5 Key Ways to Balance Internal Monologue with Pitfalls to Avoid

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Attribution – Niki K (Wikimedia Commons)

John Gilstrap had an excellent post yesterday on Internal Monologue that resonated with me. He gave great examples of what works and what may not, with explanations on his sage reasoning. He certainly gave me things to think about in my own writing.

I tend to write in deep POV and very tight, with sparse narratives. This is especially true when I write my novella length stories for Kindle World, which is a great exercise in writing a tight plot and keeping the pace up.

In my full novels, I reign in my internal monologue and make it focused, with the character having a journey from beginning to end of the book, as well as a journey even within each scene, so I don’t repeat the deep POV thoughts.

On the FOR WRITERS resource on my website, I have a post titled – START WITH A BANG. If you scroll down to the “Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out?” sub-heading, you’ll find a section on how I let dialogue be the starting framework and how I layer in elements to fill out a scene. Internal monologue is vital to establishing my character’s journey and emotional growth and it’s something I focus on a great deal – even when I do my final draft read – but it’s the last thing I add to any scene, because I want to control it and isolate the journey to avoid pitfalls.

Despite my own methods, I greatly admire writers like Michael Connelly (particularly his Bosch series) where his mastery of his character’s internal views feel so authentic of an experienced war weary cop. He effortlessly brings in Bosch’s personal relationships and his workload to give a 360 view of this man’s life. That’s not an easy thing to do. It requires an intense knowledge of his character Bosch.

No matter how a writer learns how to craft internal monologue, it is easily one of the areas an author can veer off course and overuse…or under use, for that matter. Have you ever read a book that is all action, devoid of emotion or insight into the character’s internal battle and conflict? This is definitely a balancing game to get internal monologue to enhance your writing and make your stories memorable for readers.

Key Points to Finding the Right Balance for Internal Monologue:

1.) DIALOGUE – If you see your narrative paragraphs stretching out onto the page in weighty clumps, look for ways to make your internal monologue lean and mean by use of dialogue. This is something I have to pay attention to, even with my sparse style. Clever dialogue is a challenge, but it can be so much fun to write.

Plus, effective dialogue can help you pace your novel and tease the reader with red herrings or mystery elements, and not a plot dump of internal thoughts.

2.) LESS IS MORE – It’s easy to get carried away with every aspect of a character’s POV. The reader doesn’t need to know every logical argument for their action or inaction. People don’t think like this, especially in the heat of the moment in an action scene.

Have patience to let the story unfold. Too much internal thought can dry up pace and bore readers. The reader doesn’t need to know everything, especially all at once in a dump.

Also be careful NOT to repeat the same thought over and over. Repeating internal strife does not constitute a journey. It only reminds the reader that the author is searching for different ways to describe the same thing. Oy.

3.) TIMING – pick your spots when internal monologue makes the most sense. James Scott Bell wrote a great post on What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction where he talks about starting a novel with a character in thought, no action or disturbance. Resist the urge to bury your reader in internal monologue right out of the gate.

In addition, if your character is in the middle of a shoot out, that would not be the most opportune time to share his feelings on getting dumped by his girlfriend, not even if she is the one shooting at him. (Although I would love to read a scene like that.) To make the danger seem real, stick with the action and minimize the internal strife until it’s logical for the character to ponder what happened after.

Plus, if you spill the exposition too early, the reader won’t retain it as well as if you had waited for the right timing, when the reveal would be most effective.

4.) SHOW DON’T TELL – Once you get into the quagmire of telling a character’s POV, it’s too easy to get carried away with the rest of your book. If you can SHOW what a character is feeling, and let the reader take what they will from the scene, you will leave an image nugget that will stick with them. TELLING doesn’t have the same impact.

5.) ACTION & DIALOGUE DEFINE CHARACTER – These are the two areas where readers will most remember a book. Unless you’re into author craft and can appreciate the internal monologue finesse of John Gilstrap and Michael Connelly and many other author favorites, you probably may not remember how effectively the author used internal monologue. It’s like the color black. It goes with everything in such a subtle way that you may not notice it.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What tips do you have to share on how you handle internal monologue in your own writing?

2.) With the key points I listed above, do any of them pose a particular challenge for you?

3.) Name a recent book you read where you noticed the author’s deft handling of internal monologue. (I would love to expand my TBR pile.)

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45 thoughts on “5 Key Ways to Balance Internal Monologue with Pitfalls to Avoid

  1. Great post, Jordan. I try to keep my internal monologue in snippets. Short incomplete sentences. I do ramble on with it sometimes though, but on the first edit I’ll whack a lot of it out of there. It can get boring quickly if it’s too lengthy. Make the point and get on with the story, right?

