A Penny For Your Thoughts: My Two Cents on Internal Monologue

 

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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

Unlock Your Inner Story

Skeleton X-Ray - Locked Mind

They say, “Everyone has at least one good book in them” and while I think book might be a bit of a stretch, I wholeheartedly believe that everyone has at least one good story in them. The natural length—the pure story without padding or the encumbrance of unnecessary detail or description—of which can range from flash fiction (under 1,000 words) to short story (under 7,500 words) to novelette (7,500 to 17,500 words) to novella (17,500 to 40,000 words) to a proper novel (over 40,000 words).

No matter how non-creative you believe yourself to be, your brain is nonetheless gifted with the special ability of imagination, and regardless of how infrequently you put it to use, you still are able to dream up intricate realities, despite your age or IQ level. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, projected a new reality in our minds in the form of daydreaming our desires? And no two daydreams are exactly the same since we each possess unique preferences, points of view, wants and needs.

Yet, even armed with the knowledge of this gift, we, as writers, tend to suffer because we either do not fully believe in or properly comprehend our true nature as creators. Sure, we continue to imagine “what if” scenarios but sometimes we find it difficult to allow those thoughts to flow through us—the conduit—and blossom into the stories they need to become.

The following list isn’t a step-by-step “how to” guide, because no one can tell you precisely what you need to do to access your inner story. You are a totally unique entity, after all. View it more as a broom to help you sweep away the clutter piled up on the footpath to your personal tale.

1. Examine your self-image.

The first battle you must face is the one against your self-image. You are more than pen and paper, more than a keyboard, more than “just another writer” or more than whatever obstacle your past or conditioning has placed in your path. The main reason why most writers fail to connect with their inner story is because of their limited knowledge of who they truly are.

As flawed human beings we are so engrossed with the perceptions of who we are that we fail to see that we are usually the source for the reality we have created for ourselves. Sure, the walls of the prison may have been constructed by events of the past, by family, peers or environment, but we continue to fortify the walls and never once open the lock–the key is always in our possession–push the cell door to step out into freedom.

This in no way suggests you have to deconstruct your self-image–unless that’s your goal, then by all means, have at it. You’re merely peeling away the layers of the identity you’ve created for yourself for societal purposes and exposing your core self, the real you. Don’t worry, it’s only for the exercise of writing. You can reapply your layers once you’re done.

Your secret identity is safe with me.

2. Take note of your gifts.

Different from writer traits–talent, the hunger for knowledge, and diligence–a writer’s gift can range from an eye for detail, to a flair for description, to a talent for dialogue. Or, you might not even be aware of your talents, so I want you to grab a piece of paper and something to write with and in 60 seconds jot down a list of what you’re good at. Don’t think about it. Simply jot down, off the top of your head, the things that come easiest to you when you write.

All done? Now take a long, hard, honest look at your list. The things you don’t concentrate on, those bits and bobs that just sort of come naturally to you when you write… those are your gifts. You’d be surprised to discover how many writers aren’t aware of their innate skills because they aren’t utilized in their everyday work lives and wind up being placed in the “Hobby” category.

3. Exploit your strengths. 

Since you’re bothering to read this, my guess is that you’ve written a couple of pieces already and maybe even finished a few of them. Now, if you’re an avid reader, you will have no doubt compared your piece to your author idols, and have developed the brutally honest ability to cast a critical eye upon your own work and spot areas in your writing that aren’t as strong as others. And since the writing isn’t perfect, you are therefore a horrible writer who should no longer legally be allowed to string a sentence together in an email, let alone write a story.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe you really are a bad writer–hey, they exist–but that’s not my call to make. I don’t know you, so I’ll assume you at least have some fundamental writing potential. However, no matter how good you are, there is one basic truth you must learn to face: Your writing will never be perfect. Why? As stated in a previous post: Because wunderkind wasn’t conveniently inserted into your backstory, and perfection isn’t DNA-encodable at this point in time. Still, you should always strive to get your writing as close to perfection as you can manage, and accept the fact that: It. Will. Not. Be. Perfect.

Maybe you can’t write a convincing love scene. Maybe you struggle with organic dialogue. Maybe you get stumped when attempting to create a character’s internal arc. Maybe you’re rubbish at tying up all your story’s loose threads. Console yourself in the knowledge that you wouldn’t be the first. A few of these “weaknesses” and more are true for authors of published works, some of which even make bestseller lists.

And because, as a writer, you are always a student and ever pushing yourself and learning new ways to hone your craft, you will eventually learn to strengthen your weaknesses. In the meantime, put all of the aspects of your writing into perspective, make a deal to stop beating yourself up so much, and focus on your strengths. They’re your “A” game.

4. Gird your loins against the enemy.

In addition to dealing with possible self-image barriers, there are other obstacles that can block your path: Fear, intimidation, procrastination, and self-doubt. The problem with these buggers is that they often take the form of lies you tell yourself. And they happen to be effective as hell because they insulate your brain from facing unpleasantries, in this case the difficult portions of the writing process that you need to slog through in order to strike gold.

