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 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.