Friday, August 21, 2015

Internal Monologue: Some thoughts

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. 

 Happy Friday, friends.

A couple weeks ago I opened the blog up to questions. Thank you all for asking away. I'll do my best to get to them over the coming weeks. Today, I'm answering a question posed by Melissa Gravits.




Melissa wants to know how to avoid presenting her point of view character's thoughts in italics. I completely understand. I'm not at all a fan of frequent italicization (is that a word?). Italics are fine, every now and then, but used to excess they are a huge distraction and most of the time they are unnecessary. Our readers are often smarter than we give them credit for.

Note: Stephanie has actually covered this topic in the Go Teen Writers Handbook. Get it. Flip to page 120. Hug her. It's very, very helpful.

My advice is to simply resist the urge to use italics to convey an internal thought. To illustrate my point, here's a short excerpt from my first novel, Angel Eyes:

His finger brushes my wrist as he hooks it through the cuff and pulls it off. “I thought you’d like an explanation maybe. About this, and maybe a few other things.”

I sit up straighter. I would definitely like an explanation. Or two.

“Like how you fixed my ankle, and why you’re so hot?”

My hands fly to my mouth.

Really? Did I just do it again?

Now, there is a very real temptation to italicize that last line. They're questions, right? Questions that she's not asking out loud. We need to spruce them up so the reader understands. Nope. Not really. We're clearly in this character's head. We understand that this moment is internalized. We do not need italics. Simple, right?

Melissa also wanted to know how to convey a character's thoughts without using dialogue, action, or dumping a lot of backstory. My answer here is to whip out a handy dandy tool I'll call internal monologue.

Before I sat down to pen this article, I did a little reading up on this topic and was amused by the various terms that are used almost interchangeably: internal monologue, inner monologue, interior monologue, self-talk, stream of consciousness, narrative. Without splitting hairs and arguing over whether or not they are all actually the same thing, these fancy shmancy words are often used to describe various facets of the very same tool.

It's a very handy tool. One of my favorites, honestly. But I think the fancy words add a level of confusion to something that--for many of us--ends up being very natural.

Internal monologue is simply a conversation the point of view character is having inside his or her own head. And as we read, as we follow this stream of consciousness, we are shown in a very intimate way, the world as this character see it.

The trick here is not to let this stream turn into a violently churning muddy river. You, as the author, must have a reason for allowing your character to take the reader on a ride. Meandering a bit is fine. Just don't get lost. In the end, if the internal monologue doesn't advance the story--even if it's pretty--it must be cut.

When I edit, it's usually chunks of internal monologue that I cut, but there is always plenty left behind. Chapter One of Angel Eyes begins inside Brielle's head.

The knot in my throat is constant. An aching thing. Shallow breaths whisper around it, sting my chapped lips, and leave white smoke monsters in the air.

It takes them nine seconds to disappear. Nine seconds for the phantoms I’ve created to dissolve into nothingness.

How long till the one haunting my dreams does the same?

The absence of an answer makes my hands shake, so I slide the lambskin gloves out of my book bag and put them on.

If only it were that easy.

Like glacial masses shoving along, ice travels my veins, chilling my skin and numbing my insides. Three weeks of this biting cold outstrips the severity of my nightmares, but I haven’t suffered enough and I know it.

This portion of writing has purpose. Several purposes really. We meet Brielle for the first time. We learn that she's cold through and through. We understand that she's haunted by some past experience. And we admit--perhaps in retrospect--that she might be a little melodramatic.

The goal here was to convey deep emotion, to set the mood and force the reader to decide if he wants to continue on with me inside this character's head. But most importantly, these internal thoughts move the story forward. And that is what makes internal monologue such a great tool in the writer's toolbox. Story advancement in the most intimate way.

Internal monologue doesn't have to be massive chunks of thought either. It can also be used in and amongst dialogue and action sequences. When done well, it can add depth and emotional attachment to the scene. Another example from Angel Eyes:
“There’s a lot to tell. Where should I start?”

