Internal Dialogue: The Secret Sauce to Fixing Problems? — Guest: Marcy Kennedy

by Jami Gold on August 27, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Man staring into space with text: What Are Your Characters Thinking?

I’m so excited for today’s post, and I’m going to tell you a little story to explain why. Obviously, Marcy Kennedy is a fantastic, knowledgeable author and editor, and today’s topic is a favorite of mine, but there’s also a bit of “Wow, I’m honored” mixed in.

Back before Treasured Claim had even come out, Marcy contacted me to ask for a favor. She’s one of my developmental editors, so she’d seen my story months earlier, and she was wondering if she could use a few excerpts of Elaina (my dragon shifter heroine) as examples in her newest Busy Writer’s Guide book, Internal Dialogue.

I have several of her Busy Writer’s Guide books and knew they were wonderful, so of course I said yes. *smile* Then I asked how she’d be using the Treasured Claim excerpts. She replied:

“I’m talking about how you used internal dialogue to help establish Elaina’s character arc and to make the change in her believable. … I’m planning to take a passage to show how she felt at the beginning, how she felt at the end, and small slices from the middle that show her moving forward (and changing her understanding… I thought it did a fantastic job of establishing Elaina’s thoughts…”

Squee! How cool is that?

I purchased Marcy’s book when it came out and managed to resist skimming the text to look for what she said about my excerpts. And I’m so glad I read the whole book.

By the time I’d gotten just one chapter into her book (long before I even got to the part with my story excerpts), I’d already emailed Marcy, begging her to do a guest post here so she could share her awesome insights with all of us. *grin*

Internal dialogue (also known as internal/interior/inner monologue or dialogue, or just plain internalization) is one of those writing techniques that’s rarely discussed but can be the key to a great story. As Marcy explains in her book:

“Internal dialogue is the conversation we have with ourselves, the running commentary inside our heads about our day.”

Unlike much of the writing advice out there, which is aimed at teaching the basics, learning how to skillfully use internal dialogue is an advanced writing technique. Internal dialogue helps establish the story’s emotions, characterizations, motivations, story arc, etc.

I’ve gushed many times about how the Emotion Thesaurus teaches us how to reveal what our characters are feeling. Marcy’s Internal Dialogue helps us push that further so we can reveal what our characters think about those emotions:

  • Are they in denial?
  • Do they accept the emotions?
  • Have the emotions led to an epiphany?
  • Are they rationalizing the emotions away?
  • Are they proud, embarrassed, shocked, or ashamed by their emotions?, etc.

The same goes for using internal dialogue along with plot events, dialogue, action, settings, etc. Every aspect of our story is open for comment by our characters’ thoughts.

In other words, internal dialogue is where we provide context for what our characters experience, even if that context is revealed just in subtext. Context helps our readers know what the story means to our characters, even if our characters aren’t consciously aware of that meaning, and that context is an incredibly powerful ingredient in storytelling.

So I’m thrilled to have Marcy here to share more insights on this topic. Please welcome Marcy Kennedy! *smile*

*****

Three Surprising Writing Problems
Solved By Understanding Internal Dialogue

The longer we study writing, the more we understand how all the concepts are inter-related. Sometimes that can be overwhelming, but I prefer to think of it as an opportunity. When we have a lightbulb moment about one concept, it can help solve pesky problems we’re having with something else.

Today I’m going to talk about how understanding one simple thing about internal dialogue can help us solve three other tricky writing problems.

So here’s the one simple thing: Internal dialogue should come as a reaction to a stimulus.

Action-reaction chains are the fundamental building blocks of every story (kind of like how DNA is the fundamental building block for every human). A story needs to be an unbroken chain of action leading to reaction, which becomes the stimulus for the next action, and that action causes a reaction, and on and on it goes.

Internal dialogue is no exception. It doesn’t exist outside that chain. It needs to be a part of it.

If our internal dialogue doesn’t connect as a reaction to what came before it, it’ll seem random or like we’re intruding to dump in something we think should be there (rather than allowing the internal dialogue to be character-driven).

Once we understand internal dialogue as a reaction to a stimulus, it can help us conquer three other writing craft challenges.

(If action-reaction chains are a new concept to you, Jami has written about actions and reactions and cause and effect before. These posts are a great place to start.)

