down as-is. You never know what it might lead to later in the story. And it’s equally important NOT to write down what the POV character DOESN’T say or notice. (See? Another negative.)

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