internal narrative

Critique: 4 Ways to Write Gripping Internal Narrative

internal narrativeThe old joke about how “the book was better than the movie” is a reflection of several attributes written fiction offers over visual fiction. One of the main ones is the ability to get inside characters’ heads via internal narrative.

Narrative, by its very nature, is narrated by someone. Usually, that someone is the protagonist. The “deeper” or “closer” the POV, the more important it is that narrative choices be crafted to reflect the narrating character’s internal landscape. Even in distant or omniscient POVs, in which the narration doesn’t pretend to issue from the characters’ heads but simply observes and/or reports, readers are still given at least glimpses of the characters’ interiority.

In many ways the subject of internal narrative is also the subject of POV (point of view). And POV, as any student of narrative fiction knows, is often one of the most difficult subjects for writers to understand and execute.

Today, I want to largely divorce internal narrative from the bigger questions of POV (e.g., “when and how is it okay to use different characters’ thoughts in certain POVs?” or “what are the nuances of writing a close versus a distant POV?”). Instead, as part of our ongoing series of “excerpt analyses,” I want to explore some common challenges writers face in trying to write internal narrative that is both functional and engaging.

Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the fourth in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you all have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Darrell Ferguson for sharing the following excerpt from his portal fantasy Escape From Paradise. Let’s take a look! (The bolded entries and superscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections.)

Frozen in place, Adam drew a trembling breath.1

“Come on, Adam! You can do it!” Jimmy shouted from the water below.

From atop the waterslide, Adam looked down at the neighborhood pool. “I’m coming!” He sounded braver than he felt. Jimmy had a way of inspiring courage, and Adam was eager to impress his big brother.2

“I just need a second,” he whispered to himself, trying to calm his racing heart. A deep breath, then another. I can do it. All I have to do is … let … GO!

Adam released his death grip on the rails, his stomach pushed up into his chest and he became weightless, falling more than sliding. I don’t want to do this! Too late to change his mind.3 He braced for impact.

Plunging into the muffled depths, his flash of regret gave way to exhilaration. That was so scary … and fun! I’m going again!4

Adam smiled under the water. There was nothing he enjoyed more than going to the pool with his family. Being under water on such a hot day felt good. Adam took a moment to enjoy the cool refreshment before he started swimming toward the surface.

Wow, this pool is deeper than I thought. His arms strained against the water as he pulled himself upward. Why was it taking so long to get up? He swam harder. I need to breathe! His smooth stroke turned to a panicked dogpaddle. He had never been under water this long before. His thinking became cloudy and he could feel his consciousness beginning to slip away.

Finally, he broke the surface with a splash and gulped in the precious air. He was so relieved to have made it that it took several more breaths before he realized, Something’s wrong with this air. It seemed thin—even worse than times when he and his dad had climbed at high altitude. This air wasn’t just thin. It was … empty.

Most of what we’re seeing in these opening paragraphs is internal narrative. We are in the protagonist’s head, seeing and experiencing what he sees and experiences. I’m going to talk about some of the specific ways the internal narrative could be tightened for a stronger effect, but first note how much more immediate and intimate the final paragraph is compared to what comes before. This is because the final paragraph uses almost all the techniques we’ll talk be talking about.

4 Tips for Internal Narrative That Grabs Readers

The broadest understanding of internal narrative is that it is any part of the story that “takes place inside your character’s head.” In short, internal narrative is your character’s thoughts.

But it can be more than that too. The technique of the deep POV is designed to create the impression that the story is being told by (first-person) or from (third-person) the narrating character. When done well, this technique removes as much distance as possible between the narrating protagonist and the reader, allowing the reader full immersion in the story and encouraging total identification with the narrator. Most genre novels these days are written in deep POVs, of varying degrees.

When writing from a deep POV, it can be useful to think of the entire narrative as internal narrative. In most stories, this won’t mean the character is literally thinking every word shared with readers. But even in dealing with non-thought aspects (feelings, intentions, reactions, observations, etc.), the narrative will be crafted in such a way that readers always feel as if they are seeing everything through the narrator’s eyes. As we’ll get into in a bit, one of the best ways of achieving this effect is by creating a recognizable and consistent voice for your character/narrative.

In our last critique, I talked about common “show, don’t tell” mistakes. I also talked about how the art of “showing” is really the entire art of narrative fiction. What this means, of course, is that much of the art of dramatizing a character’s interiority overlaps considerably with smart “showing” techniques.