Problem #1 – Inappropriate Backstory Dump

Understanding that internal dialogue should be a reaction to a stimulus means that we’re less likely to inappropriately drop in backstory.

Here’s what I mean by that. Backstory is challenging for us as writers because we tend to either include too much of it, slowing the story down, or drop it in when we—the author—want to tell the reader something, hence creating author intrusion.

But good backstory insertion is really nothing more than internal dialogue. It’s your viewpoint character thinking about something that happened in the past. So, in other words, we should insert backstory as a reaction to a stimulus.

How does this solve the inappropriate backstory dump?

We’ll know when to insert backstory because we’ll insert it as an internal reaction to something else that happened. If there’s no cause, no trigger, then it doesn’t belong there.

And we won’t include too much backstory when we understand it as an internal dialogue reaction to something else that happened. When something triggers a memory for you, do you usually stop in the middle of what you’re doing to think about it for five or ten minutes? No? Neither should our characters. Memories, thoughts of our past, pass quickly through our heads and cause another reaction. They cause us to either feel something or do something else.

Problem #2 – Point of View Errors in Description

One of the most common point of view errors I see in my work as an editor is when an author includes details that their viewpoint character never would have noticed. They’ll describe something the character has seen a hundred times. They’ll describe the color of the viewpoint character’s hair or eyes. They’ll describe some detail that the viewpoint character (who’s running for their life or otherwise distracted) wouldn’t be thinking about.

The trick to solving this is “internal dialogue is a reaction.”

If we want our viewpoint character to think about something they normally wouldn’t pay attention to, we can avoid a POV error by ensuring that thought is a reaction to something else. Give them a reason to think about that detail.

Problem #3 – Characters Who Need to Exhibit Unlikeable Qualities

It’s easy to write likeable characters when our characters are able to act in a way that’s consistent with who they really are or who they want to be. It’s easy to make a character likeable when they can react to situations using action or dialogue that shows they’re smart or caring or humble or vulnerable.

It’s much more difficult to write likeable characters when they need to show a hard shell to the world, when they need to present an unlikeable exterior, or when they need to seem perfect. How are we supposed to convince readers to like them and care about them then?

I think we tend to stumble over this because we forget that reactions to stimuli can be different on the outside and on the inside.

When we recognize that internal dialogue is a reaction and that it can be independent of dialogue and physical action, suddenly we have a new avenue to make our characters likeable. We can show what they wish they could do, even if their current circumstance prevents them from acting on it.

So next time you’re struggling with one concept in writing, try to come at it from a different angle. Sometimes that can be a great way to sidestep a mental block!

*****

Marcy KennedyMarcy Kennedy is a science fiction and fantasy author who believes there’s always hope. Sometimes you just have to dig a little harder to find it. She’s also the author of the bestselling Busy Writer’s Guides series, which focuses on giving authors deep teaching while still respecting their time.

You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth on her website. Don’t forget to subscribe to her free newsletter. New subscribers receive a copy of her mini-book Strong Female Characters as a thank-you gift!

*****

Internal Dialogue coverInternal dialogue is the voice inside our heads that we can’t ignore, even when we want to. We second-guess ourselves, pass judgment on the world around us, and are at our most emotionally vulnerable. And the same needs to be true for our characters.

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.

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!

*****

Thank you, Marcy! I read through this book again to prepare this post, and I was blown away once more by the insights shared within.

I’d go so far as to recommend this book as a must-have for every fiction author (unless they write in a distant or omniscient POV that doesn’t use internal dialogue). Those of you who have followed my blog for a while know that I rarely give purchase recommendations like this, but Marcy’s Internal Dialogue deserves it. It’s that good, and it’s that important for us to be skilled in the technique.

As I stated in my review (scroll down at the link), “The techniques for how to properly use internal dialogue are critical for developing character arcs and motivations. This is advanced stuff that helps a writer go from technically proficient to a fantastic storyteller.”

