by Ryan Lanz
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.
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.
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.