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Inner Monologue

This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.

If your point-of-view character is hearing voices in her head, there’s no need for concern: it’s just inner monologue.

Inner monologue consists of the thoughts a character narrates to herself in such a way that the reader is privy to them. It’s a common enough tool, but it’s one that, when not used carefully, can dig you into some common pitfalls that are worth avoiding when possible. In this post we’ll explore how to make use of inner monologue without digging yourself in too deep.

Set It Off

One of the first things it’s worth watching for when it comes to inner monologue is making sure a reader can identify it as something separate from general exposition. One of the easiest ways to do this is to set the monologue off in italics. Let’s look at an example below.

The door parted and a man walked in.

Could it really be him? Shanae twirled a lock of hair around her finger, her eyes tracking him. Those blue eyes, that cobalt tie. It has to be.

Just like that, we get a sneak peek into Shanae’s head as she tries to sort out who the man entering the room might be.

Using italics shouldn’t always be the go-to solution, however. Though it works well in manuscripts told from the third-person point of view, it’s not really necessary when grounded in the first person.

The door opens; a man walks in.

I twirl a lock of hair around my finger, my eyes tracking him. Those blue eyes, that cobalt tie. It has to be him. Has to be.

The above example is essentially the same scene retold in the first person (and present tense). Notice that no italics were used, but it’s still apparent that we’re getting some personal insight into the main character’s observations. Imagine the final three lines of the example were set off in italics. Weird, right? If the writer were to set off every thought in italics when writing in the first person, readers would end up with pages littered with italics.

One pitfall that’s pretty common for early writers (and experienced ones, too) is the temptation to make sure readers are super aware that what they’re reading is coming from inside the head of a point of view character.

Oftentimes, said writers will flag these thoughts with qualifying verbs in what is commonly known as filtering. Let’s look at our example again, but with some filtering verbs thrown in.

I look to the door. It parts and a man walks in.

I twirl a lock of my hair around my finger, my eyes tracking him. I analyze those blue eyes, try to remember that cobalt tie. It has to be him. Has to be.

GROSS. Look at all that clunky verbiage bogging the passage down. We’ve added nine more words and received nothing in return for them! It now even kicks off with an example of filtering, wherein the narrator lets us know she’s looking at the door.

Answer this: in the first two examples, was it unclear that the narrator was the one doing the looking toward the door? Was it unclear that the narrator’s thoughts were, well, thoughts?

Exactly. Unless there’s a strong contextual, voice, or rhythmic argument to be made for the inclusion of these filters, avoid them whenever possible. They’re empty words that contribute nothing context can’t imply on its own.

BONUS: For more on avoiding filtering, check out this post by Chuck Palahniuk on LitReactor, or this one from yours truly that really zeroes in on this topic more in-depth.

Keep It Real

Where inner monologue is concerned, it’s important to keep things real. Keep them reasonable. As writers, it’s easy to project our own traits and knowledge onto our characters, and even easier to not realize we’re doing it.

Are you an art major writing a character who’s an accounting whiz? Unless your character graduated with a degree in art history, they shouldn’t be comparing a poorly maintained financial record to the angular chaos of Kandinsky’s Composition VIII.

If you’re a physicist writing a short story about a young soccer star, that character probably shouldn’t be considering things like whether the field’s coefficient of friction is great enough to require additional force on every pass. Instead, she might make the more character-grounded observation that the grass is longer and each pass will therefore have to be struck a bit harder. Keep your Greek-letter variables at home.

The point here is this–you know what you know, and characters know what they know. These are two separate things. Our characters’ world views should be influenced only by the summation of their own experiences and background. Inner monologue and observation about the world should reflect this.

Balance It Out

As with all things, balance is key. In the previous installment of this series, I wrote about the importance of not letting our characters climb atop a soapbox to preach for pages on end. The same applies to inner monologue.

Like everything else, inner monologue is just another tool we as writers have at our disposal. Some tools are better suited to some tasks than others, and are better used at some times than others.

If you’ve written a scene of high-octane action where a character must make split-second decisions on how to proceed, your prose should reflect that. If the timer only has four seconds to go, your main character probably doesn’t have time for four paragraphs of inner monologue–and even if they do, slowing things down like that at such a pivotal moment will surely compromise your reader’s ability to feel settled in the scene.

Not only that, but if you do go the route of setting your inner monologue off in italics, paragraph upon paragraph of it will make for a real eyesore on the page (and a snoozefest in the reader’s brain.

Summary

When it comes to inner monologue, remember the three keys:

  1. Set it off
  2. Keep it real
  3. Balance it out

For now, though, it’s my turn to set off, (hopefully) keep it real, and balance things out by saying tchau for now. As always, thanks for reading. Write on and write well.

Still have questions on inner monologue or writing in general? Feel free to reach out on Twitter or by email through the contact page.

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