If I took a survey asking writers what the most important elements of fiction were, I’d probably end up with a few consistent answers—plot, characters, dialogue, showing rather than telling.
We might not automatically think of including internal dialogue on the list, but we should.
Internal dialogue is the heartbeat of fiction. It serves practical purposes, like helping us control our pacing, but it serves deeper, more subtle roles as well. Without enough internal dialogue or without strong internal dialogue, our fiction can end up confusing and emotionless. We have people randomly acting, like we’re watching a TV show without any sound.
Unfortunately, too much internal dialogue or poor internal dialogue can make our fiction feel immature, slow, or claustrophobic.
So to help you develop the right kind of internal dialogue, I wanted to share a few of my favorite ways to make sure my internal dialogue is enhancing my story rather than detracting from it.
Technique #1 – Alternate between paragraphs focused on the POV character and paragraphs focused elsewhere.
This topic could be a whole post in itself, but basically paragraphs in fiction should focus on one of two different areas. Either you have a paragraph focusing away from your point-of-view character and onto dialogue spoken by others, action in the environment around them, or description. Or you have a paragraph focusing on the point-of-view character. A paragraph focusing on your point-of-view character includes your POV character acting, thinking (a.k.a. internal dialogue), feeling, or speaking.
We should try to alternate evenly between the two. Alternating evenly makes sure that we keep the reader grounded in the external environment, while also keeping them emotionally connected to the character. The added bonus is that if you’re working on alternating, you’ll be less likely to create the “floating head” syndrome where your POV character thinks to themselves for paragraphs (or pages!) at a time and puts your reader to sleep.
Technique #2 – Use thoughts that sound like dialogue.
All the techniques that we can use for making dialogue sound more natural—like sentence fragments, dropped words, and contractions—should also be used in internal dialogue. A quick way to check for this is to imagine quotation marks around your internalization. If your character said this out loud, would it sound natural or would it sound strange and awkward? (For the really personal items, imagine they’re speaking to their therapist.)
If you’re not sure, speak them aloud yourself. You can change the tense to first person from third person if you need to. If it sounds fine in first person, it’s also fine the way you’ve written it in third person.
Technique #3 – Make sure you’re using your character’s voice and not your own.
This is true no matter what narrative distance you’re using (i.e., omniscient, distant third person, or deep POV). Internal dialogue is your point-of-view character thinking to themselves, so it needs to sound as much like them as their spoken dialogue. What words would your character (rather than you) use in this situation?
I’ll give you an example. If someone cut me off in traffic and nearly caused an accident, I’d call them an idiot. My husband would call them a douchebag. If your character wouldn’t use a word like prudent (maybe they’d say wise instead) then you shouldn’t make them think prudent, even if that’s how you want to say it.
Whatever your character’s personality, it should come through in their internalization just as much—or more—than it does in their spoken dialogue and actions.
Technique #4 – Save direct internal dialogue for the most important thoughts.
Direct internal dialogue is dialogue that’s written in first person, present tense. I’ll show you an example to make sure it’s clear what I mean.
Emily pasted a smile on her face. I still hate you. I’ll never stop hating you. “Long time no see. How have you been?”
Because direct internal dialogue is in first person, present tense—even when we’re writing in a third person, past tense story—we need to italicize it. But the italics draw a lot of attention to it.
Most internal dialogue can be written as indirect internal dialogue (where we stay in the same person and tense as the story). I’ll give you another quick example so you can see the difference.
Emily pasted a smile on her face. She still hated him. She’d never stop hating him. “Long time no see. How have you been?”
That’s indirect internal dialogue, and staying in the same tense helps it flow naturally with what’s around it.
Emphasizing a thought through direct internal dialogue should be done sparingly, when we really need to draw attention to an important thought. It’s like exclamation marks. They lose their oomph if you pepper your pages with them.
Technique #5 – Make sure you don’t repeat the same thing in internal dialogue that you’re also showing through spoken dialogue or action.
You might occasionally hear someone complain about internal dialogue—there’s too much of it or it isn’t advancing the story. What they’re usually complaining about is actually repetitious internal dialogue. Repetitious internal dialogue makes for boring, flabby reading.
So, for example, if we use internal dialogue to show a character thinking about how she wants to cry or how she wants to slap the person who stole her job, and then we show her crying or show her slapping, our internal dialogue and action overlap.
What we want to do instead is to use one or the other (not both) or to add some variety to either the internal dialogue or action. Continuing with our example above, perhaps our character wants to cry, but she’s been told her whole life that crying is weak. We could have her express her deep sadness externally in a different way, like running until her body collapses.
Or we could add variety by showing that the way our character imagined something happening is very different from the way it actually happens. Perhaps, in her internal dialogue, she thinks about how good it will feel to slap him, but when she does, both her hand and her heart end up hurting.
It might seem obvious, but we also shouldn’t double up on what’s said in internal dialogue and in spoken dialogue. You’d be surprised how often I see something like this…
Who did he think she was, Houdini? She didn’t know how to pick a lock. “I don’t know how to pick a lock.”