    Funny you should mention Michael Connelly. I love the Bosch series on Amazon (the most recent season was kinda meh though), so I thought I’d give the books a try. I’m just about to finish the first in the series and love it. It’s woefully outdated (pay phones, fax machines, pagers), which would typically bother me, but not in this book. It’s a good story made great by the character of Bosch. Looking forward to starting book number two soon!

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    • Why would a book set in the ’90s with ’90s technology have to be extra good (e.g., Bosch quality) for the “outdated” technology not to bother you? Do you also refuse to read books with horse-and-buggies?

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      • “Bother” probably wasn’t the right word. Dated technology tends to pull me (ever so briefly) out of the story. (Oh, look! He’s using a reel-to-reel tape. Remember those?) I suppose it’s because I mostly read/write/watch thrillers set in current times. Not to say I don’t enjoy older books as well. I just don’t read them that often.

        That said, there’s nothing worse (for me) than reading a book set in modern times where the author ignores the realities of technology. It’s getting harder and harder to put characters in isolated situations where they don’t have the ability to communicate with others. Dead cell phone battery and/or poor reception can only go so far.

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        • Yeah. Dead battery as ‘diabolus ex machina.’

          And today’s bad guy better be smart enough to take your cellphone before he dumps you into his trunk. (I think a while back someone on KZB mentioned that fictional criminals have to be a lot smarter than most real-world criminals.)

          (I’ve also just gone back to start the Bosch series at the beginning.)

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          • Hi Eric. Good points. Your comment on real world criminals made me chuckle. Most of them are as dumb as a bag of barber hair, but unless we’re writing a comedy, most readers want more diabolical bad guys.

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            • …dumb as a bag of barber hair… That’s great. You always come up with great lines. I’m still laughing.

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          • Thanks for the link to your short story.

            Oh, the rotary phone. Reverse technology twist!

            I remember using them and hating when I had to call someone with a lot of 7s, 8s, 9s, or 0s in their number. Invariably, somewhere along the process my hand would slip and I’ve have to start all over. Thanks for sharing!

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            • Oh, Tom. Rotary dial. Oy. I do remember that.

              I created a YA proposal based on a futuristic world that was set 20-25 years into the future. I knew there should be improvements to technology, but I didn’t want my new world to look like The Jetsons on steroids.

              To come up with ideas on areas I could show technological improvements, I decided to go back 20-25 yrs to see what areas had changed the most as compared to present day tech.

              It was really interesting to reinvent the cell phone (I created a hyped version of the smart watch before it was “a thing”). I also played with how news would be shared, and how elected officials had changed public programs.

              I set the story in a small town, that would mitigate the advancement in that location. I wanted to ground the reader in a world they could still relate to, but when my characters were to go to NYC of the future, that’s where I could flex my imagination. A new type of reality TV show would be the draw and I based it on certain shows today.

              I also extrapolated politics with some crazy things that seemed exaggerated at the time, but now…not so much. I would give glimpses into politics of the future whenever the holographic news came on, but similar to the way things are today (like with my parents), the news is playing ALL DAY. Some things shouldn’t change.

              In one instant, I had China owning and operating our state parks. Pretty scary.

              It’s fun to play with technology and dare to do some crazy stuff.

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        • These days, I look for ways to make newer technology play a hand in the crime. I recently did a story where a modified smart watch played havoc with a cop & his protected witness. It can also be fun to research DARPA funded projects to adapt them into a covert, high tech mission if the black ops team is well-funded by international benefactors. But it’s definitely important to respect the use of technology most people would have, including ways to have that technology used against them by a savvy geek.

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        • I am a Harry Potter devotee, but I always wondered why, in the modern world where there is access not to just technology, but to magic (!) the kids all wrote with quill dip pens.

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    • Connelly ages Bosch, something many authors don’t do. Sandford has aged Davenport too. These characters have been around for awhile. I haven’t noticed the technology gap since I’ve been reading Connelly for a very long time.

      I also enjoy Robert Crais & his PI series set in LA with Elvis Cole. His spinoffs have been good too.

      Amazon Prime has the Bosch series & it’s really good. Great cast & you can see the plots of his earlier books unfold.

      Thanks, Tom.

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      • “I haven’t noticed the technology gap since I’ve been reading Connelly for a very long time.”

        I think Connelly has fun with making Harry adapt to technology. I especially enjoy how his daughter has to teach him what he can do with a cell phone.

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  2. My tip would be to get a copy of “Self Editing for Fiction Writers” by Browne and King.

    I agree that Connelly is a master. Everything Harry “thinks” seems normal, and you have to read twice to realize Connelly is telling, giving back story.

    As for my writing … maybe it’s because I have trouble paying attention to people talking; my brain takes what they say and runs with it, that my characters seem to be thinking as much as they’re doing or speaking. Since I write Deep POV, I try to stay of the page and let the characters run the show. Their voices should be obvious whether it’s dialogue, internal monologue, or narration.

