I was talking to a friend yesterday about one of the housemates in this year’s Big Brother UK (how dare you judge me!) who had the annoying nonstop habit of thinking aloud in a random, babbling manner that made me sometimes feel as if I was reading her unfiltered thoughts. This, naturally, brought the topic of internal monologue to mind.
Whether you refer to it as verbal stream of consciousness, internal speech, or inner voice, internal monologue occurs when your characters engage in conversations with themselves, thinking in words at a conscious or semi-conscious level.
When used properly, making your audience privy to your character’s thoughts and internal struggles can add levels of emotion and intrigue that deepen your story nicely. But it’s not an easy skill to master, and in the hands of an inexperienced writer, the piece can quickly become a quagmire of unnecessary narrative.
Here are a few things you might want to bear in mind:
- Mind your thoughts. The first thing to keep in mind–which should be obvious–internal monologues are always written from a character’s point of view, and the thoughts should match their personality and speech patterns.
- Act first, think later. Avoid the temptation of beginning your story with expositional monologue. Sure, you’re eager to set the scene and establish characters, location, time period, etc., but you should consider capturing your audience’s attention from the onset by thrusting them into a riveting bit of dialogue, intrigue or action, before introducing the necessary exposition.
- Don’t tip your hand, but don’t wait too long, either. You should never let a character’s thoughts introduce vitals details before they’re relevant to your story. Also, make sure you’ve provided your audience with everything they need to know before any tense scenes and definitely before you reach the climax. Never put a pitstop in your action sequence to sandwich in a bit of explanatory monologuing. Ick. Makes me shiver just thinking about it.
- Back the right horse. If you have a choice between using dialogue or internal monologue, go with the dialogue–if, of course, it can properly explain pertinent information or convey the internal battles of your character. When doing this, however, there’s a trope you need to avoid, affectionately known as the dreaded “As you know, Bob” where one character tells another character something they already know.
- Show, don’t tell still applies… somewhat. If you utilize enough internal monologuing in your writing, you’ll come to realize that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you’ll need to tell what a character’s thinking instead of showing it. Just don’t make a habit out of it.
- Everything you know, not everything I know. I watch a lot of martial arts flicks, especially the old Shaw Brothers chop socky ones, and a recurrent theme was of an undeserving young student turning his newly acquired martial arts skills on the old master. I only bring this up because of a line I heard during a showdown where the young buck is boasting that he not only knows all the old man’s techniques, but he also has the advantage of youth on his side. The old master shakes his head and corrects the younger aggressor, “I taught you everything you know, not everything I know.” This should be the same with your character. There is no reason on this green earth for your audience to know everything your character knows. Everyone likes a little bit of mystery and in your audience’s case, it’s what keeps them turning pages.
- Thoughts do not drive a story. Chiefly because they’re a poor substitute for conflict. This is another one of those things that should be evident, since I assume you’re an avid reader. So think on the last book that really held your attention, I’m talking about the one you continued to read even though your eyes were burning because you were fighting off sleep. What kept you invested in the book? The character’s thoughts? The answer you’re searching for should be conveniently located in the “Hell, no” aisle. More likely than not, the things that held your interest–writing style aside–were the story’s action and dialogue, because they’re what defines your character best.
In closing, interior monologue is one of the more useful writing tools at your disposal, and if you economically pepper it amongst action sequences and dialogue, it should serve you and your story well.
Sally forth and be internal monologue writeful.
— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys