How do we write characters’ thoughts?

When we are writing about a character who is thinking, how do we write that character’s thoughts?

  • Do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  She thought, “Should I order the small or the medium fries?”  She pondered the consequences.


  • Or do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  She thought, should I order the small or the medium fries?  She pondered the consequences.


  • Or do we write:  Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  Should I order the small or the medium fries?  What will my weight be?


  • Or do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  Should I order the teeny-weeney barely-break-my-diet small fries or the back-to-size-14 medium fries?  What will the bathroom scales scream when I get home?  Oh you of little will power.

The first example is a combination of direct thought followed by indirect thought.  The direct thought is in quotation marks to set it off as thought.  This is an approach to showing thinking which was commonly used until the 20th century but which is rarely used today.

The second example is indirect thought.  This way of handling thought dominated the 20th century.  The thought is introduced by the words “She thought” or “She pondered,” but no quotation marks are used.

Another form of indirect thought is italics which were used by some 20th century writers and still are used by some contemporary writers.  With italics, there is no no misinterpreting which words are thoughts.  But increasingly, writers have dropped the italics.

The fourth example is also indirect thought, but all tags of thinking (she thought, she pondered) and all print markings (quotation marks, italics) are eliminated.  More so than in the other three forms, we hear the thoughts of the character only, not the writer.  Of course the writer has put those thoughts in the character’s head, but the thoughts are filtered through the personality of the character.

This last form is the most powerful because the writer is unobtrusive.  The writer is like a puppeteer without the strings.  He is still opening and closing Kermit’s mouth, but not with his hand–with an invisible wi-fi connection.  We, the readers, forget there is someone orchestrating this story.  We are aware only of the character and his or her thoughts filtered through his or her language and personality.

Compare this last approach to the one used by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein.  The monster tells his story to his creator, Victor, who in turn tells the story to the ship captain who in turn writes all this in letter form to his sister.  With so many filters, whose thoughts are we hearing directly?  Hard to say.

The approach without tags and print markings is more like hearing Hamlet on stage, alone, thinking aloud.  No apparent filters separate us from Hamlet’s thoughts.  Like a soliloquy, this kind of indirect thought is dramatic and—so far—as close as writers can come to eliminating their own presence in their narratives.

For more on how to write characters’ thoughts, read How Fiction Works by James Wood.


Do you use metaphors? How about similes?

I don’t use metaphors or similes when I write fiction.  I’ve been aware of this for a couple of years, and so made a resolution to incorporate more metaphors and similes into my writing, especially my fiction writing.  But I have had little success.

Now I know why.

When I insert a metaphor or simile into narration, it reminds readers that an author is writing what they are reading.  A metaphor or simile draws readers away from the story line to consider a comparison.  A metaphor or simile interrupts the flow of writing and takes readers out of the story to consider the meaning of or the aptness of the figure of speech.

And I don’t want that.What I want, as an author, is for my readers to become “one” with my story, to find my story so real, so compelling, that they “live” in the story, unaware of the real world around them.  Metaphors and similes force the reader to leave the story—momentarily, true—and enter the real world to think about the figure of speech.  The flow is broken.

Two exceptions exist. One is that it is okay to include a metaphor or simile in either the spoken words of a character or in his or her thoughts.  Once your smile to me was wine, a character could think as she looks across the table to her long-time husband.  Or a mother beset with children’s demands, a ringing phone, and a dog’s whine could say, “My life is like a soap opera.”  In these situations—thinking and speaking—metaphors and similes still interrupt the flow of the story if the reader needs to think about the comparisons.  But they can seem organic if a character uses them.

Another exception is when the figure of speech is a cliché that is readily understood and needs no consideration.  When a character says, “That water is as cold as ice,” or when another character thinks, I smell a rat, we needn’t think about the comparison because we have heard it many times before and readily understand it.

Of course some writers do use metaphors and similes successfully, especially when a story is told in the first person.  If you have read any of Raymond Chandler’s stories about his famous detective, Philip Marlowe, you have encountered hundreds of figures of speech because the character of Marlow thinks in similes and metaphors.  Those stories are told in first person point of view, so the figures of speech form part of the personality of the narrator.

How about you?  Do you use similes and metaphors?  Do you agree with me that these figures of speech interrupt the flow of narration?

How to add details and to choose more specific verbs

Lack of detail and weak verbs are the two writing shortcomings I see most often  in student writing.  Here is a game to improve both of them.

