The Do's and Don'ts of Internal Monologue

The Do’s and Don’ts of Internal Monologue

Internal monologue is one of the many necessary ingredients used to concoct a complete, well-rounded story. Unfortunately, it’s all too often one of the most abused and overused ingredients.

I just finished reading a historical fantasy—which included storms, swordfights, treachery, true love, and all kinds of swashbuckling—that made every promise of delivering a jolly good tale. But it had one severe problem: The author proved himself unable to rein in the gallopings of his characters’ internal monologues. The book probably could have been trimmed by a good third had someone cut out all the excess “thinking” of the characters.

Not only did the author allow his characters to mentally rattle on for pages, unimpeded by action or dialogue, he committed the cardinal sin of interrupting action and dialogue to make way for these giant chunks of exposition. Perhaps the most glaring instance of this is found in the middle of the book, when, in the midst of a rip-roaring battle between the pirates and attacking “savages,” the author grinds his riveting action scene to a halt so his young hero can philosophize for nearly three pages on the nature of death and the will of God.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find many authors who seem to eschew the idea of internal monologue altogether. In their defense, many of these authors are in the business of writing suspense and thriller stories, in which speed and action is of the essence. They undoubtedly feel that inserting three pages of internal monologue in the middle of a tense chase scene would kill their suspense. And, indeed, it would.

But because of their fear of bogging their work down in unnecessary narrative and monologue, many authors miss out on a ripe opportunity for deepening their stories. Internal monologue, when done correctly, can add layers upon layers of intrigue and emotion to a story. Experiencing a character’s internal battle can be just as riveting and memorable for a reader as chasing after him through a gun battle or a dogfight. Granted, internal monologue is a tricky skill to master, but when done correctly, it more than pays off. So, in the interest, of avoiding these mistakes, allow me to offer a handful of by no means definitive guidelines.

Do

Sandwich necessary exposition between thick slices of action.

Many authors struggle with the urge to open scenes with expositional monologue. Such exposition sets the scene, orientates the reader with the character’s current mindset/location/dilemma, and lays all the necessary facts on the table. Unfortunately, it also provokes yawns. Open your scenes with a strong bit of action, dialogue, or intrigue. Then, once you’ve hooked your readers, indulge in the necessary exposition. Start with the storm, and then go back and reflect on the calm.

Make sure all the explaining is done before you get to the tense moments.

If you have necessary info to impart to your reader, do it before you reach the climax. Can you think of any good reason why a character would shove his gun into the villain’s face, tighten his finger on the trigger, then spend half a dozen paragraphs recalling his childhood encounter with same villain? No? I didn’t think so. If readers needs to know about a character’s childhood encounters, then spell them out before heating up the action to fever pitch. Same goes for information—such as delineating the finer points of kung fu right before the character engages in battle.

Utilize dialogue where possible.

Almost without exception, dialogue is more interesting than internal monologue. If you can utilize dialogue to explain important information or relay your character’s internal conflicts, do so. But be wary of falling into the “as you know, Bob” trap; don’t let characters sit around, telling each other things they both already know.

Show, don’t tell.

One of the basic pratfalls of internal monologue is “telling” a character’s thoughts. To some extent this is inescapable. Sometimes you do just have to spell out what a character is thinking or feeling (i.e., He loved her). But utilize “showing” wherever possible (i.e., His heart pounded whenever she was near)

Don’t

Spill the exposition until right before it’s necessary.

Your readers will remember the information much better if you wait until it’s absolutely necessary. The very urgency of the information will rivet the readers’ attention.

Bog down in “too much black.”

“Too much black” is film industry-speak for script pages that include too much description and not enough dialogue. Scan your manuscripts, looking for pages that contain solid blocks of text with little white space to “break” things up between paragraphs. Don’t fall into the same mistake as the above-mentioned author; force your characters to state their thoughts and emotions as succinctly as possible.

Feel the need to tell the reader everything.

Shun internal monologue that spells out the entirety of your character’s past, his present struggles, his hopes for the future, his feelings for other characters, his plan of action for the next five years, and his general theological and philosophical ramblings. The best internal monologue is that which maintains a distinct thread of intrigue. Your reader doesn’t have to know everything the character knows; not knowing will keep him reading.

Rely on internal monologue to the exclusion of action.

Ask readers what they enjoy most about the books they read, and they’re likely to mention action and dialogue as two primary factors. Rarely will you hear them cite “internal monologue” as the reason they keep reading. Action and dialogue is what defines character, no matter what kind of story you’re writing. If you use internal monologue sparingly, keeping in mind its purpose is merely salt to the stew, you may find yourself with a well-seasoned—possibly even delicious—story.

