According to my old university books, William James, the ‘father of American psychology’, came up with the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe the disjointed mix of thoughts, memories and fantasies that flow through our woken hours. Fortunately, when we articulate our ideas to the outside world, we usually edit this mishmash into coherence. But some fiction writers choose to climb inside their character’s head and give us a version of it.
To be successful it has to be a compromised version because, by its nature, stream of consciousness is long-winded babbling bollocks. No reader would give their time to it. The writer’s version has to serve narrative purpose and convey something.
As a writer, ask yourself what that is. Maybe it’s to show a character as two-faced. Maybe he or she is under the yoke of a cruel boss, wife, husband, kidnapper or whatever and you want to reveal his or her desire to escape or change the relationship (or that they enjoy it… the world’s a weird place after all). Maybe a helpful neighbour is actually a plotting psychopath and you want to show their lack of empathy and near orgasmic pleasure at manipulating people.
Once the purpose is clear in your mind, you can control the rambling nature of the style. No matter how often you go off at a tangent to mimic it, you’ll know the way back to the real issue you’re trying to highlight in order to add to plot, theme or character. You can signpost. It doesn’t have to be obvious, readers’ like a puzzle, but it should be discernibly there somewhere in the muddle of disjointed thinking.
It’s a difficult skill, requiring imaginative punctuation and structure to paint the crazy nature of it. Done well, it adds realism (or surrealism) and takes a reader deeper into a character’s psyche than any other technique. Done badly, well, what can I say? Babbling bollocks.
Book review/recommendation: Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
History books, particularly quirky ones, are great source material for novelists and this one is full of gems. Each element has its own fascinating stories and myths. Did the Germans really think they could pay back WWII reparation demands by recovering gold dissolved in seawater? Apparently, yes. And where else to learn about the dubious protection of Radium condoms and other elementary pleasures. Ps: Ever heard of Europium?