August 20th, 2018

The Ins and Outs of Internal Dialogue

Lori Freeland

Last time I visited Writers in the Storm, we talked about dialogue—what characters say out loud to themselves or to other characters. If you missed that blog, you can find it here at Dive Deep into Dialogue.

This time, I want to shift to internal dialogue—what your characters don’t say out loud to themselves or to other characters.   

There are two things to remember before we start. The first is Point of View (POV). When I wrote the sentence above, I should’ve added what your Point of View (POV) characters don’t say out loud to themselves or to other characters.

Why?

Because only the POV character can have internal thought. Think of it this way. The POV character is the person telling the story in a particular scene. And he calls it the way he sees it.

That means, as a reader, we only get to know what the POV character sees, hears, smells, feels,and thinks. Watch out for characters reading each other’s thoughts unless that’s part of your storyline. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many accidental “psychic moments” sneak into manuscripts.   

The second thing to remember is punctuation. The question is—to italic or not italic? The answer is—it depends on how much of a connection you want between your reader and your character.

I want my reader to feel like she’s stepped into my character’s body and is experiencing the world through her eyes. There’s something about italics that adds a little speedbump. And if you’re writing in first person, everything your character thinks, describes, and narrates is her direct thought so you don’t really need italics at all. Check out the direct thought that follows the dialogue below.

Example:

“You would know.” Outside, I’m cucumber cool. Inside, I’m an off-the-rails rollercoaster.

Third person is a little trickier. If you’re writing in third person and have first-person thoughts or if you’re writing in past tense and have present-tense thoughts, you’ll need italics. Otherwise it’ll look like you made a mistake.

Example:

She fanned herself. I just want to cry.

We went from third person (she) and past tense (fanned) to first person (I) and present tense (want).    

Or, to stay in deep POV and stay away from the italics speedbump, you can modify the sentence and remove the first-person thoughts and present tense.

Example:

She fanned herself, desperate to cry. (Change the wording)

She fanned herself. Don’t cry. (Make it a more direct thought) (This is the deepest POV connection)

Now we’re ready to move on to the INS and OUTS of internal thought.

THE INS OF INTERNAL THOUGHT

INTERNAL THOUGHT CAN:

AMPLIFY DIALOGUE by supporting, expanding, or contradicting dialogue.

Examples:

Support Dialogue

“That’s not possible.” It’s an excuse he’ll believe.

 Expand Dialogue

“You can’t just call him.” It’s like unwritten law or something.

 Contradict Dialogue and Add Tension

“It’s fine.” It’s so not fine. But Dad doesn’t do labor intensive.

LET US KNOW WHO’S SPEAKING. Rather than using a dialogue tag (said) or an action (he sipped his coffee), you can use internal thought to show the reader who’s talking in a conversation.

Examples:

“Top one’s veggie for Claire.” Alek slid the first pizza box off the second.

“Mine now. She went AWOL with Josh after sixth period.” After she promised she’d hang with me tonight.

HELP CHOOSE POV when you have multiple points of view in a story.

Do you have more than one character telling your story? One of the ways to choose which character gets to tell the story (be the POV) in a scene is to consider the reader’s need to have access to a certain character’s internal thought.

Example:

Alek frowned and moved in to put his arm around me. “Did I do something?”

He hadn’t done anything. But that didn’t stop a chill from breaking over my skin or me from backing out of reach. My newly-acquired auto-flinch didn’t care that Alek had touched me a thousand times before. It overrode every single time we’d squeezed into a crowded booth in a restaurant, shared a cushion on the couch, and fallen asleep against each other movie-marathoning in the game room.

If this isn’t in this character’s POV, we don’t see her thoughts, and we think she’s afraid of Alek when her reaction is really about someone else.

SHOW HOW YOUR POV CHARACTER FEELS without having her tell us.  

Example:

Trace startles me enough that I jump. He might be two inches shorter than Cade, but he makes up for it in ego.

The character’s telling us she doesn’t like Trace without saying she doesn’t like Trace.

SET A MOOD. How your POV perceives people, places, or situations influences how the reader feels about them too.

Example:

It didn’t help that I was alone in a house that was more “modern mausoleum” than “contemporary living.”

WEAVE IN BACKSTORY OR CHARACTER RELATIONSHIPS without a major information dump.

Example:

Dad’s already rounding the corner into the great room. “You’re not driving in Dallas traffic.”

Normally, he wouldn’t notice if I played in traffic.

That one line of internal thought gives us a lot about our POV character’s relationship with her dad.

BUILD TENSION

Example:

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Cleaning up.” Don’s eyes darted to my face, his expression changing from bored to lethal. “I’ve had a very messy day.”

I glanced down.

Blood splattered on his jeans. Blood that hadn’t been there an hour ago.

The color had to have drained from my face. I felt it go—all the way to my feet. Don killed Lisa. And now we were alone.

