The Do’s and Don’ts of Internal Monologue
by K.M. Weiland @ Word Play
Internal monologue is one of the many necessary ingredients used to concoct a complete, well-rounded story. Unfortunately, it’s all too often one of the most abused and overused ingredients.
I just finished reading George Bryan Polivka’s The Legend of the Firefish, a historical fantasy about pirates hunting and harvesting prehistoric “Firefish.” The story—which included storms, swordfights, treachery, true love, and all kinds of swashbuckling—made every promise of delivering a jolly good tale. But it had one severe problem. The author proved himself unable to rein in the gallopings of his characters’ internal monologues. The book probably could have been trimmed by a good third had someone cut out all the excess “thinking” of the characters.
Not only did Polivka allow his characters to mentally rattle on for pages, unimpeded by action or dialogue, he committed the cardinal sin of interrupting action and dialogue to make way for these giant chunks of exposition. Perhaps the most glaring instance of this is found in Chapter 14 when, in the midst of a rip-roaring battle between the pirates and attacking “savages,” Polivka grinds his riveting action scene to a halt so his young hero can philosophize for nearly three pages on the nature of death and the will of God!
On the other end of the spectrum, we find many authors who seem to eschew the idea of internal monologue altogether. In their defense, many of these authors seem to be in the business of writing suspense and thriller stories, in which speed and action is of the essence. They undoubtedly feel that inserting three pages of internal monologue in the middle of a tense chase scene would kill their suspense. And, indeed, it would.
But, because of their fear of bogging their work down in unnecessary narrative and monologue, many authors miss out on a ripe opportunity for deepening their stories. Internal monologue, when done correctly, can add layers upon layers of intrigue and emotion to a story. Experiencing a character’s internal battle can be just as riveting and memorable for a reader as chasing after him through a gun battle or a dogfight. Granted, internal monologue is a tricky skill to master, but when done correctly, it more than pays off. So, in the interest, of avoiding Polivka’s mistakes, allow me to offer a handful of by no means definitive guidelines.
Sandwich necessary exposition between thick slices of action.
Many authors (myself included) struggle with the urge to open scenes with expositional monologue. Such exposition sets the scene, orientates the reader with the character’s current mindset/location/dilemma, and lays all the necessary facts on the table. Unfortunately, it also provokes yawns. Open your scenes with a strong bit of action, dialogue, or intrigue. Then, once you’ve hooked your reader, indulge in the necessary exposition. Start with the storm, and then go back and reflect on the calm.
Make sure all the explaining is done before you get to the tense moments.
If you have necessary info to impart to your reader, do it before you reach the climax. Can you think of any good reason why a character would shove his gun into the villain’s face, tighten his finger on the trigger, and then spend half a dozen paragraphs recalling his childhood encounter with self-same villain? No? I didn’t think so. If the reader needs to know about a character’s childhood encounters, then spell them out before heating up the action to fever pitch. Same goes for information—such as delineating the finer points of Kung Fu right before the character engages in battle.
Utilize dialogue where possible.
Almost without exception, dialogue is more interesting than internal monologue. If you can utilize dialogue to explain important information or relay your character’s internal conflicts, do so. But be wary of falling into the “as you know, Bob” trap; don’t let characters sit around, telling each other things they both already know.
Show, don’t tell.
One of the basic pratfalls of internal monologue is “telling” a character’s thoughts. To some extent this inescapable. Sometimes you do just have to spell out what a character is thinking or feeling (i.e., He loved her.). But utilize “showing” wherever possible (i.e.,His heart pounded whenever she was near.)
Spill the exposition until right before it’s necessary.
Your readers will remember the information much better if you wait until it’s absolutely necessary. The very urgency of the information will rivet the readers’ attention.
Bog down in “too much black.”
“Too much black” is film industry-speak for script pages that include too much description and not enough dialogue. Scan your manuscripts, looking for pages that contain solid blocks of text with little white space to “break” things up between paragraphs. Don’t fall into the same mistake George Bryan Polivka made in The Legend of the Firefish; force your characters to state their thoughts and emotions as succinctly as possible.
Feel the need to tell the reader everything.
Shun internal monologue that spells out the entirety of your character’s past, his present struggles, his hopes for the future, his feelings for other characters, his plan of action for the next five years, and his general theological and philosophical ramblings. The best internal monologue is that which maintains a distinct thread of intrigue. Your reader doesn’t have to know everything the character knows; not knowing is what will keep him reading.
Rely on thoughts to the exclusion of action.
Ask readers what they enjoy most about the books they read, and they’re likely to mention action and dialogue as two primary reasons. Rarely will you hear them cite “internal monologue” as the reason they keep reading. Action and dialogue is what defines character, no matter what kind of story you’re writing. If you utilize your internal monologue sparingly, keeping in mind it’s purpose merely salt to the stew, you may find yourself with a well-seasoned—possibly even delicious—story.
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