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!