Inner Dialogue in Your Fiction: What It Is and How to Tell Good from Bad

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Inner Dialogue in Fiction

Image by Rafael Marchesini

I’ve received a lot of questions via email lately on inner dialogue (also known as internal monologue), which usually means it’s time for me to write a post on something 🙂

So welcome to the first in a three-part series on how to handle the voices inside your characters’ heads.

First we need to make sure we’re clear on what we mean by “inner dialogue” and how to tell good inner dialogue from bad.

What Is Inner Dialogue?

The simplest definition is that inner dialogue is what your character is thinking.

However, because the definition is so simple, a lot of writers get confused about the difference between the character thinking naturally to themselves and a character narrating for the benefit of the reader. Inner dialogue is not narration.

The movie While You Were Sleeping uses both, so it’s a great way to point out how they’re different. (If you don’t own the movie, search for it on You Tube and watch until the Christmas tree goes through the window.)

The movie starts with a voice over as we see a little girl and her father on a bridge with the sun setting in the background.

Okay, there are two things I remember about my childhood. I just don’t remember it being this orange…First, I remember being with my dad. He’d get this far away look in his eyes and say, “Life doesn’t always turn out the way you planned.” I just wish at the time I’d realized he meant my life. 

Lucy, the main character, is talking directly to us. It’s narration. This is what we want to avoid. (Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s another post about good narrative vs. bad narrative.) We don’t want it to feel like the main character is talking at us. It tends to come across like a lecture, and lectures are boring. And, more importantly for the issue at hand, it’s not inner dialogue.

Instead, inner dialogue should feel like we’re eavesdropping on our character’s thoughts to herself.

A little later in the movie we see Lucy trying to haul a Christmas tree through her window into her upper-floor apartment. She rants to herself…

Forty-five dollars for a Christmas tree and they don’t deliver? You order $10 worth of chow mein from Mr. Wong’s, they bring it to your door. Oh, I should have got the blue spruce – they’re lighter.

In a novel, this would have been given to the reader as Lucy’s thoughts. That is internal monologue, and it’s amazing when done well.

The Two Unbreakable Rules of Inner Dialogue

Rule #1 – Only use inner dialogue for the point of view character (unless you’re writing in omniscient POV). If you introduce inner dialogue for a non-POV character, it’s head hopping, one of the worst point of view sins.

Rule #2 – Only share thoughts that advance the plot. We don’t need to hear every passing thought that flits through your character’s head. We do need to hear the important ones. (I’ll explain what those are in the next post.)

But If It Follows These Rules, Does That Mean It’s Good?

If your inner dialogue follows these two rules, it still needs to pass the three question test in order to be deemed good. If it fails, you need to either rewrite it or delete it.

Would my character think this?

Do you normally mull over the color of your carpet? I don’t. I also don’t think about the color of my best friend’s hair (because I’ve seen it so many times). I don’t think about the sound my truck makes or even what route to take to get home.

If your character doesn’t care about it, they won’t think about it. If your character wouldn’t think about it, it’s a point of view error. You can’t try to sneak in information through inner dialogue, no matter how important you think it is.

Is this the way they’d think it?

If your inner dialogue passes the first test, you still need to ask if they’d think about it in the way you’ve written it.

Let’s say I would be thinking about my truck because it starts to make a strange noise while I’m driving home. I’m likely to worry about whether I’m going to get stranded on the side of the road in the dark. Or about where we’ll get the money for repairs if something is wrong.

If my dad is driving my truck and hears a strange noise, he’s going to describe it in words I’d never think of (a rattle, a grind, a whine, a screech), and he’s going to think about what the causes could be. He knows the parts of an engine or the breaking system.

But it goes further than this. What tone would they use in this situation? And remember all those questions we asked when talking about making dialogue unique to your characters? They apply to inner dialogue as well.

Would they be thinking this now?

Context is everything. On a normal day, I might hear that noise and think about it. If there’s a man with a gun in the seat next to me, I’m not going to think about that noise unless there’s a way I think I can leverage it to get away.

If you have questions about internal dialogue, now is the time to ask them. I can always extend the series. Do you struggle with inner dialogue?

Want to learn more? Check out my book Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide!

(You might also be interested in checking out Deep Point of View, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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