Monday, January 2, 2012

Internal Dialogue

photo credit

Happy New Year!!! *Blows horn* It's time for the post you've so patiently waited for. Stina asked: "How do you find that balance between...inner thought and action when revealing emotion? So many writers use action and visceral responses, but agents and editors are saying they want more inner thoughts." and Dana followed up with: "How do you slow down an action paced novel with internal thought and do so seamlessly?"

Finding the balance between inner thought and action, both in revealing emotion and without hurting the pace, can seem pretty tricky. Some of you may wonder why you have to do it at all. So first let's look at some reasons we NEED that inner voice:

  • Without the internal dialogue you are not truly in the characters head, and you want your reader as close to them as possible, so that they are connected enough to share their feelings. 
  • We use internal thought constantly. It's part of life and it's realistic. I know I have a constant monologue going in my head. Maybe not everyone is quite as bad as I am, but everyone thinks unless you're a zombie. And maybe even if you are!
  • We can use internal dialogue to control the pacing of the novel and punctuate certain scenes. 
  • We can use it to impart information, not only about the character but the plot as well.
Great! Now we know why. So the next step is HOW? I will explain and then give examples. 
  1. When your character has a (to use Stina's term) visceral response to something, they must have a pretty strong feeling/thought associated with it. Let's say I'm terrified of spiders and there's a big hairy one hanging over my nose when I wake up (it's happened). Visceral response? My blood turns to ice, my muscles clench and all at once I burst from the bed with a scream. Overboard? You have no idea... :D Anyhow, the moment I'm out of bed, I will most likely not only start doing the "get off of me" dance and shuddering, I will be thinking things like, 'Why me?' And 'I hate spiders! Why can't they leave me alone? Why does it have to be like that time in third grade?' Etc. Now if we were writing this, I'd say to pick and choose the most powerful and unique responses both internally and externally, but I wanted to give you the big picture.
  2. If the moment is important to your story/character arc you should slow it down and focus on it. The ten minute car ride to school should not take as many pages as the confrontation with the monster spider. One way to do this (and make it meaningful at the same time) is to highlight it with thoughts. The wonderful thing about thoughts is that they don't take very long in reality, so we can have that moment of internal dialogue as the pincer is about to pierce the flesh of our MC. And doesn't that add to the tension?
  3. Ah here's the biggest one. Physical responses can mean different things to different people. So if you don't make it clear what the character is thinking, the reader may have an entirely different interpretation than intended. We can even turn this around and use it so that our MC misinterprets the response of another character. We do it all the time in real life, don't we? Oh so many delightful misunderstandings...
  4. BUT you say. Isn't this telling and not showing?? Isn't that a cardinal rule that we hear over and over again??? Not necessarily. You can show a lot through internal dialogue. What a character thinks at a certain point says a lot about them. Where's the first place your head goes? Maybe we now know how selfish she is or how much a certain person means to her. 
Example time! 

Without internal dialogue:
The hilt of the broadsword slipped in my palm and I tightened my grip, adding my other hand for support. My eyes darted around the darkened room, searching the dancing shadows for the hint of something more. I edged further into the room. Moments later hot breath bathed my neck and I whipped around to find a hundred eyes centered on me. The sword clattered to the ground.

A fine paragraph.

The hilt of the broadsword slipped in my palm and I tightened my grip, adding my other hand for support. I could do this. I had to do this. My eyes darted around the darkened room, searching the dancing shadows for the hint of something more, aware that each moment might be my last. Every fiber in my body begged me to leave. To turn around and run. But I couldn't let Grayson die because of me. I edged further into the room. Hot breath bathed my neck and I whipped around to find a hundred eyes centered on me. The sword clattered to the ground useless.

Which one was better? What did the second have that the first didn't? 


  1. Hi Lisa,
    happy New Year :-D

    To me, internal dialogue is the character's true 'voice' and spotlights their sarcasm, anguish, joy, or boredom. It adds so much depth to the character.