Lively narrative voices are those that show readers what the narrator is experiencing, rather than simply reporting it back. If you can master the basics of internal narrative, you’ll have taken a huge step on your way to engaging readers in your story.

Let’s take a look at four important components of skillful internal narrative.

1. Use Your Narrator’s Voice to Influence Every Word Choice

The key to leveraging internal narrative is to use it to both power your narrator’s voice and to infuse that voice into every moment of the story. (This is true even if you’re using a distant narrator who presents the effect of observing the characters’ actions rather than participating in them.)

Optimally, your narrative’s voice must simultaneously and subconsciously signal several things to readers:

1. What person is this story being told in? (Third-person, in the case of our excerpt.)

2. How deep is this POV? (The POV in the excerpt actually feels quite distant and on-the-nose due to all the direct thoughts, but probably was intended to be deep in light of how much time we’re spending explicitly in the character’s head.)

3. Who is this character? (The voice presented in the excerpt, starting with the opening line, creates a feeling of observatory distance from the protagonist, which both prevents the effect of readers seeing events through the character’s eyes and skips the opportunity to immediately introduce the character via a potentially engaging inner voice.)

Until you’ve found your character’s voice, it can be difficult to pull off seamlessly engaging internal narrative. But once you have, the narrative will often write itself.

2. Use Irony and Subtext at Every Opportunity

How can you create a voice that conveys your character’s personality and interiority in every line of your narrative?

One of the single best ways to create and infuse voice into a narrative is to use ironic subtext. Straightforward narratives that spell out everything for readers often comes across as dull, even when trying to convey thrilling action. Mostly, this is because straightforward or on-the-nose narration offers only a single character dimension.

But when the narrative is as much about what the character isn’t saying or is creating an ironic juxtaposition between what the character is saying and what the reader understands as the subtext—wowza! Suddenly, great things happen.

Sarcasm is an easy example of ironic subtext. But even uncomplicated subtext can add layers to a character’s internal narrative. This happens when readers are shown for themselves why something is so, rather than being told, as they are in the excerpt’s third paragraph: “Jimmy had a way of inspiring courage, and Adam was eager to impress his big brother.”

We’re told Adam has a motivating connection with his brother, but because it’s spelled out for us, it lacks emotional resonance. We’re told what to think, rather than being shown by first being drawn deeply into Adam’s interiority.

3. Choose Indirect Thoughts Over Direct Thoughts 99% of the Time

Okay, so I pulled that percentage out of my ear. But you get the idea.

Direct thoughts are distinguished from the rest of the narrative, usually by being presented in first-person and present tense, but also sometimes by being punctuated differently (italicization being the most common and, for my money, most functional approach). We see direct thoughts peppered throughout the excerpt, including the fourth paragraph with the protagonist’s panicked, “I don’t want to do this!

Indirect thoughts, by contrast, are phrased to flow with the rest of the narrative, usually by being presented in the same person and tense. The excerpt follows up the above-mentioned direct thought with a good example of an indirect thought: “Too late to change his mind.”

The great benefit of direct thoughts is the immediacy they provide. But their great drawback is that, used too often or too inconsistently, they can actually pull readers out of the narrative rather than immersing them more deeply. By contrast, indirect thoughts masquerade as part of the main narrative, which strengthens the effect that the entire story is being filtered through a single narrator’s experience.

4. Show, Don’t Tell

The amazing versatility of internal narrative makes it one your best tools for powerfully showing readers what your narrator is experiencing. However, it can also be easily misused as a shortcut for telling readers what to think and feel about the story.

The excerpt’s sixth paragraph offers two different examples of telling. The first sentence starts with a bit of showing that uses strong verbs, adjectives, and nouns (“plunging into the muffled depths”), but then gives way to telling readers what the character is feeling (“regret gave way to exhilaration”) instead of evoking empathetic feelings. (You may remember from our last critique analysis that you should “never name an emotion.”)

The second sentence in this paragraph offers direct thoughts: “That was so scary … and fun! I’m going again!” In a way, the direct thoughts are “showing,” since they directly dramatize something that’s happening. However, because the content of the thoughts is on the nose, the effect feels more like “telling.”

In essence, readers are being told the slide was scary. This bit of internal narrative is not only unnecessary in light of the “showing” in the previous paragraph (“his stomach pushed up into his chest and he became weightless, falling more than sliding”), but also contributes to a stiff internal voice.