Even though I apparently “know” this skill well enough to be used as an example of how to do it, I still found great insights, tips, and answers to questions I didn’t even know I had—on every page. And yeah, I’m gushing, but if an under-$5 book can make a difference in our storytelling, I hope you’ll forgive me for wanting to let you know. *smile*

Are you familiar with internal dialogue and how to use it? Have you struggled with any of these problems in your writing? Or have you struggled with internal dialogue—using too much, using too little, knowing how and when to best use it? Have you seen bad internal dialogue in books, and if so, what made it bad? Do you have any questions for Marcy?

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46 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee August 27, 2015 at 6:37 am

Agreed entirely, on both the importance of internal dialogue and the issues it fixed. I don’t like approaching it as that, though, because “dialogue” is between two people—and “monologue” tends to get confused with “ranting”, so that doesn’t work great, either.

I usually approach the concept from the perspective of the character. Characters are supposed to be people. People always make sense to themselves, which means they react to things around them.

It’s all part of connectivity, coherence. 🙂

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Jami Gold August 27, 2015 at 6:52 am

Hi Carradee,

Personally, I’ve always called it internal monologue or internalizations, but I wanted to keep the terminology in line with Marcy’s book for this post. 🙂

She actually has an interesting note in one of the appendices about the differences some see between the terms. I’d guess she settled on “dialogue” because that seems to be the most common. (So simply from a keyword perspective, she made the right call. LOL!)

As you mentioned, “internal dialogue” doesn’t work for me personally because there’s no “di,” no second party to the speech. But she points out that some could differentiate between internal dialogue and monologue because sometimes we do talk to ourselves in an “expecting an answer” way–“Okay, self, where did you put those keys?”

I tend to think of soliloquies as closer to ranting than an internal monologue, but you’re right that another term for ranting is monologuing. How does internalizations work for you? 😉

Great point about connectivity. Showing the cause and effect or action-reaction of how things are connected is all part of keeping our story and our characters internally logical and coherent. All of these writing concepts tie together as well. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee August 27, 2015 at 10:42 am

I do like internalizations. Main issue with that is it’s abstract enough to require explanation/definition, for writers to connect it to the reaction concept. There is a difference between internal and external reactions, which all inherently part of point of view. 🙂

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Jami Gold August 27, 2015 at 12:15 pm

Hi Carradee,

Very true. 🙂 I try to explain terms when I use them, but I probably forget sometimes. And as you said, the context of what it means for reactions and point of view are lost without a larger explanation. Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Marcy Kennedy August 27, 2015 at 7:35 am

Thanks for taking the time to share a comment 🙂 So much of the writing process is figuring out what way of approaching these concepts works for us!

You could just call it character thoughts as well. Jami’s right about why I chose the term “internal dialogue” for the book. That’s the most commonly used terminology for it, and so I wanted to make it accessible to the largest number of readers. (I wish we had standardized terms in the writing world, but sadly we don’t!)

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Jami Gold August 27, 2015 at 8:30 am

Hi Marcy,

Yes, standardized terms would make things so much easier. LOL! Thanks again for the great post!

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Carradee August 27, 2015 at 10:46 am

Standardized terms would make some things easier, but some would be more difficult. (Explaining things to folks who don’t grasp the standard term.)

As there are entire classes of people who redefine terms as a matter of course, I find variable jargon useful for helping folks grasp the importance of defining terms…and the dangers and even outright manipulation that can be caused by leaving them undefined.

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Connie August 27, 2015 at 2:14 pm

I found this helpful. The book I’m currently working on won’t reveal the main character’s backstory until late in the story. At least that’s my plan for now. I try not to dump too much at once, but when she starts talking to her friend it all starts to come out nonstop.
Hopefully, the readers will like my characters and stories as much as I do. I just need to write faster!

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Marcy Kennedy August 27, 2015 at 2:35 pm

I’m glad you found my post helpful 🙂

Don’t beat yourself up too much about how fast or slow you’re writing. I know there’s a trend now to do fast drafts, but not everyone is a fast writer, nor can everyone become one. (I’m a snail-paced writer myself.) Consistency in output is much more important because faster doesn’t necessarily mean better–it just means more 🙂

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Jami Gold August 27, 2015 at 5:09 pm

Hi Connie,

As Marcy said, don’t beat yourself up with how long it takes to get the story down. My “fast-drafting” is like everyone else’s normal because I’m such a slow writer. LOL!