Tell me your opinion: Do you enjoy writing internal monologue?

The Do's and Don'ts of Internal Monologue

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’m peeking through some of your older posts and finding some great stuff! Thanks!!

  2. Glad you’re finding some goodies. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I too am poking around your posts and finding all kinds of treasure. Thank you!

  4. So glad you’re enjoying it! Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Thanks for this post! Kinda poked around as well (wow…coincedence? I think not!)

    Definitely needed this for my novel I’m working on, as they’re going to be growing a lot, very quickly, and it’s all first person or third person limited.

  6. Monologue, done well, is the foundation for any story. It lets us get into the characters’ heads and see where their coming from. Do it right, and you’ll be way ahead of the crowd!

  7. I was just reading about internal monologue last week, in a book on editing a novel. I agree, internal monologue is necessary, but better in small amounts sprinkled throughout the story. Great article!

    • In some respects, the amount of acceptable narrative really depends on the story. I would have to say it’s a myth that “less is more” when it comes to narrative, simply because narrative is the meat of the story. Without it, all we’re left with is a screenplay. But it’s very true that we have to craft our narrative so it’s always pertinent and evocative, and we never want to just dump it into the book in huge chunks, when we could finesse it by breaking it up with action and dialogue, where appropriate.

  8. I try to use IM as little as possible, and never if I can. To me, I’d rather show what someone is thinking than tell. Good article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Showing is rarely a bad choice. But it’s also good to keep in mind that the chief benefit a novel has that a movie doesn’t is its ability to share the characters’ minds with its readers.

      • I recently heard this same comment. Movies have music which is a powerful mood setter, but greater than the music is IM.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I like to say that music is the powerful form of storytelling, since it communicates directly with our emotions, without needing words. But it’s a lot less specific than internal monologue!

  9. Great tips! Thank you! I´ll have it all in mind 😉
    Hugs,
    M.

  10. Now you have to clarify something for me. Aren’t narrative and internal monologue two different things? For me, narrative is not internal monologue, although the reverse *can* be true if the thoughts are helping a scene progress.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Narrative encompasses all of written fiction that *isn’t* dialogue (including, technically, action). In a tight POV, all narrative should be filtered through the narrator’s perspective, making all of it, in essence, his thoughts. So you’re right in technically differentiating the two, but they’re so closely related that the terms are often used interchangeably.

  11. I was just thinking about this yesterday, and how I used it a lot in my first draft but have cut back in this one. I prefer to use dialog to bring out my characters’ thoughts, and I want to avoid writing in first person if I delve into them at all. The switch is too jarring for my writing style.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. A much more polished approach to character thoughts is to meld them seamlessly into the narrative itself, without switching person or adding italics.

  12. Steve Mathisen says:

    I have been experimenting with different ways to include the internal dialogue. It can be an excellent expositional tool if done just right. Small pieces of information scattered throughout scenes where I think a character would naturally think about some things.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, this post is in no way a condemnation of internal monologue. It’s what makes a novel run, largely. It just has to be done well.

  13. Nice article. Internal monologue is something I struggle with. Both because I don’t want it to be so full of exposition that things get to be more ‘tell’ than show and for the reasons you mentioned.
    One thing pops up into memory though, as one of my favorite passages to read, where the internal monologue interrupted the action on purpose. In Ender’s Shadow, Bean just got a question from Ender and is thinking of all the things he doesn’t like about Ender and the implications of his position at the school and whatnot and goes on for a good page or so before Ender pretty much says “Well, you gonna answer the question or not?”. For some reason, I’ve always loved it, but you’re right, it’s not really something you’d want characters to do on a regular basis.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Essentially, what Card did there was draw attention to the elephant in the room by acknowledging that he just spent a ton of time in the character’s head. Sometimes that works well, but it can also be tricky since it forces readers to look directly at a narrative weakness.

  14. H. Bodkin says:

    This is a great article, by the way. Really did sort things out. Good job. And I have a question. Should I treat my story differently than this? I’ve show my readers some of my story and they said that one of the things they liked is the time spent in my protagonist’s head. He’s not human, and his mind is a little different and askew in a way, and he thinks of things in funny, weird, but brilliant ways. Is it okay to keep most of it if I’d be one of the main focuses of the story almost? I’d like to think that one of the main points of the book is his non-human character and personality, and I’ve been leaning heavily on his thoughts. Do you have any thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good narrative is one of the best things about a book. As long a you’re not violating any of the principles mentioned in the article (particularly as they apply to the timing of your internal monologue), you should be fine. If you’re getting positive feedback, that’s always a good sign.

  15. I tend so much to understatement and camera-eye view that my beta had to actually tell me at one point, “Don’t be afraid to tell.” I write immersive worldbuilding SFF. Needless to say, very little at all makes sense without some telling.