Take seven index cards and cut each in half to form smaller, squarer cards.  Write one part of speech on each card (noun, adjective, verb, adverb, conjunction, preposition and pronoun).  Repeat on the remaining cards.  Shuffle and place face down on a table or desk in front of a student. Put a pile of pennies (or BINGO markers or poker chips) near the deck of cards.  The goal of the game is accumulate ten pennies before your opponent does.

Now on a piece of notebook paper, write a simple, blah sentence such as “My dog eats food.”  Ask the student to pick a card.  Suppose she picks “verb.”  Ask the student to cross out the verb “eats” and in its place to write another verb.  If the student writes “likes,” tell her that “likes” is another “blah” verb, so she can take one penny and start her own pile with that.  Explain that a more specific verb would have earned her two pennies.  She might say, “Well, wait a minute,” and she might think of a better verb.  She might say “devours.”  Praise her choice and ask her to take another penny for a total of two.

Now it is your turn.  Pick a card.  Suppose it says “adjective.”  Think out loud so the student can hear you think.  “I could use ‘hot’ to describe the food, or I could think of another word.  My dog devours hot food.  One penny.  Hm.  How about My dog devours meaty food.  Two pennies.”  You take two pennies.

And so you go back and forth until someone earns ten pennies.

For older students, add more words to the cards, such as “infinitive, gerund, and subordinate conjunction.”

The best sentences to use are ones the student has already written.  Take student sentences from submitted work.  If you play this game before the student turns in a final draft of a paragraph or an essay, allow him or her time to improve the sentences.

If you are working with a class, you can write the sentence on the overhead projector or white board and allow students to work in groups to suggest alternate words.  One group competes against another.

When students are familiar with the game, you might come up with a symbol—such as a purple circle around a word—to identify words which could benefit from being more detailed or more specific.  When you return student writing, allow students time to improve the words circled in purple.

What do students learn from this game?

  • How to choose specific verbs.
  • How to add details.
  • How much better their writing sounds when they choose specific verbs and add details.
  • How to identify various parts of speech.
  • That you design cool learning activities.

Anytime you can turn learning into a game, students jump on board.

How to end a scene with style

Some student writers reach an exhaustion point when writing a narrative.  They are too tired to continue.  They want to stop—mid-sentence, if I’d let them—and write “To be continued,” as if that would solve their problem.

“You can do better than that,” I tell them, and together we brainstorm better breaks which will lure readers back to the next section of their narratives.

Point of view shifts. If all the action has been told from one character’s perspective, add a final sentence to show that someone else is watching.  “And so Little Red Riding Hood kissed her mother goodbye, waved and skipped through the dark forest, unaware that a big, bad wolf was watching and licking his lips.”  When the student resumes writing this piece, it can be from the wolf’s point of view.

To use a cliffhanger effectively, something must happen just before the end of the chapter, something that leaves the reader wondering.  “Mia crumpled up the test paper with the low grade and pouted.  She had studied so hard for that test.  She had—She felt a tap on her elbow from Ben, who sat behind her.  He passed his cell phone out of sight of their teacher, Mrs. Miller.  Mia read the text message.  “Are you all right?  For god’s sake, tell me you’re all right!”

Traveling or going to sleep. A scene can easily end with a character getting in the back seat of the car or on a spaceship.  When the next scene starts, the character can have arrived at her destination, a new location.  The actual traveling can be skipped over.  Or a character can go to bed for the night or take a nap, and when he awakens, a new scene begins without any explanation of how he slept or what he dreamed about.

Dialog.  If Hermione says to Harry Potter, “You better be extra careful, Harry,” and the scene ends, we, the readers, are led to believe Hermione’s words are important.  We suspect Harry will find himself in trouble soon.  For dialog to be an effective scene ender, the dialog needs to seem significant.  If one character says, “Bye,” and the other character says, “Bye,” that is not significant.

Foreshadowing.  A toddler is running around willy-nilly, and nearby a pregnant woman puts her hand on her abdomen, feeling an active baby kicking.  She smiles.  Or Cinderella hops into the carriage that will take her to the ball when one of her slippers falls off.  She laughs and slips it back on, waving to her fairy godmother.

None of these scene endings takes many words, just a sentence or two.  But they are far more elegant than slapping “To be continued” at the end of a sentence in the middle of a thought.  With a good scene ending, the writer lures the reader back.  The reader wants to continue reading.

What if teachers write along with students?

Many times when I ask students to respond to short answer questions, to write summaries or even to write essays, I write too.  This “me too” approach has advantages.

