The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics




Sunday, December 5, 2010

Popping The Thought Balloon: What Comic Books Teach Us About Interiority

If you're of a certain age and inclination toward geekdom--as I am--then you probably remember the thought balloon, a comic book convention that has, for the most part, been phased out of superhero comics. These little bubbles used to play a pretty big part in any given issue...putting us directly into a hero's head in order to hear his poised, complete-sentenced, often summary-filled inner monologue. The big problem with this--the reason thought balloons have become rare--is that they're shortcuts to generating dramatic tension and character development, rather than developing these through subtler means. It's corner-cutting. Cheating.

Thought balloons also pose a logistical problem: in life, thoughts don't come out in complete sentences, nor are they poised, nor do they take much time for us to experience. But when they're depicted as being poised and in complete sentences, they presume to expend the time it takes to think them.

Therefore, when some super-villain is racing toward you, bringing imminent destruction, why on earth would your reaction be to stop and think, "That dastardly fiend! If he succeeds in killing me, there will be nothing standing in his way of taking over Gotham...and then the world!" You'd only get about halfway through the thought before the dastardly fiend vaporized you, and your crimefighting career would only be one fight long.

Comics eventually replaced the thought balloon with the narration box...which had always been around, mostly to give quick changes in setting ("Meanwhile--in the villain's lair!") but could now be used to give a kind of first-person narration separate from a character's immediate, in-the-moment thoughts.

This kind of narration has a number of added benefits: First, it takes place outside of chronological time, outside the present moment of a story. Thus, the thoughts don't strain credulity...i.e., we don't wonder, Why is the charcater taking the time to think this? And existing outside present time allows the narration to go deeper into the thoughts and feelings of a character, unhurried by whatever's happening in the present moment. It allows for depth, rather than just an overload of exposition.

The reason I bring this up is because a number of fiction writers never got the memo about thought-ballooning. There's a prose equivalent--the direct, complete-sentence, italicized thoughts of the protagonist which show up at similarly inopportune times in a text, often to dump information at a reader or develop character through unsubtle means.

Say that our protagonist is a detective who's just had a gun pulled on him by a stranger who calls him by the name "Buzz"...which the detective hasn't gone by since college. The thought-ballooning author retreats immediately into mental monologue:
The stranger pointed the gun straight at the detective's chest. "Hold it right there, Buzz. I've got a few questions for you."

Who is this man? the detective wondered. And how did he know to call me Buzz? No one's called me that since college. Does this guy know someone from my past? Have I wronged someone who sent this person for revenge? I wonder if I can make it to the door in, I'll never make it. I'm stuck here. How does he know me? Who sent him?
This isn't a moment of real's a moment where the character takes a mental breath and then starts dumping the info, leaving the reader to wonder why he's so ambivalent about a gun being pointed at his chest.

Now consider how you might use a number of tricks at once--dialogue, pacing, indirect monologue through the narration, even the protagonist's physicality--to get the same information across, while heightening the tension of the moment and scene:
The stranger pointed the gun straight at the detective's chest. "Hold it right there, Buzz. I've got a few questions for you."

It was the name, rather than the gun, that stopped him dead. No one had called him that in twenty years.

"Hadn't heard that name in a while," the detective said, raising his hands slowly. "Not since the good old college days." He cut a quick eye at the door--too far, he'd never make it--before looking back at the one he recognized, he was sure, but apparently they had a mutual friend. "I don't suppose you're from the reunion committee?"
Thought-ballooning is surprisingly common in fiction...or maybe it's not that surprising, given how easy it is to throw a whole lot out by simply having your character think it. But the ease of use can lead to misuse or abuse, which is why the burden of mindfulness falls on you, the author, to keep interior monologues in check...lest your character, at crucial moments in the text, begin staring off dreamily into space.


  1. As a long-time lover of comic books, I have to say that they probably influenced me in this respect, since I tend to do the thought-ballooning (although not in critical moments of action; I tend to do them when the character is alone, contemplating, especially in first-person POV). Thank you for posting this.

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