The fix for this involves us deciding where that dialogue actually needs to be—inside or outside.
What do you struggle with most when it comes to internal dialogue?
ANNOUNCEMENT: On Saturday, August 15, I’ll be teaching a one-hour webinar where I give even more tips on crafting awesome internal dialogue. You can sign up by clicking here. If you can’t make it at the time it’s scheduled but still want to attend, sign up anyway. The webinar will be recorded and sent to registrants. Or you can grab a copy of my bestselling book Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide (available in both print and ebook).
Marcy Kennedy is a science fiction, fantasy, and suspense author, freelance fiction editor, and writing instructor who believes there’s always hope. Sometimes you just have to dig a little harder to find it. She’s the author of the bestselling Busy Writer’s Guides series, which focuses on giving authors deep teaching while still respecting their time. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth on her website. To subscribe to her free newsletter, go to http://eepurl.com/Bk2Or. New subscribers receive a copy of her mini-book Strong Female Characters as a thank-you gift!
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Love number 5, Marcy - it makes me crazy to find that in others' work - but even more, in mine!!!!
I notice that in direct internal dialogue, you use italics, and in indirect, you don't. Is that a rule? I've always just used it when it felt right, but never have seen it explained before. I'd love to hear your take on that.
Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us!
I'm really hesitant to call things "rules," but I would call it a highly recommended guideline 🙂 It's the generally accepted way of handling it. You never need italics in indirect internal dialogue, and the most common practice is to use them for direct internal dialogue because it's less jarring for the reader when you're switching person and tense.
And thank you for having me here! I love WITS and so it's always an honor to visit.
Really good article! I struggle with too much internal dialogue, this has really helped me see how I can use it more effectively. Thanks!
I wrote a different post on my site with some clues you're overusing internal dialogue. You mist also find that helpful in your self-editing: http://marcykennedy.com/2015/07/6-clues-youre-overusing-internal-dialogue-in-your-fiction/
Terrific article, Marcy. I've been trying to master this whole internal dialogue thing, and I really love tip #4. I love the indirect internal dialogue technique--you can speed up a story and really bring the character's conflicts alive this way.
Hi Marcy. Great post, but I beg to differ with you on the italics for direct internal thought. I know it's been the "rule" traditionally, but with internal dialogue becoming more and more prevalent in fiction, I follow Suzanne Brockmann's thinking: NO italics.
In her "Deep POV" seminars/articles, she explains why she doesn't use italics (distracting, speed bumps), and how every time she gets a new editor, she has a fight on her hands to convince them she doesn't want italics. Instead, she sets direct internal dialogue off on a new line. She reserves italics for emphasis.
I agree, and utilize that style in my own work. My first publisher rejected it as "against house policy," but the second publisher is leaving it as is. Try picking up a Brockmann book and see how the technique draws you right into the character's head. It's really quite effective.
All your other points are spot on. Thanks so much for this post!
Hi Frances 🙂 Thanks for sharing! I like to call things guidelines rather than rules because guidelines are best practices for what works 99% of the time. That allows room for exceptions..
That said, even in deep POV (maybe especially in deep POV), it's much too jarring to have a switch to first person present tense when the rest of the story is in a different person and tense. I've seen it done, and I stumble over it every time. It's less immersive. It can also be less than ideal to always set your internal dialogue off in its own paragraph.
Setting internal dialogue off in its own paragraph every time (rather than simply making sure it's in a paragraph with other internals) can give your writing a choppy feel. It does so for the same reason that too many italics can become speed bumps--it emphasizes the internal dialogue to always set it apart. It also forces you to create a short paragraph, changing the pace and rhythm, where it might not otherwise be ideal to do so. In deep POV especially that makes it feel different, and therefore, more shallow.
I actually advise writers to use direct internal dialogue sparingly because indirect, in most cases, flows better and more smoothly. Indirect also, most of the time, feels deeper because it doesn't call attention to itself.
By mostly using indirect internal dialogue, you can save direct internal dialogue, with italics, for those moments of great emphasis.
I love internal dialogue. I've followed Browne & King's examples of moving to second person, which is (at least for me) how people might talk to themselves. Also, those thoughts go into italics, while the general 'thinking' thoughts are left in my normal 3rd person past writing and not italicized (or tagged with 'he thought)! And since I never remember whether or not there are terms for these (much less what they are), here's an example of what I mean (and of course italics don't show up in formatting here, so I've resorted to using **):
No response. Derek cupped his free hand against the window and peered inside. Empty except for a small backpack on the passenger seat and two cardboard cartons on the rear. A slight rocking of the car set his senses on alert. Could someone be trapped in the trunk?
**It's late, you're tired, and expecting the worst. Check it out, dimwit.**
I love internal dialogue too. It adds such richness to a story.
Many times we do talk to ourselves using the second person (e.g., Why did you do that? Now you're definitely getting fired.) And you're right, we'd want to put those in italics. (And use it sparingly.)