The biggest lie you can tell yourself as a writer is, “I’ll do it later.” It’s a dishonest postponement because later never comes. If you don’t confront the enemies that keep you from your writing and tamp the bastards down long enough to complete your piece, then you don’t have what it takes to be a writer. Staring into the gaping maw of the harsh realities that terrify you is one of the most important parts of the process.

Slap a “H” on your chest and “Handle” it.

5. Identify your genre.

At this point, you arch an eyebrow and ask, “Rhyan, how can anyone not know the genre of their story?”

The answer lies within the fact that writers are creators. Some are resistant to the notion of placing labels or classifications on their work. For others, classification difficulties arise when their piece contains elements from several genres as some writers disagree with the act of limiting creative freedom in order to adhere to strictly delineated genre segregation.

For your audience, knowing the genre sets not only the stage, but their expectations as well, and puts them in the proper mindset to both understand and accept the rules of your story.

At this stage in the process, the importance of identifying your genre has to do with story mechanics. Certain elements step to the forefront and operate differently depending on genre, so you should be aware of the rules of the category–even if you decide to break them because of the maverick you are–as you’re arranging your idea into the proper story structure (see: Simple Anatomy of a Plot Outline).

6. Plant your feet firmly in the soil of your story.

This is your story. First and foremost, it must feel natural to you. No matter how fantastical the environment, how outrageous the yarn you’re spinning, if you don’t feel confident in the pocket dimension you’ve created, there’s little chance of you selling the story as being credible. Your job is to take utter nonsense and portray it with as much authenticity as possible.

7. Go with your gut.

Some people seek permission to write. Thinly disguised under the “Oh, it’s just an idea I’m toying with” veil, they will ask family and friends if they should write about such-and-such or if this-that-or-the-other-thing would make an interesting topic.

I urge you not to be this person.

I’m reminded of a quote by Jerome Lawrence, “The whole point of writing is to have something in your gut or in your soul or in your mind that’s burning to be written.” So, if you can actually feel inspiration or instinct churning like hot snakes in your gut to write, forget the opinions of those around you, disregard the idea of “should” and just go for it.

Never live with regret, if you can help it.

8. Do it now. No better time than the present. 

To snatch a line from Pixar’s Ratatouille “Why not here? Why not now?”

By now you know you must show up for writing everyday, and there’s no time like the present. So, why not find yourself a quiet spot, practice listening, and trust what you hear. That’s your inner story talking to you, and it not only has to be unlocked but it must be accessible at will.

I know it’s become hackneyed to instruct you to follow your bliss, but if you deny your instincts to do what you truly want to do, then the problem becomes one of trust. Do you trust the voice within you or do you trust reality as you are made to perceive it? Or, are you willing to trust the voice and write what you hear, no matter how crazy it sounds?

You have to learn to be compassionate with yourself, as well as having compassion for yourself. Especially during the vulnerable times when you’re blocked and can’t bring yourself to write because you’re scared you’ll be rejected. Take some small comfort in knowing you’re not alone in this.

Since all art must be criticized, every single published author had to overcome fear of rejection. What you need to keep in mind is that your audience–human, just the same as you–can only relate to your writing from their own experience, and sometimes their feedback will be negative. That doesn’t necessarily indicate problems in your writing, and may simply reflect a varying viewpoint.

But fear of rejection has no business rearing its ugly head right now as it’s time for you to honor your inner story by listening to the words it shares with you and writing about it. Trust me, if you’re willing to enjoy the process, you can write damn near anything.

So, why not sally forth and be inner story writeful?

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Skip The Tell And Bring On The Show

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“Show, don’t tell” is one of those bits of advice that gets handed to aspiring writers in writing courses, advice columns, blogs, seminars, and while it may seem simple on the surface, many scribes can’t differentiate the two in their own work.

Telling a story is the blunt delivery of facts. “She was pretty.” “He was hungry.” “They were angry.” Yes, it does get straight to the heart of the matter, which makes it ideal for journalism and academia. But for prose it’s too antiseptic and puts distance between your work and your audience. Your goal as a writer is to immerse the audience into the world and allow them to experience things, people and places for themselves.

How does pretty look on this woman? Is it in the way her terracotta hair carelessly cascades over her delicate shoulders? Or do her eyes have a certain indefinable sparkle to them, making them alluring and sensual, with a touch of mischief? How would you describe hunger? The growling of a stomach and salivation in response to the Pavlovian stimuli of the school lunch bell? And anger, believe it or not, offers you a larger palette to paint from when you explore the other emotions—hurt, fear, grief, exhaustion—at play within it.

So, how do you bring the “show” into your writing?