For your story, you could give hints throughout the early part of the story to build up a bit of curiosity if you wanted. For example, if there’s something she’s not revealing because she doesn’t want to think about it, you could have a half sentence of her starting to think about it and then shoving the thought away.

Here’s an example of how I gave that type of hint in Treasured Claim:

“At the thought, a memory flashed—her mother’s lifeless face sparkling with blood—and she shoved it away.”

I’m not sure if that would work with your story or not, but I thought that was a neat trick to show readers that there’s more to the story. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Deborah Makarios August 27, 2015 at 4:20 pm

I love following my characters’ internal reaction to something – but I do struggle with whose I can show when. Is this something you’d only use for a POV character? What if you have only one POV character – can you only get an insight into that one person?
I think I struggle with this as most of my writing is instinctive, based on decades of reading, and what I didn’t learn that way I really struggle to comprehend. I can usually tell when something’s wrong, but not always what, or how to fix it. Instinct only takes you so far 🙁

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Jami Gold August 27, 2015 at 5:18 pm

Hi Deborah,

Yes, these internal thoughts would be only for the POV character of each scene. Otherwise, we’d run into blatant head-hopping issues. Marcy’s book touches on this a bit and how the rules change if we’re doing a omniscient POV. Her next book will be on POV, and I’m looking forward to that one too. 🙂

When we want to give insights into other characters, we can use their physical cues (the Emotion Thesaurus has great lists for each emotion), or we can have the POV character guess at the other character’s thoughts (we’d want to make it clear that they’re guessing, otherwise it would be out-of-POV).

Let us know if you still have questions. Marcy’s a POV guru and saves me from out-of-POV issues in my stories all the time. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Marcy Kennedy September 1, 2015 at 4:39 pm

Since Jami answered your question already, I wanted to give you a little example to show how you can use your POV character to interpret or guess at what another character is thinking/feeling. In this example, Sherry is the POV character.

“I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear,” Sherry said.
Tom shrugged off her touch and turned away.
An ache started deep in her belly and expanded up into her chest. Could he not even stand to look at her anymore?

The fun part of this is that Sherry might be wrong and that can lead to great tension within the story 🙂

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Karen McFarland August 27, 2015 at 6:23 pm

Oh boy. Internal dialogue. This is a biggie for me as Marcy well knows. She is beating me on the head over this. No, she’s not. Marcy is a sweetie and very patient. Thankfully. I tend to write distant third person and Marcy kindly has shown me how to use internal dialogue to draw my reader in. It’s been a slow process. I’m still working on it. Unfortunately, this is not my only weakness. But I am confident, with Marcy’s help, I may become a better writer. One can only hope. Thank you Marcy! And thank you Jami for being such a gracious host. You two make a good team! 🙂

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Jami Gold August 27, 2015 at 9:39 pm

Hi Karen,

LOL! Yes, Marcy is wonderful and patient, and I’m glad you’re sticking with it to work on internal dialogue. It’s definitely a tricky thing to get right.

Too much, and our story’s pacing can feel slow, the voice can feel overly chatty, or the writing style can feel too “on the nose” or told rather than shown. But too little, and our story can feel less emotional, character motivations can be lacking, or readers can feel too distant from our characters. When it’s just right though, our story, voice, and characters all sing. 🙂 Good luck with getting the hang of it, and thanks for the comment!

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Marcy Kennedy September 1, 2015 at 4:46 pm

I know it’s difficult to see when you’re so close to the story, but you’ve grown in leaps, Karen. You’re doing great!

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Glynis Jolly August 27, 2015 at 7:48 pm

Hi Marcy

I’ve been writing internal dialogue into my novel, but sometimes questioning if I should have it in there. Now I know I’m doing the right thing.

Through my main character’s thoughts, I’m revealing parts of her personality that would normally not be detected during the course of a work day or whatever other situation calls for her to mind her P’s and Q’s. I also use it to point out those little things (through her perspective) in the other characters that will move the story along.

I questioned whether using this technique was kosher. You can’t imagine how relieved I am. You see, I’ve just started the climax scenes. The thought of going all the way back to the beginning to take the thoughts out was plaguing my mind. Thank you for writing this article.

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Jami Gold August 27, 2015 at 9:41 pm

Hi Glynis,

Yay! I’m so glad that I brought Marcy here and set your mind at ease. 🙂 Good luck finishing the last part of your story, and thanks for the comment!