***

At the end of the day, great internal narrative is simply great narrative. As such, it’s no wonder internal narrative is one of the most complex and challenging techniques for writers to master. So many different tricks and tools come into play, all of which must be mastered to pull off a seamless effect. When you do pull it off, the result is an immediately recognizable “it factor” that will be spotted by any reader browsing your pages.

My thanks to Darrell for sharing his excerpt, and my best wishes for his story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

You can find previous excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the key to great internal narrative? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. My writing lives in deep POV, but I’d never quite thought of it in these terms. Thanks so much for summing this up so well.

    Of course a direct or unironic thought has less character. It’s the same problem as telling in general, or “on the nose” dialog or even flashbacks: it’s isolating “useful” facts that really ought to be tied to their context and how the character lives them. Thoughts should be a window into someone’s mind and how what else is there, not a specific piece of him pulled outside for us to see.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Usually this starts with writing a *character* who is not direct or unironic. The best voices, both internal and external, arise naturally from complex characterization.

  2. Eric Troyer says

    Really interesting post, Katie. I was hoping for specific examples of how to improve the writing. For example, you didn’t offer a suggestion on how this line would be better written: “Plunging into the muffled depths, his flash of regret gave way to exhilaration. That was so scary … and fun! I’m going again!” Is there a reason for that? Are you trying to get us to create those rewrites on our own?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Rewriting internal narrative can sometimes be tricky, especially in limited contexts, when the totality of the character is unknown. In most instances, if I were to write something like this, I would want to craft the larger context of the action to try to convey the internal experience of fear and exhilaration. I would save “literal” thoughts, whether direct or indirect, for actual mullings.

    • I think the key key here would be to focus on the sensory experience. So, “plunging” could be replaced with the rushing of air over the body, then the slowing into the cool of the water. The muffling of sound could be the sound of laughter, then the squeal of a child muffled as the atmosphere gave weigh to the thick liquid enveloping his senses. Then, describe his racing heart then the calm of realizing he was safe. What does exhilaration feel like? How does the body sense it?

      To make the description more intimate, use sensory descriptors rather than action descriptors. Throwing in a specific thing that is sensed, like the child squealing, helps make it real. Of course, you would also need to put this into a child’s voice, unless it is a fictional memoir. So you would need to become a child and voice it the way a child would. That adds to the challenge. So, plunging, muffled, and exhilaration may not be the words a child would use.

      This kind of description is the hard work of writing. Coming up with a good story is the fun part. I find I have to review every paragraph for sensory information versus action description. Am I watching the character or are am I in the character’s place, describing what he senses?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Yes. Another key factor in strong character voices is not just choosing words that evoke the character’s personality, but also words the reflect the the character’s emotional state, scene by scene. Jimmy going down the slide without a second thought would use different descriptive words than Adam would in his fearful state.

  3. Again, a must-read teaching moment…thanks, Kate! I’ve never read a post from you that I didn’t learn from. (What a nasty sentence I just wrote! I bet you can fix it! LOL!)

  4. Thank you for another excellent post.

  5. Thomas McShane says

    Read your post on improving narratives and conveying thoughts indirectly. A question immediately arose to me. Would /Should this be an appropriate place to utilize similes and metaphors constructed with character-specific subjects/objects ? it seems to me that this could add to the reader’s understanding of the character POV and is more in line with showing than telling directly. Secondly, when using simile and metaphor, is it better to stick with just one comparison or to use one specific to the character together with a broader comparison?

    Thank you for your post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. Character-specific metaphors can be an excellent way of personalizing their voices. As for the latter question, usually a single descriptor, of any type, is best. But it will depend on the context and what’s required for clarity.

  6. Your point about using indirect thoughts to clue the reader in to the character’s reaction is on target. It’s hard to do, but worth the effort.

  7. I’m going to share this with my critique group, since it goes along with our discussion on writing deep POV. We “argued” about whether you would ever say “She wished…” in deep POV. If it’s in the middle of indirect thoughts, is it telling? Or can it be part of describing indirectly the character’s thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s telling, so it’s not usually the best first choice. But sometimes telling will be the best choice in certain circumstances. It depends. But good general rule of thumb is: no.

  8. And excellent teaching post.
    Moreover, Darrell’s story is an intriguing one.
    I would love to read the finished product.

