August 27, 2015

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

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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Comments — What do you think?

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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. 🙂

Marcy Kennedy

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!)


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.


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!

Marcy Kennedy

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 🙂

Deborah Makarios

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 🙁

Marcy Kennedy

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 🙂

Karen McFarland

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! 🙂

Marcy Kennedy

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!

Glynis Jolly

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.

Rachel Funk Heller

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.

Kassandra Lamb

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

Connie Cartisano

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.

angie Arcangioli

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.

Marcy Kennedy

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!


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.


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 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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…  — Read More »


[…] Internal Dialogue: The Secret Sauce to Fixing Problems? by Marcy Kennedy […]


[…] Marcy Kennedy guest posts on Jami Gold’s blog on the topic of internal dialogue and three story problems it can help us address. […]


[…] Writing doesn’t have standardized terms like some other industries, and this leads to a lot of confusion among writers. (This actually came up in the comments on the guest post I wrote last week for Jami Gold about internal dialogue.) […]


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


Jami Gold,

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


[…] Here’s a post about writing internal dialogue that I found very insightful. Marcy Kennedy talks about solving three common problems by making sure all internal dialogue arises from a stimulus. On Jami Gold’s excellent website for writers.As a reader do you tune in or out when a character reveals his or her inner turmoils silently? What holds you? I agree with Marcy, but it mostly strikes me as a problem of voice–the stronger the voice of the character, the happier we are listening in. Click here for “Internal Dialogue: the Secret Sauce to Fixing Problems” by Marcy Kennedy… […]


[…] The Busy Writer’s Guides by Marcy Kennedy (such as Internal Dialogue, which covers a rarely mentioned writing technique extremely […]


[…] Busy Writer’s Guides by Marcy Kennedy (such as Internal Dialogue, which covers a rarely mentioned writing technique extremely […]


[…] Now notice how the examples above are all things showing how a character feels about and reacts to a situation. We use internalization (internal narrative or internal monologue) to reveal a character’s assumptions, rationalizations, and reasons for acting a certain way. Changing a character’s internalization changes a reader’s impression of a scene. […]


[…] smooth the insertion of our character’s thoughts […]


[…] Busy Writer’s Guides by Marcy Kennedy (such as Internal Dialogue, which covers a rarely mentioned writing technique extremely […]


[…] options for character development and reader immersion in deep POV (showing emotions, internalizations, […]

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