MAKE AN POTENTIALLY UNLIKEABLE CHARACTER LIKEABLE or create a villain who has the possibility of being redeemed. Knowing a person’s motivation for an action can change the way we feel about that person.

Example:

“Didn’t ask for your help. Don’t want it.” I shut him down with a quick cut of my voice the way I always did. Only this time, when he hung his head and shuffled away, I was the one who bled.

THE OUTS OF INTERNAL THOUGHT

WATCH OUT FOR:

GIVING YOUR CHARACTERS THE SAME INTERNAL VOICE. A teen’s thoughts shouldn’t sound like his mother’s thoughts. Teens are more reactive than adults. Men and women have very different internal thoughts. Generally, women tend to think everything out. Men have shorter responses.

If you don’t give your characters their own unique internal voices, they’ll get jumbled together. Voice sets each character apart. Not only what they say but how they think, react, and process what’s going on around them.

 TELLING EMOTIONS IN PLACE OF SHOWING THEM.

Telling Example:

“What are we going to do about it?” Bill leaned over the table, his gut barely clearing the top. “We’re going to let it go.”

Bill’s words made John mad. Let it go? No chance.

Using the emotion word “mad” and the internal thought that he wasn’t going to let it go evokes zero emotion in the reader.

Showing Example:

“What are we going to do about it?” Bill leaned over the table, his gut barely clearing the top. “We’re going to let it go.”

Heat fused the collar of John’s shirt to his neck. Tightening his fingers around the glass, he stood so fast the metal chair toppled behind him and hurled the bottle across the room.  

In this case, taking out the internal thought and the emotion word and adding in John’s action lets us feel his anger.

TOO MUCH SPACE BETWEEN US. One of the biggest ways to break tension in a scene is by interrupting dialogue with long paragraphs of internal thought.

Have you ever read a scene where one character asks an important question or makes a startling statement but by the time you get to the other character’s response, you forgot the original revelation and had to skim back to find it?

Too Much Internal Thought Example:

The drawer slammed, breaking my hesitation.

Uncle Johnny shouldn’t be in my sister’s room. He shouldn’t be touching her stuff. Why would he be in here? Claire’s funeral was only an hour ago, and he hadn’t even shown. Where had he been? Getting drunk in some bar?

I moved out of the doorway. “Why are you going through Claire’s room?” Claire’s room was off-limits. No one should be upstairs. How dare he come up here and rummage through her stuff when he should be downstairs, head hung, pretending to mourn her like everybody else.

He didn’t bother to glance up. “Because I already searched yours.”

The Right Amount of Internal Thought Example:

The drawer slammed, breaking my hesitation.

Uncle Johnny shouldn’t be in my sister’s room. He shouldn’t be touching her stuff.

I moved out of the doorway. “Why are you going through Claire’s room?”

He didn’t bother to glance up. “Because I already searched yours.”

In the first example, do you see how I buried my power punch? “Because I already searched yours,” gets lost under all that thinking and by the time we get to it, it’s barely a tap.

LACK OF CREDIBLE REACTION

Unrealistic Reaction (too much thinking) Example:

Linda washed the tomato sauce off her fingers and checked the clock. Ten after five. And no Jay. In ten years of marriage, he’d never been late. Never missed dinner.

The screen door slammed behind her.

She wiped her hands on a towel and glanced at her husband as he walked into the kitchen.

He passed her without his usual hug and slumped onto the kitchen barstool. “There’s no good way to say this.” His gaze stuck to the granite countertop. “I’m going to prison.” 

Linda’s mother went to prison. Her father went to prison. Her brother went to prison. Prison had destroyed her family. Eaten their souls. Wasted them into horrible human beings. She hadn’t seen any of her family since. Even as each of them had been paroled. She’d left that life. Those memories. But now they came rushing back. What would she tell her kids? Her friends? Their neighbors? 

Realistic Reaction Example:

Linda washed the tomato sauce off her fingers and checked the clock. Ten after five. And no Jay. In ten years of marriage, he’d never been late. Never missed dinner.

The screen door slammed behind her.

She wiped her hands on a towel and glanced at her husband as he walked into the kitchen.

He passed her without his usual hug and slumped onto the kitchen barstool. “There’s no good way to say this.” His gaze stuck to the granite countertop. “I’m going to prison.” 

The towel fell from her hands and her world fell from under her feet. “What?”

Internal thought can be a powerful writing tool to deepen characters, increase tension, and enhance your story. It can also sink your manuscript. How do you know if you’re using too much or just enough? I always suggest reading your final edits on a chapter out loud. Or better yet, have someone else read them to you. The ear picks up what the eye misses.

If you or your “someone else” struggle with a sentence or a paragraph and internal thought keeps going on and on, find places to cut. If your characters seem robotic and your scene seems stale, find places to add. Good luck and happy writing!