    I’ll share an excerpt from one of my books to show how I think of internal monologue.

    Although she was hungry enough to eat the soup cold, straight from the can, Torie put a pot on the stove. She popped the lid, scraping the last bit of soup into the pot, and lit the burner. She set a place at the round wooden table. Pulled a wine glass from the cabinet. Okay, so maybe it was really a wine plastic, like most of the kitchenware that had come with the cottage, but the overall effect was what mattered. She would sit at the table and have her dinner like a lady. Aspen Corners might not be the height of civilization, but that was no excuse for not being civilized.

    And an unedited snip from the WIP:

    Fish made sure his pack was secure, then wrapped his feet around the rope, grabbed on, and stepped into the wind. Sliding down the rope, as always, he imagined he was a fireman sliding down a brass pole. A fantasy of his youth.
    He hit the ground, rolled, and jumped to his feet.
    Whoever wrote that song about the wind whipping down the plains had it right, plains being the operative word, not the state they were located in.

    If I’m off base with what you’re looking for, let me know.

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    • I like the first par. of the WIP example. The second one, though, is too abstruse. First (maybe it’s just me) I had to realize the char wasn’t talking about a mental state. Then I had to remember “Oklahoma” (which I’m old enough to do, but how many of your readers are?). Now I’m wondering if this char always thinks this way. If so, could be part of their characterization. All of which took me out of the story.

      “As the dust riddled his blinking eyes, he wondered why [insert correct name] was so enamored with ‘the wind sweeping’ down the plain.'” But it’s still almost an Easter egg. Not to mention copyright issues.

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      • Thanks – the first is from a published book, so my editor has had her hand in it.

        The second is rough, nobody’s seen it but my critique partners (and now TKZers). Plus, as with any snippet, it’s out of context. I chose it for how I approach internal monologue.

        Thankfully, my editor is very careful about copyright and trademark infringement, so I trust her on those matters.

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      • You make a good point, Eric, about older (perhaps obscure) references that some readers wouldn’t get. Then if you over-explain, that’s a slippery slope. Writing is hard.

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    • These are solid examples, Terry, but in your unedited WIP, you had me until he started singing OKLAHOMA.

      I have a weird sense of humor & constantly have to resist diverting off a scene with an odd detour. My sister pointing this out to me in a WIP where I deflated the suspense with a weird quirky reference. I had to agree & have watched for those diversion lines when I edit.

      As authors, since we’re not really in physical danger, or sliding down a rope, we let our unfiltered minds put anything on the page to see if it survives our edits. It’s part of our process, right? Some lines stay & some go.

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      • Thanks, Jordan –

        It’s windy where I live! Really windy a lot of times, even though I’m in the mountains, not on the plains. That reference came out of personal experience (with that line uttered by a much younger than I am person) but sometimes “just because it’s real doesn’t make it good.”

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  3. A moment earlier, she’d thrown her engagement ring at me. Now she’s throwing lead. I duck as the bullet narrowly misses. Damn, our honeymoon is over before it ever started.

    Couldn’t resist the prompt you offered, Jordan 🙂

    Thanks for the tip of layering in internal monologue as a last step in rewriting a scene. I struggle with belaboring the character’s strife, trying to find different ways to make the same point. In the future, I’ll follow your advice to make the point then move on to a new step in the journey.

    Your post today and John’s yesterday are perfect companion pieces. Thanks to both of you for a great discussion.

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    • Hi Debbie. Ha! Yes you DID answer my writing prompt challenge. As I was writing it for the post, using my unfiltered writer brain, I KNEW someone would rise to the challenge.

      I think of each scene as a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and end. A building block in the character’s journey. If you think of it that way, you may tackle your challenge differently.

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  4. “Less is more” is my current struggle. My main character is pretty much alone in the world (orphan, 19-year-old widow with 7 month old baby, no close friends) and struggling with identity issues. So far she does a ton of ruminating as she searches for the man who may be her father but also may be her mother’s killer.

    I’ve started to go back and edit the internal monologue down (lots of repetition to remove), but this draft is still heavily her and her internal struggles.

    One thing I’m doing it breaking the thought sequences into beats, the same as one does with conversations. (Gets up and makes a cup of coffee; changes the baby; waits impatiently for the light to change.)

    But it’s going to take work to find meaningful decisions and choices that can replace some of the monologue.

    The other thing, as I think about it, is that maybe I’m belaboring what can be implied once some baseline is established (too much on-the-nose rumination).

    Thanks to Jordan and John for this stimulating set of posts.

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    • Try giving her someone (or a pet) to talk to. A waitress or a landlady or a cop who has taken an interest in her, that she’s not sure she can trust.