Not all internal dialogue works in second person though. For example, when we're saying something in our head in response to spoken dialogue that we can't say out loud. (I've used to indicate italics)
"Now," he said in the same tone she'd use with a three-year-old child. "Don't touch this red button that says Detonate."
I'm not an idiot. She slapped on her best compliant smile. "I'll make sure to avoid that one."
And apparently by doing so, I've figured out that you can add html to these comments and accidentally italicized my whole example. I'll fix it.
“Now,” he said in the same tone she’d use with a three-year-old child. “Don’t touch this red button that says Detonate.”
I’m not an idiot. She slapped on her best compliant smile. “I’ll make sure to avoid that one.”
I agree, Marcy - and the sample I snipped from my WIP has the 'non-italics' internal dialogue (Could someone be trapped in the trunk?) AND then the 'talking to myself' in italics' kind. And yes, by reserving the italics for those 'talking to myself' lines automatically makes for more sparing usage. I also like Suzanne Brockmann's approach, but I still do the second person thing when appropriate.
My editor was an "all thoughts in italics" person, but I convinced her to let my system stand.
Oh, this is great! Thanks so much, Marcy. I'm Tweeting and emailing this one to lots of people. I especially like Technique #1, which applies to both internal and external dialogue...and this also looks like a very useful road map out of the endless, angsty ruminations that can suck the life out of an otherwise great story.
[…] 5-techniques-for-amazing-internal-dialogue/ […]
Great blog!! I gathered some invaluable tips. Re-blogging!
Thanks for the second tip on having internal thoughts sound like dialogue!
Very helpful post. Thank you, Marcy. I especially love tip #1. I struggle with that one and this will make it easier to go in and clean up my first draft full of talking heads. 🙂
Excellent post. Number one is something I haven't thought about. I'm starting the 2nd draft of my WIP - a perfect opportunity to see what I did and apply the rule. Great timing!
Marcy, I use deep POV and, consequently, internal dialogue in my WIP precisely to capture the emotional impact of my 3 MCs. I use indirect discourse but have 2 issues to raise with the points you've made.
The first is using the voice of character. I'm writing historical fiction and one of the characters is an illiterate African American. I am dead set against dialect in my prose but do alter speech patterns and use word selection to reflect the style of speaking of each character. Some readers have problems with the internal dialogue of the illiterate character. I try to be careful with transitions of narrative distance, etc. but eventually modified some of his internal thoughts to be a little less like his dialogue. Maybe you have thoughts about that?
The second is the POV character remembering something someone said to him. I always put that in italics, feeling a need to distinguish it from other thoughts.
Great post and very good discussion thus far.
Dialect. *shudder* Dialect almost never benefits a story. I think you went the right path by playing with speech patterns. The best example of this done well is Kathryn Stockett's The Help. Because it's written in first person, each chapter is in the voice of the character it belongs to and so Abileen's chapters sound extremely different from Skeeter's chapters. Stockett doesn't have to use dialect because she plays with syntax and word selection instead. You can reflect a character's voice without having to rely on dialect and without making it impossible for the reader to comfortably read.
You could also choose a more distant POV which allows you to tone down the voice of your character if that voice would make reading awkward. If you're using a more distant POV, then the internal dialogue will still reflect the voice of your character more strongly but the rest of the writing will sound more like you. Selecting the right narrative distance is important to making our story as good as it can possibly be.
Putting remembered dialogue in italics is also a good choice.
Sounds like you're on the right track with everything!
What do I struggle with the most?
Well, once upon a time, my manuscript was peppered with italicize. I was very proud of it, actually. I told myself I was writing from the inner character out. I ignore authors who told me pointed out that there was too much italicizes. They don't get it, I told myself.
It wasn't until very recently that there was a better way.
Your article is an excellent reminder, Marcy.
In fact, I've taken detailed notes. I'm sure they will help strengthen my writing.
Such excellent tips! Thank you for sharing, Marcy.
Thank you for the excellent post, Marcy. Have to remember it. and re-posted it.
The tips you've given us are invaluable. Taking notes.
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Did you write this for me? lol. Bookmarking! A most excellent post Marcy. Thank you. 🙂
I like to write about what I see a lot of writers struggle with 🙂 You're in good company.
[…] If you’d like to read the rest of this post, please swing by Writers in the Storm where I’m guest posting about internal dialogue! […]
I loved this post and I'm really looking forward to the webinar. So many useful tips that I went away and bought "The Busy Writer's Guide: Showing and Telling". Also packed with helpful tips.
I would love to see a full blog post on technique #1. I think I must've always intuited it - that stories work when I do this and suffer when I don't. I just didn't know why. I suspect that is why. You've made me see what's wrong in a current story I'm working on. HUGE lightbulb moment. Will you write more on it? With examples??
Just edited my w I p and tried to discern whether to use italics or not. This post is very helpful. Thank you.
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