Do you struggle with internal dialogue?

Are you willing to share an example from your current WIP?

ABOUT LORI:

Lori Freeland, author, editor, and writing coach holds a BA in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and currently lives in the Dallas area. She’s written numerous blogs for writers and presented at multiple writing workshops. When she’s not snuggled up with her husband or worrying about her kids, she spends her days dreaming up romance and messing with the lives of imaginary people. You can find her Young Adult and Contemporary Romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog at lafreeland.com

 

26 comments to The Ins and Outs of Internal Dialogue

  • Hi Lori! Thanks for these reminders. I always forget how powerful the right internal dialogue can be. Great post!

  • carrienichols

    Great post! And I love the examples. I love writing dialogue, but like Goldilocks, it sometimes takes me a while to find the right fit between too much or not enough internal thought. This has helped. Thanks!!.

  • I’m a huge fan of Deep POV. Here’s an example from my upcoming mystery novella, Deadly Assumptions. My rookie cop protagonist is investigating a possible break-in under the watchful eye of his training officer.

    “I think we hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” Hepler stood beside the door of the small, windowless structure, and knocked. “Mapleton Police. Open the door, please.”

    No response, which didn’t mean anything other than it was probably not kids. They’d have been scared enough to come out.

    When Hepler motioned me to go in first, I wasn’t sure if he figured it was safe or he was watching my technique.

    I unholstered my weapon and nodded that I was ready. Hepler reached for the handle. My heart hammered in my chest. Despite the cold, a trickle of sweat worked its way down my spine.

    I would be a target. Doorways were upright coffins. Although we’d trained on breaching buildings, not knowing what traps the instructors had set up, my nerves during those exercises were nothing compared with walking into a simple garden shed in quiet Mapleton.

    I swallowed. Nothing worse than a squeaky-voiced cop. “Mapleton Police.” I repeated Hepler’s warning at full volume.

    Nothing.

  • Thanks for the post, Lori. It’s always so tempting to put in too much backstory in the internals. Proves that no matter, backstory can bog down a good read.

  • This is a great post. I tend to sometimes get too hung up on internalizing. It’s a big weakness of mine. Thank you for the examples. I especially loved the last two about paring down the internal monologue and keeping focussed on the goal of the scene.

  • Jes

    A great post. I needed the reminders of building tension and using mood and more to help show the scene and internal thoughts. Will definitely be referencing this post as I revise my chapter for my book coach!

  • Lori, Margie’s yellow (internal dialogue)! So hard to know how much is too much. Until I use her tool – then it’s all clear! (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you have to take Margie’s Edits class to find out.)

    But as with everything – you can break rules if you do it brilliantly – and I’m hoping (with crossed fingers) that the beginning of The Last True Cowboy (out in Dec) did that. Time will tell!

  • I do find internal dialogue tricky. It’s walking that fine line between what sounds natural and what sounds like a mental-health issue. This is from my manuscript. Sam is 17 and his dad has been in a car accident and taken to hospital. He’s just talked to his mum and brother about it and they’re planning on going to the hospital:

    Mum gets up to find some paper and a pen and Lachie wanders towards his bedroom. I’m stuck to my chair. Useless. A hand grips my heart and twists. Jesus, get it together. Do something. I jump up, grab Mum’s travel-mug and flick the kettle on. I can make her a coffee for the drive. While the water’s boiling I change into clothes that don’t smell like smoke and beer, get the throw blanket from the lounge and head back into the kitchen.

    Mum’s phone rings.

    Lachie’s feet pound down the hallway.

    I clutch the blanket to my chest.

    We all eyeball Mum’s bag.

    She pulls the phone out with shaking hands. “Hello? Speaking… What? No, that can’t be right. No, please.” She crumples to the floor and grabs at her hair with her free hand. Her shoulders shake.

    The world tilts. I stumble against the kitchen cabinets. What did they say? It can’t be what I think. It can’t be.

  • Fae Rowen

    I just finished editing a chapter with too much backstory in the internal dialogue. Dang! I have to stop and think, “Would I really be thinking about that when I’m in this awful situation?” Of course not. Delete. Delete. Delete.

  • […] This time, I want to shift to internal dialogue—what your characters don’t say out loud to […] Source link […]

  • Fantastic blog, Lori. Without your wonderful teaching ability I dread to think about where I’d be. Thank you again and again for the energy, time, and wisdom you continue to share with the likes of us! May I print this for the LifeSavers?

  • scribelady

    Thanks for the examples. Sometimes I don’t “get it” until I read the examples.

  • I try to break it up and not overuse it.

    denise

  • Nan Lundeen

    Excellent, thought-provoking post, Lori. Glad to know it’s best to use italics with 3rd person. That issue comes up quite a bit in my critique group. To italicize or not to italicize internal dialogue.

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