By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
Internal dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in a fiction writer’s arsenal. It’s an advantage we have over TV and movie script writers and playwrights. It’s also one of the least understood and most often mismanaged elements of the writing craft.
As writers, we each tend to either overuse or underuse internal dialogue. (It’s rare for a writer to do both at different times in their book, but it happens.)
Today I’m going to walk you through the six main clues that you might be an internal dialogue overuser.
Overuse Clue #1 – We’re repeating the same thing in internal dialogue as we’re also showing in dialogue or action.
Each sentence we write should introduce something new to the story. It’s the concept of everything in fiction needs to be there for a reason and needs to move the story forward. When we repeat ourselves, in any fashion, it doesn’t move the story forward.
So, for example, if we use internal dialogue to show a character thinking about how she wants to cry or how she wants to slap the person who stole her job, and then we show her crying or show her slapping, our internal dialogue and action overlap.
It might seem obvious, but we also shouldn’t double up on what’s said in internal dialogue and in spoken dialogue. You’d be surprised how often I see something like this…
Who did he think she was, Houdini? She didn’t know how to pick a lock. “I don’t know how to pick a lock.”
Overuse Clue #2 – We have as much internal dialogue during a tense action scene as we do during a quieter reaction scene.
When we want a scene to feel fast-paced, we need to use less internal dialogue overall. We don’t have as much time to think when our life is in danger or when we need to make quick decisions to prevent something bad from happening.
If you find that you’re using the same amount of internal dialogue in what should be a fast-paced action scene, it could be a clue that you’re overusing internal dialogue.
One of the main causes for this is if we haven’t laid the groundwork well enough prior to this scene. In other words, we’re partway into our fast-paced scene and we realize that the reader doesn’t yet know a key piece of information. We start adding to the scene to make sure the reader isn’t confused. Fast-paced action scenes aren’t the place for that. If we figure out we’re missing some foundational pieces, we should backtrack and add as many of them as we can prior to the action.
Overuse Clue #3 – We’re using internal dialogue to sum up our scene at the end or forecast what’s coming before the scene starts.
When we forecast through internal dialogue, we’re often hoping to hook the reader. When we sum up our scenes at the end, we’re often hoping to remind them of what’s just happened so they’ll carry it with them into the next scene.
Neither are necessary. Both indicate that we’re overusing internal dialogue, and it’s time to make some hard cuts.
Before I move on to the next point, I want to clarify the difference between foreshadowing and forecasting. Some writers think that what they’re doing is foreshadowing when in reality it’s forecasting.
Foreshadowing is a good thing. In foreshadowing, you drop subtle hints for the reader of what might be coming in the future (e.g., your main character notices something just in passing that becomes important later in the story, or you show your main character’s ability to tie knots and that ability will be crucial in the climax). In forecasting, you tell the reader what’s coming.
Overuse Clue #4 – Within our internal dialogue, we’re repeating the same idea in multiple ways.
Of all the overuse clues, repeating the same idea in multiple ways can be the trickiest to spot because it’s a balance issue. It’s easy to confuse with developing a character’s internal situation during an important moment.
Here’s what I mean by that. When something extremely important happens to our point-of-view character, we need to spend more time on their reaction to it.
Where we often stumble, though, is that each sentence in that reaction needs to show progress rather than wallowing in the same ideas, phrased differently. Allow me to show you an example.
How could he have done this to her? She felt like she was trapped in a bad remake of Shallow Hal where it turned out Hal didn’t care about Rosemary after all. Only the lowest level of slimeball pretended to be someone’s friend just to get a leg-up on a promotion at work. It was as bad as dating the boss’s daughter to get ahead. Using any kind of relationship for the sole purpose of bettering yourself in a job was unethical.
Are you tired of hearing the character think about this yet? When we don’t introduce anything fresh, the reader quickly finds the character’s thoughts boring. It’s like when someone tells you the same story every time you talk to them. After a while, you cringe inside when you know they’re about to start up again and you tune them out.
Don’t let this example lull you into a false sense of security, though. Maybe we don’t have our character think about the same thing in different ways within a single paragraph, but we have them think about the same thing at different times throughout the story.
If our character is thinking about the same thing without making progress in either her emotions toward the situation or how she wants to handle the situation, or in finding evidence to either prove or disprove what she believes, then we’re overusing internal dialogue. Our character can think about the same event, but each instance of internal dialogue needs to show progress of some kind.
Overuse Clue #5 – Every paragraph focused on the POV character includes internal dialogue.
Not every paragraph that focuses on the point-of-view character needs to include internal dialogue. Not every line of dialogue by the POV character needs to be preceded or broken up by internal dialogue. If you have a large chunk of internal dialogue in every other paragraph, that can be a clue that you’re overusing it.
Do you struggle with too much or too little internal dialogue in your fiction?
Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide is now available!
In Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you’ll learn…
– the difference between internal dialogue and narration,
– best practices for formatting internal dialogue,
– ways to use internal dialogue to advance your story,
– how to balance internal dialogue with external action,
– clues to help you decide whether you’re overusing or underusing internal dialogue,
– tips for dealing with questions in your internal dialogue,
– and much more!
Each book in the Busy Writer’s Guide series is intended to give you enough theory so that you can understand why things work and why they don’t, but also enough examples to see how that theory looks in practice. In addition, they provide tips and exercises to help you take it to the pages of your own story, with an editor’s-eye view. Most importantly, they cut the fluff so that you have more time to write and to live your life.
You can grab a copy of Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks. It’s on for $2.99 (at Amazon) only until the end of this week to celebrate the release!
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