Details or Thoughts: A Writing Activity for Fiction Writers

Last week, I posted about how a fiction writer knows when to unpack what a character is carrying around inside him or her, and when to stay outside the consciousness and let the details do the work. Today, I offer a writing activity designed to let you practice both. The objective is to try two different approaches to the climactic moment in a piece of fiction—one that requires going into a character’s thoughts, and one that asks you to stay away from his or her thoughts and let the emotional/intellectual state become evident through the way the character chooses to present details.

Let’s start with a premise, one of the oldest ones of storytelling: the boy doesn’t get the girl, or vice-versa; the love, long sought, fails. Think The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, or even our example from last week, Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Let’s say we’re at the climactic moment of the story where the main character has to accept that what he or she desires will never be possible. Get inside that character’s head and let us hear what he or she is thinking. Maybe you could start with the line, “It was then that she knew. . . .” Or, “All he could think of was. . . .” Give yourself a few minutes to complete the line and then to add to it, focusing on the character’s thoughts.

Now let’s try the opposite approach, treating the same moment from a different perspective. Stay away from what the main character is thinking. Rely, instead, on details to evoke the character’s interior state. Maybe you could begin with the line, “The clock on the wall. . . .” Or, “The wind was out of the north. . . .” Fill in the details. Add more to the clock, to the wind. Keep your character focused on what he or she sees, smells, hears, tastes, touches, etc.

When you’re finished with both parts of the writing activity, spend some time thinking about where the real power in the climactic moment comes from: inside or outside your main character. You may find that it comes from one over the other. You may be more of a thinker like Virginia Woolf, or you may be more of an observer like Ernest Hemingway, or you may find that you’re a bit of both. You may find that the true power comes from combining both approaches. A little, thought before making the turn to the observation of details.

The purpose of this activity isn’t to push you in one direction over another. It’s designed to invite you to think about your skills as a writer and how to best put them to use at the climactic moment of a piece of fiction. As you continue to write—to refer to last week’s post—you may find that there are moments in a piece of fiction where staying away from a character’s thoughts will be quite effective while at other moments the pressures of the narrative may require a trip into that character’s consciousness. We need to have both skills at our disposal so we can do justice to whatever the narrative requires.


  1. Richard Gilbert on August 3, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    I found your character Ronnie Black in Late One Night fascinating. He’s not really a bad guy, and tries to do and be good, but he’s emotionally immature. Things don’t go his way a lot, and when they don’t, he can lose it. He does impulsive things, and they cause him and others pain.

    I’d like to invite your readers over to my blog to enjoy and learn from the interview I did with you, Lee, keyed to Late One Night. It’s about fiction and nonfiction too:

    • Lee Martin on August 4, 2016 at 10:55 am

      Thanks so much, Richard. You do a great job with your blog!

  2. Fish Clamor on August 10, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    What a lovely blog you’ve made here! Landed here looking for something about comedy in writing; glad I haven’t found it yet. I love this exercise; it’s interesting to think about the way I’ve done it in my past stories–bones ones will certainly consider this point. Thanks!

    • Lee Martin on August 15, 2016 at 10:13 am

      Thank you so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave this comment.

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