What to Avoid with Internal Monologue

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Most writers have used some form of internal monologue. Are we using it the right way?

The style of internal monologue is a wide one. Some authors use it sparingly and some color entire pages with it. A friend of mine recently read a book with more than a quarter of it as internal monologue. This particular book had vast amounts of back-story and info-dumps explained through these italicized words, explaining more than the reader ever needed to know at that moment. In one action scene, the action completely stopped for two pages worth of thinking. As you can imagine, that brings the pacing to a grinding halt.

And yet other authors prefer not to use any at all, going the full opposite direction, preferring dialogue and action to convey the information. Which is right?

As you know if you follow my blog, I rarely ever say which side is right because more often than not, neither is. It comes down to the author’s flavor. Certain flavors can throw off a reader or publisher, true, but that is not always a large concern to a writer, depending on his/her goals.

 

Here are some reasons why you might want to use internal monologue:

  • It expresses the character’s personality and helps us get to know him/her
  • It taints, alters, or directs the reader’s impression of something/someone through the eyes of the character
  • It can convey information
  • It can be fun and flavorful

Personally, I enjoy using internal monologue for the reasons above (mostly 1, 2, and 4). However, I have to be cautious of overdoing it. There are some things to be careful of. Let’s look into those things.

 

Default to “showing”
If you can “show” it, default to that over internal monologue. If you can show the antagonist baring his teeth and turning red, that is superior to having the protagonist think to herself that he is angry. Try to save the thinking for things that are above the obvious.

 

Suppress the desire to tell the reader everything
We all know this, yet sometimes forget once our fingers hit the keys. My readers don’t have to discover everything about the plot through my character’s thoughts. What I find most successful is using the thoughts for flavor. Rather than having the side-character say aloud that the protagonist is a trickster, it can be more fun to have the protagonist think what he/she could get away with.

 

Use dialogue where possible
In my opinion, one of the greatest arts of writing is conveying key information to the reader via dialogue between characters without making it feel info-dumpy. It’s not an easy thing to do for a lot of writers. Dialogue is more interactive than the protagonist’s internal thoughts.

 

In a story sandwich, make the internal monologue the thin slices
Especially in an action scene, I feel comfortable saying that the thinking should be fairly thin and spread-out. A little bit can be nice to help give the character reactions; however, mine are usually as small as one sentence maximum when they do appear in such scenes. In a thriller sequence, about anything other than action or movement will slow down the pacing. That’s a broad brush, but it should get the ball rolling on the concept.

 

Conclusion
I think it’s best whenever you are considering how much to use to filter it through the question of: am I including it because it accomplishes more than one thing, or because I want to tell the reader something without taking the effort to set it up in a better way? In my opinion, internal monologue is best used for flavor. How much or what type of flavor is wonderfully up to the writer.

 

If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing via email to have future posts delivered to you. Image courtesy of Karola Riegler via Flickr, Creative Commons.

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28 thoughts on “What to Avoid with Internal Monologue”

  1. I generally try to hit reasons 1 and 4 (with 2 kind of folding into 4 for me) for using internal monologue, mostly to add color and remind the reader of which character’s POV I’m using. So, some characters are worriers, while others are quite terse.

    I haven’t searched your blog yet, but the rules you mention for showing action kind of reminds me of a challenge Chuck Palahniuk put out on his blog to not use thinking verbs. Specifically, it was to change rough draft uses of verbs like “thought,” “knew,” “recognized,” etc. into actually showing the verb. So, “Bob was sad,” turns into, “Bob’s tears rolled down his cheeks.” I wish I had the address for the challenge. Predominantly the whole exercise was to show how much one’s writing relied on internal monologue and thought verbs, and secondly to help in editing out any problems.

    At any rate, this is a really great post, and it’s very helpful!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Once again, a great blog. These are things I never really thought about until I read your blog. Absolutely right about internal monologues messing with action scenes. Sometimes I am guilty of overstimulating my reader with the thought life of my characters when maybe my readers want to figure stuff out for themselves. Thank you for some cud to chew on.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This depends on what technique you’re using: internal monologue is sometimes used interchangeably with stream of consciousness. They’re both ways to narrate/communicate a level of consciousness but they’re stylistically different. Though Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is noted as first to use a stream-of-consciousness-like style, James Joyce’s Ulysses (grammar and punctuation be damned) is often referred to as the model of this type narrative technique.

      Off the top of my head, I’d say Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men is a good example of an internal dialogue technique in the way he writes Sheriff Bell’s chapters.

      Also, Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor is a good example of a dream sequence narrative that blends the two – one long first person paragraph that works to create an internal nightmare vision.
      http://www.101bananas.com/library2/countrydoctor.html

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A few months ago, I read — or rather, tried to read, because I quit less than halfway through — a novel that had way too much internal monologue, and all of it of the overdone info-dump variety, things that people don’t think in actual words to themselves. (Who would think the words, “I like pecan pie — I should have a piece,” instead of just looking at the pie and wanting to eat some of it?) It’s one thing to describe a character’s thoughts indirectly (“She considered her options, and decided that she liked her Jeep better than some ‘cute little sports car’ after all.”), but when it turns into the character doing “As you know, Bob…” to her/himself (” ‘I don’t know,’ she thought. ‘I’ve had this Jeep for years, ever since I bought it to annoy my then-soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend who said that a woman can’t drive an SUV of any sort, but after my mother told me just last week that she thinks me driving a Jeep makes me look mean and angry, maybe I should get a cute little sports car instead, except I don’t like cute cars and I’m not a cute person and I love my Jeep, so I guess I won’t get a new car after all.’ “), well… You get the idea.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. As ever, wonderful advice. You’ll make a writer of this hen yet… 🙂 I agree with the sandwich theory. Think of this as prosciutto rather than pulled pork. In short stories, this advice is initially tricky, but ultimately your best friend. I HATE info dumps, personally. Necessary sometimes, granted. But as a reader in a hurry, I will admit to skimming on occasion to save time…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Do you feel it is mandatory to use italics to infer internal dialogue? In some recent works I’ve tried to avoid it, as in my ‘First Day to Tomorrow’ excerpt. After reading this, I begin to wonder if that was a mistake.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sound article on internal monologue. I tend to use it sparingly and usually on after a character has said something. I use it to indicate a one or two line thought about the person my character is talking to. You’re right about more showing than telling. I think I’ve used all four reasons when righting a characters thoughts. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Good post, thanks. Internal monologue can be a difficult thing to get right. I think its over-use – and/or in the wrong places, thus killing the pace – is probably one of the biggest mistakes of new writers. It certainly was mine, and still can be at times. Your advice is sound. For me, it’s about telling the reader only what they need to know, when they need to know it, and no more; and when you can show rather than tell, do that.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I might add to the discussion– it’s fine to use a ton of interior monologue IN YOUR FIRST DRAFT. I’ve found it helpful in character development, as long as I edit a good chunk of it out in the next go around. As a fairly new writer, I often read these type of posts and think “I have to do this right from the start. I have to get everything perfect and avoid all those nasty mistakes so others will see I’m not a novice.” Over the past three years, though, I’ve learned the hard way — you can’t always show on a first draft. It’s going to be loaded in mistakes. Mistakes that can be fixed later.

    Now. It’s time to head back to my second draft. Have to cut some pesky interior monologue…
    cheers-
    Sue

    Liked by 1 person

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