    I’ve had to get creative. My first paragraphs involve a lot of tell, so I try to make them really tense at the same time and that “tell” very integrated into what’s going on.

    Examples:

    1. A girl’s overhearing her parents arguing and uses her cyberpathic powers to mute them out. I was able to cram in a ton of required setting/premise detail by simply addressing that much action and no more.

    2. My main character is in extreme pain from the side effects of her genetic modification and switches from coffee (which helps) to a medical device (unique to the world). I had to throw in a bit of backstory, a ton of tiny setting details (this ain’t quite earth, honey), and a host of technical explanation as to what was going on in her superhuman body.

    It was a lot of internal monologue/narrative, but by tying into the immediate goal of trying to stay “okay,” my three readers (beta/first) all were seriously invested before she gets the phone call asking for her help on a case. Without that narrative, the reader wouldn’t really understand why she’s reluctant to help or why this probably won’t be very pretty.

    So that was a lot to say that the thoughts and action should depend on each other as fully as the story and character. Thoughts should feel like PART of the action.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great approach! The trick with any piece of info in a story is figuring out a way to not just share it with readers, but make readers *crazy* to know about it in the first place. If they want to know, then we gain much more leeway in being able to tell them.

  16. I have read many stories where writers tend to put it all in dialogues. And it turns out to be disaster. Internal monologues (term new to me ) helps both reader and writer a lot to clarify what’s going on.
    But as mentioned, it in itself can turn out to be a disaster if not handled properly.
    This article was really really informative.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s actually a nice rule of thumb to try to put as much into dialogue as possible, if only because the exchange between two characters almost always tends to pep things up. But internal monologue is still vital. It’s the 9/10ths of the character iceberg that’s under the water. It’s the subtext, and, as such, it’s tremendously powerful.

  17. Do you enjoy writing internal monologue? – It’s a part of the story as much as anything else in it and I keep it short and sweet. Like in my newest chapter her internal monologue from a solder she’s handing from is:

    Turn, turn now.

    And thats it, as shes ready to spring from the shadows and kill him if she has to. People mostly talk in short sentences right? And even shorter ones if they are upset or angry. I think thats how our povs should talk.

    I’m in my third year down on a fantasy book I’m making I don’t want this to be a ‘popcorn fantasy I’ve scored the Internet on new author mistakes when writing, along with hated clichés in fantasy books. I want more, any one that has the time send me an email of what you hate in a fantasy book, what makes you roll your eyes and such. I want to make a fantasy book that people want to read. Something that doesn’t just send you into an magical word but is engrossing and has depth and substance.

    This will be the last year I’m working on it before I kiss it good buy and send it off. So I’m calling for help so that it stands out of the slush pile and doesn’t get tossed against the wall in disgust. You can find me on watpad as darkocean, and critquecircle as darkocean. My email is: vaporlight AT aol DOT com.

    Thank you for making this posting I learned a few more things. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My foremost recommendation would simply be to read as many fantasy novels as you can get your hands on, in order to discover what *you* like and dislike in the genre. You’ll never avoid everyone’s pet peeves, so if you can write to the readers who are like you, you’ll have found just the right audience.

  18. Hello! I absolutely love your wonderful article too! I would like to add something here too: No Inner Goddesses, I beg of you. 🙂

  19. With internal monologue, it helps to avoid “thought” verbs, which can distance the reader from the character. Instead of writing “She wondered if he’d ever notice her,” you might say instead: “She stared at him across the room. Would he ever notice her?”

    Most of us were not taught to write in deep point-of-view; it takes a bit of mental retraining to pull it off–at least for me!

    A great post, K.M. Pinned and shared.

  20. internal monologue mixed with me, some times it comes easy other times the main character refuses to share! XP So no there’s no three page long monologues problems here.

  21. Hannah Killian says:

    I know this is about internal monologues, but what do you think of villains + monologues? I’ve heard it’s basically a villain no-no.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s generally considered a no-no for two reasons:

      1. It’s become a cliche.

      2. It’s unrealistic. Who halts on the brink of victory and puts themselves at risk with a speech outlining every step of their plan up to this point? :p

      • Hannah Killian says:

        To clarify (which I should have probably done last night), I do agree with it being a no-no. I just asked because I was watching Meet The Robinsons, and when older Goob was revealing his plan for revenge on Lewis, I wondered if there are times where a monologue does work. Like, if it reveals backstory or something else important to the plot.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Eh, cartoons get away with it a lot. :p And, honestly, sometimes it just a necessary evil, if there’s no other way to share important antag info. But, generally speaking, it’s best to try to avoid it.

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