  9. I love your posts. I wish I could replay all of your tips in my head while I’m writing. Instead I have to keep referring back to my notes to make sure I’m doing it right, or at least better than before. I need every post you write, even though I have your book and workbook to guide me through the organizing and character development processes. I wish I could find a balance between writing time and studying time. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with those of us who truly want to be the best writers we can be.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great to hear you’re enjoying the posts! One thing I used to do is make reading an article or short part of a how-to book part of my warm-up routine before writing every day.

  10. Jason Park says

    Hi, K.M., Last year I finished reading Crime and Punishment. It was a doozy, length-wise, although it wasn’t necessarily a boring read. Would you tell me whether there is something about the way Dostoevsky writes in his novel compared to today’s best-selling novels that we should be well-aware of to avoid or follow? I am referring to your post about internal narrative. It seems that C&P, all 700 pages of it, was in Raskolnikov’s head…!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s been a long time since I’ve read Crime and Punishment, so I’ll have to generalize based on what I remember. However, the basic takeaway to be aware of is that Dostoevsky is writing a very specific type of story. Definitely not genre fiction! If I remember, much of it is stream of conscious, or close to. The book is ultimately a character story, one that demonstrates the powerful complexity of simplicity in its actual execution and moral conundrum-ing (to coin a word). It’s designed to show the thought process of someone working through foundational existential questions in great depth and with comparatively little exterior plot.

  11. Thanks for another excellent post. I was, however, wondering how you would rewrite the sentence “Jimmy had a way of inspiring courage, and Adam was eager to impress his big brother.” to be less telling.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s not so much a question of rewriting the sentence as it is framing the concept within more complete showing throughout the scene. I would focus on Adam staring down at Jimmy–who has already done this slide so fearlessly. Descriptive details can be very evocative–such as describing Jimmy easily treading water or carelessly grinning at a girl swimming past. Then show Adam clenching up his muscles, taking a breath, gritting his teeth. Then Jimmy grins at him again, encourages him, and Adam jumps. Jimmy’s effect on Adam is clear without the reader ever needing it to be spelled out.

  12. When I wrote my novel, When the Wood Is Dry, I had no idea what I was getting into in terms of POV. I soon found myself writing a multi-POV character-driven story, with multiple character arcs surrounding a single major plot event. Each of the many characters needed a distinctive voice.

    A few tricks I discovered include giving some characters catch-phrases, patterns of speech or vocabulary, and a focus on a goal. The goal-focus gave each character a distinctive perspective. The main character is focused on her spiritual calling, the father on protecting his daughter, the boyfriend on maintaining his relationship with the main character, getting out of the gang he is involved in and not getting tossed in jail, etc. The clear goal leads to a manner of thinking that is distinctive.

    I have taken to writing in the first person since this book, which is much easier. One voice, one perspective.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Spot on. As I talked about a couple weeks ago, knowing what your characters Want (with a capital W) is one of the most powerful catalysts for understanding your characters and using them to power the plot.

  13. Wow, once again I swear you’ve hacked into my laptop, are checking my notes, see what I’m struggling with at any given time and then write the appropriate article..! Please don’t stop 😛

    As a follow up to your 3rd tip about direct vs indirect thoughts: What about when I’m writing the entire story in first person…?

    I was just trying to firgure out if there is a similiar concept for that situation – and the more I think about it, I feel like it may come down to what I’d consider “deliberately formed/formulated thoughts” vs a kind of stream of consciousness and impressions… Which I guess again is a bit telling vs showing?

    I’ve noticed that (trying to follow the advice about setting a clear scene goal and letting the reader know it), I often tend to kind of spell out the main character’s “mission objective” in each scene.
    A bit like “Now I must go in there and punch the bad guy and save the princess, let’s hope nothing goes wrong!”.
    Or a only very slightly less on-the-nose version like “If I don’t go in there right now, the bad guy will surely kill the princess!”.

    Maybe the trick is to supply enough context throughout the scene and from the character’s emotional makeup to make sure the reader GETS their scene goal WITHOUT the first person narrator having to spell it out for them?

