Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How to Write Your Character's Thoughts

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.



When we do Go Teen Writers contests, one of the feedback boxes that our judges can check is that an entry had "too much internal monologue." One of our writers asked me to explain in more detail what this means.



Internal monologue refers to the thought life of your point of view (POV) character. Often, it follows an action: (Internal monologue is bold in this situation.)
Susie dropped the plate. Well, that was dumb.
Internal monologue is a good and necessary component to make the character resonate with the audience, but like all elements in writing, it has to be balanced. Too much slows down the story. Too little makes the character read thin and you risk losing the closeness between the character and reader.

Here's an example where the internal monologue is too heavy:

Susie dropped the plate. Well that was dumb. But hadn't her mother always said she had the worst case of butter fingers?
"Can I help you, Susie?" John called from the living room.
He was probably only offering because he saw how rude her own husband was to her. "I'm fine, thank you!" She wished her voice didn't crackle like that when she talked.
She should have washed these dishes last night so she didn't have to deal with the pile of plates right now. That hadn't been smart at all. Tom hated the sight of dirty dishes.
See how slow this is? If it keeps going at this pace, it'll feel like hour five of Susie clearing the table and beating herself up over it.

And here's an example where the internal monologue is too light:
Susie dropped the plate.
"Can I help you, Susie?" John called from the living room
"I'm fine, thank you." Her voice crackled like always. In the kitchen, she was greeted with last night's dishes. And Tom hated the sight of dirty dishes.
The pacing of this is a lot snappier, but we're also missing out on Susie's feelings throughout this scene and because of that, we don't understand her state of mind. This last example is a better blend of action and internal monologue:

Susie dropped the plate. Her constant butter fingers would be the death of her someday - maybe literally.
"Can I help you, Susie?" John called from the living room. 
He was probably only offering because he saw how rude her own husband was to her. "I'm fine, thank you!" Her voice crackled like always.
In the kitchen, she was greeted with last night's dishes. Why, oh why, didn't she do the dishes last night? Tom hated the sight of dirty dishes.
Refining your story's internal monologue is best taken care of in the editing process, but there are a few things you can do in the first draft to help guide what you put in and what you don't:

  • Pick a dominant emotion in a scene. Is it surprise? Is it anger? To make that emotion pop, you want to choose internal monologue that reflects it. In the scenes above, Susie's dominant emotion is fear of her abusive husband. So when the writer dips into her thought life, that's what they should highlight.
  • If the dominant emotion of your character switches mid-scene, make sure to show that. Say John walks in to help Susie, and he starts to rinse dishes. Now Susie's dominate feeling isn't fear of Tom, but it's something else. Shyness from having a man she doesn't know scrubbing her dirty plates. Warmth from being shown a kindness. Mistrust because she's come to expect that men don't do anything out of the goodness of their heart, and she thinks John must want something from her.
  • Leave off the "he thought" or "she thought." If you're deep in your POV character's head, there's no need for it.
Are there any questions about internal monologue that I can help answer?

Also, Jill and I are giving away two copies of the Go Teen Writers book via Goodreads!


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Go Teen Writers by Stephanie Morrill

Go Teen Writers

by Stephanie Morrill

Giveaway ends November 14, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win
(This book is, of course, by Jill Williamson too. Not sure why it's getting listed as just me on the widget!)

28 comments:

  1. I tend to use too much internal monologue. I think, :P tahnks for these examples, they are sure to help!!! :D

    Wish I was allowed to have a goodreads account, my mom says maybe at the end of this month! If I finish all of my school...

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    1. I use Goodreads primarily for keeping track of all the books I want to read. I think I'm supposed to be using it more for marketing, but it's just not my thing!

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  2. When I go through my WIP again for editting, this is sure something I'll keep an eye out for. I can't really remember right now if I have too much or too less internal monologue, which makes to believe it is probably not a lot yet

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  3. Really helpful post, I am writing in first person so there'll be no 'he thought" "she thought" I think in the protagonist..

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  4. Thank you so much Stephanie! This very helpful.
    I have done internal monologue ever since I discovered it, but I really like the idea for one main emotion. I'll have to use that.

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  5. Thanks so much!
    I used to use internal dialogue by the truckload. (I'm writing in first person.) Then I found this really helpful article on worldview. It talked about your character has their assumptions and that should show through their descriptions of things that are happening. It also said that the reader automatically assumes that the main character is being truthful, and a good technique is to take advantage of that and have your narrator be a little biased and not tell the full truth.
    This was a great post, thanks for the examples! I really like the idea of switching between emotions. And awesome! Giveaway! Thanks so much :)

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    1. I love that perspective, Anastasia. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. This post was very helpful. I probably use way too much internal monologue, especially during NaNoWriMo (yay extra words). Oh well. That's what editing is for.

    Thanks!

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    1. A writer does what she must to survive NaNo :)

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  7. :-O This is SO helpful! I am a complete italic/internal dialogue addict so I felt this really was meant for me. I will really try to apply your advice to my writing.

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  8. Thanks for this, Stephanie! It definitely applies to me because I use way too many italics and too much internal monologue. I'll use this post when I edit my WIP. Thanks again! :)

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  9. First person can be both helpful and harmful for this, I think. Helpful because inner monologue is natural, harmful because it's easy to have too much of it. I'm not sure how much I have. Haven't noticed an overabundance of it yet, so maybe it's okay. Adding this to my editing checklist though :)

    (Oh, and I finished my second draft on Monday! So excited!)

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  10. Great post, Stephanie. Two questions. Do these rules change when writing first person versus third person? And do you need to italicize thoughts? I always thought this was a rule, but I rarely see it done in published books.

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    1. They really don't change for first person because we still need a good balance of stuff happening and the character emotionally responding. Too much emotional response can still bog down the story and too much stuff happening with no emotional response will still read thin.

      And I believe thoughts should rarely be italicized, especially in first person. You can find my thoughts on that here: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2012/07/italicizing-characters-thoughts.html

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    2. Okay, great. Thank you.
      And, yes, sorry, I just realized you covered that. I read to fast. My bad.

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  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. No problem! I figured that was the case :)

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  12. This was a very thoughtful post. Thank you for it! ;)

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  13. Thanks this is really helpful! I think I use too much interior monologue but this makes a lot of sense. Part of the problem is that I'm writing in diary form. Is it okay to use some more interior monologue in diary form books when a character is reflecting on something? I feel like I've seen that in published books but I haven't actually read that many in diary form.

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  14. How about situations when there's no dialogue? When you're trying to describe what your character is doing? When do you draw the line for how much to describe and their thoughts surrounding it?

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  15. My character is almost always alone in my book. . . And I do a lot of this. Should I change it?

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  16. It's more complicated than this, but to put it simply, one of my characters are kidnapped and are now alone. There isn't anything for them to do but think! My opinion is that I am keeping it interesting, but I am not sure. Should I ask a friend to proof read it first, or should I change it now?

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  17. Hey! this article was so helpful! I am getting really into this site and all it has to offer, keep up the good work!

    -Elis

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  18. This really helps me, because I usually write way too many thoughts. How does tense fit into this? I usually write first person past tense, but when I write thoughts it sometimes switches over to present tense. I'm not sure if this is necessarily bad or how I should fix it. Any advice?

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    1. Going into present tense during thoughts is natural, and it's totally fine!

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