I can test whether the assignment is doable. Recently I gave my fifth grade students a reading passage with a follow-up question requiring that the students supply two details from the passage to answer the question.  I could easily find one detail, but two?  The students had problems too.  Together we discussed this problem and figured out how to write an answer.  I recognized that their frustration was genuine, acknowledged that, and worked as a partner to solve the writing problem.  Sometimes I chuck the assignment altogether and give a different one.

If I suspect students might be struggling with a particular aspect of the writing—how to start, for example—I can offer several possibilities, and I can read my possibilities aloud, asking for students for advice as to which one I should choose. We can discuss the merits of each.  Or a student could say, “Here’s how I did it,” and read her solution aloud.  I am seen as more of a collaborator than a know-it-all teacher.  For some students, this can make me more approachable when they struggle with writing problems.  When I was in high school, I was assigned homework which would take two hours nightly in just one subject. By my doing the writing assignment with my students, I can judge how much time the assignment takes, and break the assignment into parts.

Students can listen to my vocabulary and sentence openings. They can listen for sentences of various lengths.  They can decide whether my “hook” hooks and whether my conclusion picks up on the introduction.  They can see how I use transitions, dialog, details and examples.  They can see how I incorporate the writing concepts which we talk about all the time.  And all this I do on a piece of writing which they are working on.  I give them a model which they can aspire to.

Of course, with some students my time is better spent discussing each sentence as they write it, making reminders as they go along, and praising attempts which flop.

But sometimes my example speaks louder than words.

Dialectical journals

If you are a high school English teacher, you might know about dialectical journals.  But elementary and lower grade teachers—and parents of younger children—might never have heard of them.  That’s too bad because they are a great alternative to a book report.

Quote word-for-word the text you are analyzing Citation

Q = question

C = Connect

CL = Clarify

P = Predict

R = Reflect

E = Evaluate

Write your response


A dialectical journal is a method of recording information about a book as you read the book.  It requires three types of information:

  • A direct quote of a passage which is worthy of consideration.
  • A one- or two-letter identification of the kind of response the student will make plus the page number or the act, scene and line.
  • The student response.

The response can take many forms.  Suppose the students are reading Lord of the Flies.  A response can ask a question about the text:  Why did Ralph decide on a conch shell to call the children to order?  Why not just whistle?  A response can notice a problem:  All the boys survive the plane crash without injuries while the pilot dies.  That seems unusual.  And items from the plane, like clothes, are not recovered.  A response can draw attention to the plot:  The naval officer arrives just as the boys are about to kill Ralph.  That timing seems unreal.

In using dialectical journals, students should strive to use higher level thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation so that the information can be used to spark class discussions.  Sometimes a response by one student can open the eyes of another without the adult intervening.  If no students are mentioning a concept that the adult thinks is important, the adult can suggest that they keep “tone” or “figures of speech” in mind when they do the next few pages of reading and responding.

By the kinds of responses students make, teachers can gauge what interests or perplexes students about a text and can provide supplementary materials.  If students can write, they can use dialectical journals.   They can be appropriate for students as young as third grade.

Evaluating student writing

When I work with student writers, I ask them to evaluate their own writing.  The process I use is simple and works no matter what type writing the students do.

After the student has revised a piece of writing, I draw a large “T” which creates two columns.  I label the first “Did well” and the second “Needs improvement.”  I ask the student to identify what was done well and what needs work.

We start with the “Did well” column.  If the student is stumped, I ask questions about things which the student obviously did well.  “Did you have a beginning, middle and end?”  If he says yes, I ask him to write “B-M-E” under “Did well.” “Did you spell correctly?”  He writes “spelling” under “Did well.”

I try to list at least three things the student did well, no matter how basic his writing is.  Handwriting, starting sentences with capitals, writing periods and commas that look like periods and commas—I search for positives.  The more the better.

Then we move to the “Needs improvement” column.  Usually the student will mention errors we have just corrected during revision.  He might say “run-ons” and using a word like “so” or “just” over and over.  With practice he will identify the conceptual errors, such as organization problems or not writing a topic sentence.  I  bring up one of these larger issues and go back to the paper to show an example of that problem.

I limit “Needs improvement” to three so the student doesn’t get discouraged and so he can keep those three in mind the next time he writes.

After we do this many times, the student realizes he is making the same kinds of mistakes over and over.  When this happens and a student is about to write a  new draft, I ask him what mistake he is likely to make.  He says, “run-ons” or “a hook that doesn’t hook.”  This helps him focus on how to improve his writing while he is writing, long before we evaluate it.