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.
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 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 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?Pin It