I want to ask him about the monster. I want to know why Canaan needs two sets of wings. I want to know what we’re going to do about Marco and why Canaan hasn’t just turned the guy over to Deputy Wimby out there. But the thing holding my attention is Jake’s trembling hands.

“I want to know what you’re afraid of,” I say.

I don’t mean the words to sound so biting, but I can’t quite muster the energy to apologize.

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s just, my paranoia makes sense, right? Invisible monsters, escaped murderers, Deputy Wimby, for crying out loud. But you seem just as scared as I am, and I want to know why.”
In this excerpt, Brielle's thoughts break up the dialogue here. The intention was to tie the reader ever more closely to the character. To see the moment--to feel it--like she felt it.

I've noticed that this kind of writing comes very natural to some and not so naturally to others. If you fall in the second group, don't fret. This is a skill that can be learned and the upside is that practicing will help develop your voice as well. Two birds, one stone, you know?

"Writing practice?" you ask, scandalized.

Yes, that's right.

Do this. Take the character you're currently writing about and give her a goal. Be specific. Like, Brielle wants to exit the train without anyone seeing her. Now, give her a problem. The train is full of people. Now, write. DO NOT LEAVE HER HEAD. What is she thinking about? Is she scheming? Is she forming opinions about the folks in her way? Does she hate the carpet beneath her feet or wish she had worn sandals? Is her mind far, far away wondering if that hot dog she ate for breakfast was a good idea? Don't lose sight of your goal as you write--get her off the train--but let her get there naturally.

If this exercise feels cumbersome, start by simply journaling as your point of view character. Let him talk about his day and who he hates. Let him ramble. As you get going, add focus. Give him goals. Give him obstacles. And when you start to worry that you're just wasting your precious writing time, slap yourself and say, "I am honing my craft. And my craft matters."


There is much to be said on this topic, more than I can possibly cover in a single blog post, so I thought I'd open the blog up to questions regarding internal monologue specifically. I'll do my best to pop in and answer them throughout the weekend. 

32 comments:

  1. I've often struggled with internal monologue. Thanks for this post!

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    1. You'll get it! Practice, practice, practice!!!

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  2. Super helpful post for me. Thanks so much, Mrs. Dittemore!

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  3. Thank you so much for answering my question! This post was so so helpful for me. All those terms and how they're different have confused me for so long, and it's a relief to know they're pretty much the same thing. I have bookmarked this for my edits and any other future writing. Thanks again!

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    1. Fancy terms can confuse anyone! My motto, KEEP IT SIMPLE. Happy writing, girl!

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  4. This was a very helpful post, thank you Mrs. Dittemore!
    Also, I have a question. I don't know if it's exactly about internal monologue, but it does have to deal with italicization, so I guess it might count.
    Anyways. If you've ever read the book ERAGON, you would notice that the two main characters (Eragon and Saphira) can talk to each other in their thoughts. In my story, two of my characters can do the same thing. So, I put their words into italics when they are speaking to each others minds. But I don't know whether to put quotations are the italicized words, or just still start the in-mind dialogue on a new line (like I normally would) and not put quotations on it. I hope that made sense :).
    Any thoughts? ~Savannah P.

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    1. This is a perfect example of when using italics is beneficial to the reader. Yes, I say do it! As far as the formatting and quotation marks. I can't say specifically. I wonder if Jill or Steph would have an opinion here? Here's another dirty secret about publishing: there isn't ALWAYS a right way. Sometimes there's just they way you and your editor decide to do it. Your editor then puts together a Style Sheet explaining that to other in the publishing house who will read it. It's also helpful for future books in the series. ANYWAY, I digress. Whatever you decide to do with regards to the quotation marks, stick with it throughout the manuscript. If you bounce back and forth, you're inviting confusion.

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    2. Dude. So many typos in that comment. I'm sorry. My brain was moving faster than my fingers.

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    3. Thanks Mrs. Dittemore, this really helped! I'll make sure not to bounce back and forth :). ~Savannah P.

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    4. And I don't mind the typos ... my comment had some too :). ~Savannah P.