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Rachel Funk Heller August 27, 2015 at 8:36 pm

Love This! Love Jami, Love Marcy, as soon as she released her internal dialogue book, I grabbed it. I read it before I begin each revision session. She is such a great talent and a wonderful resource for ALL writers, busy or otherwise. Great job you guys.

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Jami Gold August 27, 2015 at 9:42 pm

Hi Rachel,

LOL! Yeah, I wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer from her, even if I had to wait months for her to have time for the guest post. Luckily we didn’t have to wait that long. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

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Kassandra Lamb August 27, 2015 at 10:18 pm

Wow! Great post. Great book. Great series. Love it!

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Jami Gold August 27, 2015 at 10:19 pm

Hi Kassandra,

I agree. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Connie Cartisano August 28, 2015 at 3:54 am

In my second novel, the main character is the strong, silent type. I have a hard time knowing how to convey what he’s really about through gestures and mannerisms. Internal monologue is a great help but there are times when I don’t know how to use it. For example, he would not be recounting an event–as I the storyteller would–that he remembers in response to a stimulus. I will definitely look for Ms. Kennedy’s book.
Thanks for this post, Jami.

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Jami Gold August 28, 2015 at 6:45 am

Hi Connie,

Exactly! I picked on the Green Lantern movie long ago for having the main character experience a flashback to his dad as he’s trying to stop a plane from crashing. O.o That’s just not going to ring true.

Marcy touches on tips for all of those situations in her book, so I hope it helps. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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angie Arcangioli August 28, 2015 at 5:31 am

I read all of your posts but lurk. I had to exit lurkdom here. I’ve been struggling with info dump -vs- internal dialog. Learning that it is a reaction makes so much sense. Congratulations for your mention as an example.

I’ve been wondering how to format internal dialog and will definitely purchase Marcy’s book. In a recent line editing webinar I took from Jerry Jennkins, (I’ve never read his books but the webinar was a mind blow) he said contemporary genre writing is tending towards not italicizing thoughts. I look forward to reading what Marcy says. It’s one the questions I’ve been searching to answer.

This is great:
“We second-guess ourselves, pass judgment on the world around us, and are at our most emotionally vulnerable. And the same needs to be true for our characters.”

I’m almost finished listening to the S.C. Stephens audiobook THOUGHTFUL. It’s all internal dialog. So is Paula Hawkins THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. Even GONE GIRL was mostly internal dialog. Those are written in 1st POV. Maybe I’m not spot on about my examples but other 1st POV books I’ve read are different, less reflective.

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Jami Gold August 28, 2015 at 8:02 am

Hi Angie,

LOL! Welcome from lurkdom. 😀

Yes, Marcy’s book goes through all the formatting options and the pros and cons of each one. In general, especially if we’re writing deep POV, we wouldn’t italicize thoughts unless we were trying to emphasize a particular line. The way Marcy explains the different kinds of internal dialogue is brilliant and should clear up the questions. 🙂 (And if you come up with any later, let me know, and I’ll see if I can help!)

Good point about 1st person POV stories! Marcy touches on the differences in her book, because as you mentioned, the line between narrative and internal dialogue can be very gray and wavy with those, depending on the style. Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Marcy Kennedy August 28, 2015 at 1:03 pm

Hi Angie,

I’m so glad you decided to comment!

Italicizing thoughts was much more common when fiction preferred more narrative distance. Jerry Jenkins is right about the way modern fiction is moving. More books are being written in close (also called intimate or deep POV), and in those cases, internal dialogue tends seamlessly integrate with the rest of what’s happening. I do go into all of that in-depth in my book. If you have any questions after reading it, feel free to let me know. I’m happy to help as well!

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Debra August 28, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Another great post. I will definitely check out the book. I have been using internal dialogue to connect backstory with an event, and to show the why of character’s actions. Based on what I’ve read, I think I’m on the right track. Also, I really appreciated the question on the use of Italics for this. That has felt a bit tricky to me.

