Monologue v. dialogue

Monologue v. dialogue

I love internal monologues. You know, the kind that gives the protagonist page after page of space to ponder, worry, speculate, daydream, and tap into her fears and hopes. The kind that happens when the protagonist is looking out a window, riding a bus, taking a long walk, waiting for someone to arrive, cleaning house, or any other activity that offers her brain time to meander down introspective trails.

The kind that can slow a story to a crawl.

But before we label all internal monologue as a waste of page time, let’s consider some of its uses:

  • It can reveal a character’s secret to the reader, but no one else.
  • It can reveal the character’s voice, moral or ethical stance, and intentions.
  • It allows the character to put two and two together (especially helpful when writing elements of mystery or thriller).
  • It enables a character to discover or realize a painful truth.
  • We’ve just had an action scene, and now we need a sequel to pace the story.
  • It allows the author to insert a ton of backstory.

As you might imagine, the last bullet is the go-to reason for a lot of writers, including me. It’s what one of my writing teachers would call “lazy writing.” Just plopping a bunch of backstory on the page and calling it an internal monologue is convenient for the author but boring for the reader. Unless that backstory is riveting, readers will lose interest pretty quickly.

Like I said, I love me some good internal monologue, so I have to be especially careful not to overdo it. I usually have to write the monologue first, and then sit back to consider what, if anything, can be “promoted” into a scene as dialogue.

Here’s my checklist for determining whether a chunk of internal monologue should be written as dialogue or not:

  • Would the character say this out loud in front of another character? What would happen if she said it to her best friend? How about her worst enemy?
  • Is it a secret? If so, is now a good time to reveal it or does the secret need to be kept for a few more pages or chapters?
  • Would revealing this piece of information in dialogue create more conflict for the character at this point in the story?
  • Would revealing this piece of information in dialogue deepen the character’s commitment to a chosen path? Just as with us real humans, having a character say something out loud to another character can solidify a commitment to a plan of action.
  • Would it just be flat-out more interesting written as dialogue, especially if the other character(s) in the scene get to comment on and riff off it? Might as well build character relationships while we’re at it!

As you might imagine, the last bullet is my go-to technique to keep characters on the page and talking.

Back in the day when I was writing action/adventure, my heroines had to have long stretches of internal monologue to gather their thoughts (which helps the readers connect the dots, too), decide a plan of action, and then prepare themselves to execute that plan. These stretches also gave my characters (and the readers) a chance to catch their breath.

Now that I’m writing in a different style and genre, I’m looking more closely at how internal monologues can be treasure troves of great information and character development — if I’m willing to put in the time to bring those gems to the scene’s surface.

Sandra K. Moore

Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.

4 thoughts on “Monologue v. dialogue

  1. This is a great post for me for two reasons. One: when I’m reading, I do not like too much internal dialogue. From heroines, it tends to sound whiny. From heroes, I often find it is “female wishful thinking” placed inside a male head. I often find males thoughts are well . . . bullshit, or at least I know of no males who think in such a way. Two: because despite what I just wrote, I tend to overuse internal dialogue in a very lazy writer kind of way – to dump in backstory. I tend not to worry too much about that in first draft, but when I finally get into second draft, I will need to be brutal – so thanks for the checklist. I have printed it out and will use it when the time comes.

    1. I completely agree with both your points. I love that you go ahead and write out all the internal monologue in first draft. I think it’s important to discover the story and our characters in the first draft, and for me, craft takes a back seat in first draft.

      But that second (and third, and fourth, however many there ends up being) draft is where the craft really comes into play. Promoting something from interior monologue to dialogue is definitely a refining moment!

  2. I think one of the reasons writers love these blocks of internal thinking is that it rings true to us, since so many of us spend tons of time in our heads — and not always alone. But the truth is, most people aren’t as self-aware and as insightful as well-written characters. In the moment, we’re reactionary. Any true reflection usually comes minutes, hours or days later. Which is why I think readers like a good dose of inner monologue. We like our heroes and heroines to be smarter, quicker and all-around better than we are. While it might take me three days to connect the conversational dots, I want/need my characters to do it instantaneously. So, bring on the inner monologue. But alas, yes, we must keep it brief and tight, because while readers want characters with snap, they also want stories that crackle and pop!

    1. Great point about characters being more insightful and self-aware than we humans usually are! (It reminds me a bit of how an editor would never accept a crazy series of true life events for a story because it would seem too coincidental to be true…)

      And since we readers are often putting ourselves in the role of the heroine/hero, interior monologue is not just about the protagonist figuring something out — it’s also modeling a process for the reader who’s not just along for the ride but also connecting the dots along with the character. Interior monologue can definitely be powerful!

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