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  5. Hi Shannon,

    Someone once told me to never explicitly ask questions in your narrative that the readers are supposed to ask. I am a little confused about this statement. Is this true?


    Thanks!

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    1. Eh. I hate rules like this. I don't KNOW if it's true, but a good rule of thumb would be to stay true to your voice. Would your character ask the question? If so, it's probably okay. HOWEVER, when you're editing, you may find the narrative reads better without it. Sometimes we beat our readers over the head hoping they'll understand what we're trying to say, so we frame the question and then we ask the question and then we expect them to stew on it. It can be too much. Less is generally always more, so I understand the gist of your question up there, but I wouldn't hold hard and fast to it either.

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  6. Really good post. I tend to write a lot of italicized thoughts in my first draft and then weed them out as I go, turning them into dialogue or most times, just deleting them.

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    1. Yes! Very normal. I'm sort of the opposite. I don't italicize anything when I'm drafting, but when I'm editing there is the odd phrase here and there that gets the special treatment.

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  7. Thanks for this post! It was very helpful. My problem with internal monologue is that I tend to put in too much, and it distracts from what's happening.
    -Miriam

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    1. Oh yes! That's what edits are for though.

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  8. Thanks for the post, I've been struggling with this for forever, and this was really helpful. Thank you!

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  9. Is internal dialogue different when writing in third person?

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    1. The principle is the same, but it may require you to adjust a few words. You want it to be easily readable. And it will vary based on how deep the point of view is. I write a very deep point of view and in my second novel, Pearla's point of view is written in third person. Here's a short excerpt from that.

      But Pearla can't stop thinking about the bracelet that seems to have captured his imagination.

      What does he want with it?

      And why didn't he tell the Prince he had other plans?

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  10. Bouncing off Anon's comment, but in a different direction... With first person, a lot of the story kind of IS the character's thoughts, whether italicized or not. It's a little more subtle in third, I'm guessing. (Correct me if I'm wrong!) What's going through the POV character's mind can come across in either narrative or italicized thoughts.

    An excerpt from a story of mine:
    She fairly flew to her chambers, where she flung herself onto the unmade bed. What would it take to make them see she was not made of glass? That she could ride and travel and walk in the woods without meeting immediately breaking?

    Those last two questions *could* be italicized, with the appropriate pronoun changes, but it's just another way to accomplish the same thing. Anyway, I'm not even sure whether I'm asking or answering a question... XD Don't mind me! I ramble sometimes.

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    1. This is perfect, actually. Very good. Some might try to italicize those thoughts, but it would make it so muddy and it's not at all necessary. Ramble on, girl!

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  11. Thank you for this post, it really helped! My current MC is a really deep thinker and i have been debating how to place her thoughts.

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    1. Oh yeah! Those deep thinkers cause us lots of trouble. I'm glad this helped.

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  12. Thanks for the post:) Internal monologue tends to be one of my strong points in writing. I've had a lot of it of late because my MC has someone else's voice stuck in his head. The whole situation adds so much to his character, and I look forward to writing more of him. The one problem I've had is his chapters coming out extra long because I format their conversations like dialogue. Any advice?

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    1. I can't say specifically, but white space on the page is actually a good thing. It's easier on the reader's eyes. I wouldn't reformat simply to shorten your page count.

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  13. I guess I would tend to be in the first of the two groups you mentioned. However, I feel like if I do internal monologue too much all my point of view characters become... me, in essence - because I start assigning them my feelings towards their environment. It's a problem.

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    1. Sure. It can be a problem, but this is one of those things that practice will help with. It's good that you've noticed it and it's also probably good to note that all of our characters will inherently have a bit of us in them. We'll never erase ourselves completely.

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    2. Thanks for responding, Shannon!

      But what if my character is nothing like me? Or, isn't supposed to be anything like me? Should I write from the perspective of someone more similar to myself?

      Perspective has been a real issue with me lately. I'm trying to figure it out. Which perspective is the best to write from? I mean, I know I want to write "I" but which character? The main one? Or someone with a more interesting point of view, or like I said, should I write myself intentionally into my story so I can write from that perspective?

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