1. Dialogue – This is the easiest way to let your audience experience a character’s mood and emotions. The catch is to avoid “on the nose” dialogue (I’ll get more into this in another post) which simply means having a character say exactly what they mean. Not only is it bland and boring, it’s unrealistic. In real life people speak in subtext, hinting and beating around the bush, secretly nudging conversation toward what they want to know and even then have to decipher the other person’s true meaning.

2. Sensory language – Using words and details to add color and depth to writing by appealing to your audience’s senses (sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell, emotion) in order to let them fully experience what you’re writing about.

3. More descriptive, less adjectives – The tendency of most fledgling writers is to slap a string of adjectives together to describe an action or scene. But being descriptive is actually about selecting the right words and using them in moderation to put your meaning across. Remember: Adjectives tell. Verbs show.

4. Be specific – Want to frustrate your audience? Try using fuzzy language. Offering up vague sentences like, “It was a pleasant night”, “She was a strange-looking girl”, “His life was a mess”, doesn’t serve you as a writer. Why not invest the time and effort into describing the feeling of a scene and working out the best way convey it to your audience?

Does this mean everything you write should be “showing”? Of course not. Especially when you’re dealing with the dull bits of the story such as travel, transitions, unimportant characters, etc. Instead of boring your audience by expounding on necessary but not particularly interesting details, just say it and move on.

Speaking of moving on, I’m out of here. Sally forth and be writeful.

The Various Rules for Writing Fiction by Famous Authors

1. Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).

2. Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no ­inessential words can every essential word be made to count.

3. You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)

Diana Athill

Roddy Doyle

1. Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

2. Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­–

3. Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.

4. Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.

5. Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies – unless it’s research.

6. Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.

7. Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.

8. Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.

9. Do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven’t written yet.

10. Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego.” But then get back to work.

Roddy Doyle

1. Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.

2. Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don’t yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices.

3. Read Keats’s letters.

4. Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.

5. Learn poems by heart.

6. Join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.

7. A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.

8. If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.

9. Don’t worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed “What will survive of us is love”.

Helen Dunmore

1. Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over – or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: “I’m writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job.” Publisher: “That’s exactly what makes me want to stay in my job.”

2. Don’t write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés . . . Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.

3. Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.

4. If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto­correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: “Niet” becomes “Nietzsche”, “phoy” becomes  ­”photography” and so on. ­Genius!

5. Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.

6. Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

7. Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I ­always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

8. Beware of clichés. Not just the ­clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are ­clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.

9. Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.

10. Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to per­severance. But writing is all about ­perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of ­going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That’s what writing is to me: a way of ­postponing the day when I won’t do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.

Geoff Dyer

1. The first 12 years are the worst.

2. The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.

3. Only bad writers think that their work is really good.

4. Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.

5. Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity.

6. Try to be accurate about stuff.

7. Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you ­finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.

8. You can also do all that with whiskey.

9. Have fun.

10. Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not ­counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

Anne Enright

Elizabeth Bowen’s 7 Tips on Approaching Dialogue

1. Dialogue should be brief.

2. It should add to the reader’s present knowledge.

3. It should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation.

4. It should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk.

5. It should keep the story moving forward.

6. It should be revelatory of the speaker’s character, both directly and indirectly.

7. It should show the relationships among people.

10 Thoughts on Dialogue From Notable Authors

1. “Dialogue has to show not only something about the speaker that is its own revelation, but also maybe something about the speaker that he doesn’t know but the other character does know.” — Eudora Welty

2. “Dialogue in fiction should be reserved for the culminating moments and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore.” — Edith Wharton

3. “Good writers do not litter their sentences with adverbial garbage. They do not hold up signs reading ‘laughter!’ or ‘applause!’ The content of dialogue ought to suggest the mood.” — James J. Kilpatrick

4. “Nouns, verbs, are the workhorses of language. Especially in dialogue, don’t say, ‘she said mincingly,’ or ‘he said boisterously.’ Just say, ‘he said, she said.’” — John P. Marquand

5. “A man or woman who does not write good dialog is not a first-rate writer.” — George V. Higgins

6. “Dialogue that is written in dialect is very tiring to read. If you can do it brilliantly, fine. If other writers read your work and rave about your use of dialect, go for it. But be positive that you do it well, because otherwise it is a lot of work to read short stories or novels that are written in dialect. It makes our necks feel funny.” — Anne Lamott

7. “Dialogue which does not move the story along, or add to the mood of the story, or have an easily definable reason for being there at all (such as to establish important characterization), should be considered superfluous and therefore cut.” — Bill Pronzini

8. “To write successful dialogue the author must have access to the mind of all his characters, but the reader must not perceive any more than he would in real life.” — William Sloane

9. “Don’t write stage directions. If it is not apparent what the character is trying to accomplish by saying the line, telling us how the character said it, or whether or not she moved to the couch isn’t going to aid the case. We might understand better what the character means but we aren’t particularly going to care.” – David Mamet

10, “Remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others. And they should not all sound like you.” — Anne Lamott