  2. How appropriate this is to me today. I put up a post for a blogfest, just popping in a scene from a shelved story. The problem was the scene needed just a few lines of interior dialogue, which I realized after I shoved it into the world.
    Those few thoughts really do add dimension and deeper layers to any scene. Your example works very well to illustrate that.

  3. Very nice examples! I love how we get pulled in with the last paragraph - we're fighting right alongside the main character! :)

  4. What an excellent job of breaking down a confusing ( at least for me) topic. In your example, it's amazing how much character a few extra sentences can add to a paragraph. Thanks for answering all these great questions. Happy New Year, Lisa!

  5. What a terrific post. I think a strong visceral reaction almost would not be complete without some inner thoughts. For me, that's what sucks me into the book - not the action but the character and their thoughts. Finding the right balance though is really hard! Practice, practice, practice. Read, read, read!

  6. This is a great post. Starring this one for later. I've heard many an editor say that inner monologue is the number one thing missing from most manuscripts. I know I used to pretty much leave it out completely. Learning to use it (and use it effectively) made all the difference. And you are so so SO right that physical reactions mean something different to different people. Learned that through my fabulous CPs.

  7. Had never really thought about this in such detail. Hmmmm...

  8. Super post. I remember my inner dialogue being very loud and constant in my teen years, so I can relate to characters in YA who are in touch with their "thought bubbles."

  9. Wonderful insight, Lisa, and great examples. It's really a balancing act with the action and internalizations. Getting them just right for the characters is also a challenge.

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

  10. I trying to remember... I think it was Hemingway that used almost no internal dialogue? Ha ha I can't remember because I haven't read any of his books since required reading in highschool because I could NEVER RELATE TO HIS CHARACTERS.
    (grin) Excellent point you made too about how easy it can be to misinterpret based on action alone.

  11. Great post and wonderful examples. Internal dialogue is a key ingredient, I think, in getting to know a character.

  12. Great tips and analysis Lisa. Internal dialog is a great way to show how a character can be all-over the place but appear calm to everyone else.

  13. Bravo, my brilliant friend! Wow. Excellent. This is another one of the (many) things that are tricky for me. Thankfully my smart betas say things like "need internal thought here."

  14. This is closely related to another problem I have: I have multiple main characters, and I want to show what both of them are thinking, but each scene can only be in the POV of one or the other. And I'm terrible at describing physical signs of thoughts and feelings like facial expressions and body language (I think partly because of my asperger's syndrome which makes your #4 point really big for me).
    The easiest thing I think of is to switch POVs between scenes, but sometimes there are scenes where I want to show both of their thoughts or feelings in that scene and I don't know how to do that.

  15. (Oops, I meant #3 not #4.)

  16. This is an AWESOME post, Lisa, and thanks for the great answer.

    And that's totally me with the spider. I'm trying to learn not to overreact when I'm with my kids and see a spider. :D

  17. Great post Lisa, and so timely! This is a hot topic of discussion amongst my writer friends. I posted right before Christmas my struggles with interior monologue ( specifically that I've been told by CPs that I use the rhetorical question too much. But since I'm an advocate of Deep POV, a lot of 'she wondered if' sentences get changed to questions to bring the reader closer into their POV. So I seem to have trouble in over-using the question and deciding when not to use it...

  18. Fantastic post! Yes, I think many of us struggle with this balance. :)

    Thank you so much for the great examples!

  19. I've been allergic to internal monologue because it can be too telly. But thanks for reminding me that a big visceral deserves an internal response.

  20. I think your example is excellent and it helps me see where I go wrong. I try to inject too much internal thought or I leave it out completely. Small snip-its here and there works great.

    Thank you Lisa for answering our questions.

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  22. Another awesome post. I loved your explanations for why we need internal dialogue. Knowing why helps us to use it. I'm remember that while switching my current WIP's POV from 3rd to 1st person later today!

  23. Excellent post. Internal dialogue is so important, especially when using first person POV. It can make the difference between an average story and a fantastic story.

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