    So… kind of… providing it… *INDIRECTLY*? Wow, sometimes thinking aloud really helps 😀

    Do you have any thoughts (direct or indirect 😛 ) on this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most of the same rules apply to first-person as to deep third-person. However, it’s my experience that direct thoughts are even *more* jarring when in first-person, since the illusion of being in the character’s head is even stronger when in the first-person. If suddenly the narrative switches to direct thoughts, there’s this subtle bump of “oh-wait-i-thought-we-were-already-reading-this-character’s-thoughts-so-what’s-this?”

  14. I’ve always wondered what italicized thoughts were called and this is so helpful XD. I used to use “direct thoughts” in my writing but slowly drew away from it, and now reading this I feel that that was a good choice, seeing that it can draw the reader away.

  15. I have always been reluctant to use internalization in my writing, partly because I have trouble internalizing my own thoughts. Maybe I’m afraid of them. Your comments are so helpful. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like writing internal narrative may be a rich and rewarding challenge for you then. 🙂

  16. Naomi Lisa Shippen says

    This is so informative – I learned a lot by seeing the theories applied to this example. Again, it seems to be the battle of show versus tell. Thanks for a great post and I look forward to many more.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So much of good narrative writing comes down to some form or another of show vs. tell.

  17. Thanks this is so timely as I’ve been struggling with this very issue. My story is told solely from the main character’s POV and in third person. In this scenario is it okay to write from both deep POV and more distant POV? I think I’ve read elsewhere that there should be a range from deep within a character to far out (a sort of close up shot and long range shot in a film).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The key, as with anything, is to make the transitions skillfully. But, yes, basically what you’re describing is akin to a longshot in a movie versus a closeup. Very few novels are “deep” in every single word choice. Those that are can be exhausting.

  18. crbwriter says

    I’m enjoying the critique series and finding it helpful. Thank you!

  19. I think your post is very beneficial to writers who want to increase the way that their writing appeals to the audience with being inside a character’s head. One of the few things I have been trying to add to my writing is more dialogue because I have always left my stories with just words and nothing to complete the way a person was feeling. Another helpful tip was the fact that most people will say books are better than movies because there is a certain difference in the fiction displayed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I wouldn’t say that books are *better* than movies, just different. They both bring their own advantages and challenges as storytelling mediums.

  20. Thank you so much for selecting my book excerpt! I find all your posts helpful, but none more than the excerpt critiques. I’m also grateful for all the thoughtful comments and the answers–also extremely helpful.

    Since sending in the excerpt, I have deleted that whole beginning portion so the novel begins with Adam under water struggling to get to the surface. But I’ll definitely be working to apply the principles you taught in the rest of the book.

    My biggest struggle has to do with keeping the story moving. It seems the if I show all the things that need showing, the book would need to triple in length. I’m afraid the first half of the book drags too slowly as it is. Any thoughts on how to do the things you suggested while avoiding distracting the reader from the more important aspects of the story, or making the plot move too slowly?

    Darrell

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Darrell, so glad you found this! I totally forgot to tag you. My apologies.

      Beginnings are always the toughest part. There are just so many things we have to introduce and set up while still be at our most entertaining. It’s not something I claim to have mastered myself.

      The best route is to concentrate on choosing the most entertaining scenes possible to illustrate the necessary material. There is no shortcut to this. In outlining my current WIP, I have spent literally *weeks* (maybe even months, actually…) laboring to find exactly the right opening scenes–ones that pull their weight in all respects. Not all of that time is literally spent *on* the opening scenes. Much of it is spent in thinking about bigger-picture questions, which, once they’ve found their answers, help whittle down the best possibilities for dramatizing those opening scenes.

      In short: it’s a process.

  21. Thank you for teaching me everything I know about stories and story writing!

    I was wondering about the “ironic” voice, because it’s not the first time you’ve mentioned this. If a character isn’t ironic, witty or mean, should we just not use his POV? Should we take it as a sign that something is wrong and fix him? Or even ax him altogether?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, in the sense that you don’t want an on-the-nose character who lacks dimension and nuance. But, no, in that you can certainly write a genuine and interesting POV for a character who is a stand-up straight-shooter. Vaelin in Anthony Ryan’s fantasy Blood Song comes to mind. He’s an undeniably righteous character, but he comes loaded with irony thanks to his own guilt about his profession as an elite soldier.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Dialogue can have many uses: Lisa Lowe Stauffer focuses on using objects to inject character and world-building into dialogue, and K. M. Weiland identifies 4 ways to write gripping internal narrative. […]

  2. […] Writing Gripping Internal Narrative | Helping Writers Become Authors […]

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