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Jami Gold August 28, 2015 at 3:03 pm

Hi Debra,

Yes, and Marcy gives guidelines on how to make sure we’re not going overboard with it as well. We want the internal dialogue to flow, not be overdone, and feel like their voice and POV. We need editors because we’re not always the best judge of how something reads to others. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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dolorah August 28, 2015 at 6:47 pm

Marcy, thank you for the internalization lesson. Lots to think about when using this essential element of writing believable characters. I often lose interest in a character/story when the character notices things (like their hair or dress) inappropriately. Or when they are suddenly enjoying the sunset while someone is getting murdered on the hilltop. Gotta be careful in those situations.

Jami: so awesome you got a mention in the book. You have arrived!! Thanks for hosting Marcy today 🙂

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Jami Gold August 29, 2015 at 8:03 am

Hi Delorah,

Exactly! Those are great examples of horrible times to indulge in that kind of internal dialogue. LOL!

Getting this aspect of our writing “right” definitely means finding the right balance. Too much is just as much of a problem as too little. Good luck with finding that balance, and thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Serena Yung August 28, 2015 at 7:14 pm

Hi Jami and Marcy,

As I’ve said to Jami, my WIP has a huge number of internal dialogues, lol. This is not just because I enjoy writing them, but also because in my genre, the Chinese martial arts, it’s the norm to write LOTS of internalizations. I enjoy reading these internal thoughts too. So I’m very happy to hear that internal dialogue can help us with characterization, character arcs, backstory, emotions, motivations, etc. I don’t think I’ve ever paid explicit attention to ID’s multi-functionality, but it really is such a cool and useful thing!

And I’m glad that as far as stimulus-reaction is concerned, I seem to be on the right track. It’s always a case of my characters reacting to something that happened, something somebody said or did, or something the character themselves felt, etc.

(I’m happy that Treasured Claim will be featured in Marcy’s book too. 😀 Jami knows how much I love TC and Elaina!)

It’s funny that you talk about making potentially unlikable characters likable through their thoughts. For me, the opposite often happens, where I have an originally very likable character, but once you see all the petty or mean thoughts he thinks, he immediately becomes less likable. 🙁 But on the other hand, his petty and mean thoughts make him sound more realistic as a person. So I think it’s about striking a balance between making a character likable and showing their less pleasant sides to enhance realism.

For POV, my story, as well as the Chinese martial arts genre, tends to use an omniscient POV that nevertheless shows readers the characters’ thoughts. But for each scene, though we can dive into multiple characters’ heads, there is usually a “main POV character” from whom we hear most internalizations. For the non-main POV characters, we may hear their thoughts too, but usually the dip into their heads is very brief. And as it is omniscient, the author (or the omniscient narrator) is allowed to make comments.

Marcy, Jami, what do you think of this issue?:

In stories that use such an omniscient but also internal POV, there are often times when you’re not sure if a particular thought is from the character or from the author/ narrator. In the martial arts story I just read (a very famous one that got made into several TV series), we often see misogynistic commentaries in the text.

Now I’m not always sure if it was the author/ narrator who said those misogynistic things, or the character last mentioned who thought these things. And if it is the author/ narrator, I have to keep in mind that these thoughts may not be the author’s true beliefs. Who knows, he might have been sarcastic when he wrote those comments, lol.

(Btw I just don’t take those misogynistic comments seriously, as one, the stories are fantastically written that I’m happy to keep reading anyway, and two, those statements are obviously not true. There were so many claims saying that “Women are all X” or “Women all do X when they encounter situation Y.” =_= I’m a woman and I’m not at all like that.)

Anyway, what do you think about this confusion of internal dialogue/ narration? In this case, it’s kind of important to know whether it was the narrator’s opinion, the author’s opinion, or the character’s, or a combination of the above, because those thoughts were really so sexist, lol.

Ah, I’m glad that there’s a part about italicizing internal dialogue in Marcy’s book. 🙂 Another issue is, sometimes the internal monologue is framed in the third person, but sometimes in the first person even if the book is in third person or omniscient. The martial arts stories I’ve read do both third and first person monologues, so I do both too, lol. But it would be nice to get some clarity on that, so I look forward to reading Internal Dialogue!

One more thing. Someone mentioned the problem of excessive internal dialogue. I read an online story that really had way too much internalization that it was bogging the pace and making us lose sight of what’s actually happening action and dialogue-wise. The extensive internalizations were great at creating lots of psychological depth for the characters, but yeah the pace really got slowed sometimes.

On the other hand, Dostoyevsky writes a lot of “psychological meanderings”, where they are not exactly internal monologue, but they do describe the character’s inner psychological state, thoughts, and feelings. Normally you would worry that this would slow down the story too much, yet for Dostoyevsky, this actually only made the story feel incredibly deep and insightful, not at all slow. His books are in fact page-turners!

So I’m trying to emulate what Dostoyevsky does, because I love that style so much, but at the same time, I’m trying to avoid what that online writer did. The latter’s story was still really good, though. I mean it was over 1,000 pages and in my non-first language (Chinese) but it was so fascinating that I persevered and finished reading the whole story, lol.

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Jami Gold August 29, 2015 at 8:29 am

Hi Serena,

In Marcy’s book, she gives tips about how to handle internal dialogue in omniscient POV. The main issues to watch out for are a) making sure it’s truly an omni POV and not just headhopping and b) making sure the reader always knows what’s going on. So omni tends to use thought tags and other methods to keep the omniscient narrative distance and make it clear who’s thinking what.

As you noted about omni, the normal type of internal dialogue might come from the narrator and not a character at all, while the thoughts of the characters themselves would often be very brief–and clearly marked with a “he thought” or “she thought” tag. At the very least, something like “it seemed to her that…” would clue in the reader about who’s thinking what.

The important consideration is that you’re well-read in your genre so you know the expectations. Our advice won’t do you much good if we’re commenting on whether or not something is acceptable in English and your situation within Chinese writing is completely different. 🙂

In regards to the too-much-internal-dialogue issue, I’ve read stories where the pace bogged down and the writing felt overly-voice-y and chatty. Now that I know more about writing, I’d bet those stories had too much internal dialogue. The character voice was strong, so the author had probably included every snarky or sarcastic comment the character had because they thought it was fun.

The book series has sold well, so voice obviously worked for many readers. For me, however, the story felt more like a running internal dialogue with a touch of plot here and there. LOL! I tend to see this problem more in 1st person POV stories than in 3rd person POV, but technically, it could happen in either.

I hope that answers your questions. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung August 29, 2015 at 11:12 am

I look forward to reading the part about omniscient internal dialogue. 😀 Yeah, I tend to use internal dialogue tags too, because you know how fond I am of clarity, lol. However, there are some times where it’s unclear whether my character is thinking X or the narrator is…I’m not TOO worried about that, since I see lots of traditionally published books, including the Chinese martial arts stories, do that. Yet just because this method is acceptable doesn’t mean I have to stick with it…

And I think I mentioned to you how it can be fun to tease the reader, in making it confusing whether the narrator or character thought a certain thought. XD Maybe this is a particular style of the martial arts genre and some other books.

And yeah, the character thoughts in the martial arts genre tend to be relatively brief. I have some longer thoughts, though, partly because I still need to improve my Chinese enough to express myself more succinctly, lol. But partly because I want to emulate Dostoyevsky’s method: The good thing about long internal dialogue is that it creates a feeling of depth and intensity, especially the latter. The effect is so amazing when Dostoyevsky uses those long, consecutive paragraphs to create a sense of madness and insanity, lol.

But again, I think it’s all a balancing act, and knowing when to write longer ones and when to write shorter ones. I suspect Dostoyevsky was successful at it because he knew how to adjust and time them properly. I’ll need to reread some of his works to check. 🙂

Interesting that the voice made up for it in that popular series!

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Jami Gold December 5, 2015 at 9:45 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, this is definitely one area where the Chinese style is different from the English style. Interesting!

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Mike September 4, 2015 at 7:34 am

Marcy,

Very thoughtful advice, especially about the action-reaction that carries a story forward. Thank you.

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Jami Gold September 4, 2015 at 7:55 am

Hi Mike,

Wasn’t that a great insight about how action-reaction applies to internal dialogue and story flow? 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Mike September 4, 2015 at 11:08 am

Jami Gold,

Yes, it was. I stop by here often for insight and instruction. Thanks for what you do.

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Jami Gold September 4, 2015 at 11:13 am

Aww, thank you for the kind words, Mike! I’m happy to help. 🙂

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