      Dialogue is a great way to break apart those weighty internal monologues.

      I’m a believer in whittling down big paragraphs & giving the reader’s eye some white space for relief. Readers skim if they don’t get dialogue.

      Action & dialogue are key to readers & will be what they remember of a story. Give your character things to do that aren’t mundane every day chores. Give her survival actions or force conflict into her life where she must do things that she wouldn’t do in other circumstances.

      Good luck, Eric.

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  5. Excellent tips, Jordan. I am a Bosch fan too, of long standing.

    As far as an author who handles the balance of action and internal state, no one, IMO, has ever done it better than John D. MacDonald. Just one example is Contrary Pleasure, a multi-POV novel about a family business and intrigue. There is a whole chapter that is just the internal state of one character, and it is riveting. I’ve read that book a couple of times and have it close by for further study.

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  6. Jordan, excellent post. Coming from a screenwriting background, I tend to rely more on dialogue and action to reveal character. But when I go back and review, I add internal monologue whenever I feel some aspect of my character needs attention—especially when it comes to writing a series. I see character, dialogue, and internal monologue as layers to be laid on top of plot. Crazy, right?

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    • Not crazy at all, Steven. I can see how a script writer would use dialogue as a framework, with other layers brought in to fill out a work of fiction. That’s exactly how I taught myself to write (without being a script writer), as highlighted in my “building an onion” link. Thanks for weighing in.

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  7. Jordan-
    This is a particularly good post. Thank you.
    I think the caution concerning repetition in the internal thoughts/dialogue is particularly worth heeding.
    The exchange regarding the impact of technology is something I’ve been wrestling with. The ubiquitous cell phone and the resulting increase of phone conversations has made “phone dialogue” an increasing part of modern stories.
    There are style decisions to be made and craft aspects to consider in how one represents phone exchange.
    New technology and impact on writing might be an interesting topic for you or one of the other gurus sometime.
    Thanks again-great post!

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    • Thanks, Tom.

      Try texting. I use that on occasion, trying not to overuse. Then to add more challenges, I have a team of telepaths working with a black ops team, communicating amongst themselves without words. The key thing is moderation, but with the mix of communications, it’s important not to lose the reader. I only use italics to show telepathic thought. That kind of discipline is important.

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  8. Something that has struck me in our discussion here is that I could do better by adding personal relationships into the mix of a character’s story, that reflects on a protag’s journey & gives a reader insight into a character’s turmoil or life’s decisions. Readers really pick up on this stuff & often contact me with questions on where things are going, while I’m focused on plot & action.

    Give a guy a dog or a girlfriend & readers want to know what will happen next.

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  9. Yes, I have given a character a pet just so they have someone to talk to.

    I have heard of Deep POV, but haven’t paid much attention to it, write the way I write. After yesterday’s post I did some reading on the issue. I’m confused about it and can’t decide if what I write is regular POV or Deep POV.

    Most of what I write is in third person past tense, so I am not even sure Deep POV applies – as I said, so confused.

    Below is a paragraph fairly typical of a character of mine thinking. The character is by alone reflecting back on when they met. What kind of POV is this?

    The moment he asked her for a date he committed himself to lie to her, but it was only a date. Had he known that night the charming woman he danced with would become the most important person in his life he would have opted for a cigar on the porch. Within a week they had gone out together five times making their relationship the longest personal commitment he had made in years. Ray knew he was in trouble when, without any concern for the men who were waiting across town in his office, he was standing outside her apartment building holding a bundle of flowers hoping like an anxious school boy she would come home. He could only compare the fear he felt the day she told him she was going back to the states to the night in Yemen when he stood in a room not knowing which of its other occupants was the suicide bomber. He never saw himself as the kind of guy who would fall to his knees and beg a woman to marry him, but that’s exactly what he did. Even promising her if she stayed she would never regret it was a lie, he was certain one day she would. He wondered if that day had come.

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    • Hi Michelle.
      Let me help make some distinctions. I need to do this for myself, so please bear with me.

      POV is simply the point of view you choose to tell the story through. This could be the main story teller (main protagonist) for the overall book, or any character in a scene. For example, I might tell a story from my hero’s POV, but in one scene, I might choose to show him from a doctor’s POV at an ER where my hero is waiting for his wife to come out of emergency surgery. To show my hero from the eyes and observations of an outside party, like from his doctor’s POV, might seem odd, but Tom Clancy did this in his Patriot Games book to show how Ryan was torn up after his wife and child were involved in a hit and run car accident, with his wife fighting for her life in the ER, with him blaming himself. I never forgot the brilliance of Clancy’s choice to show a tired ER doc observing Ryan falling apart. But this is how POV can be shown.

      Deep POV can still be shown in third person past tense. This would be where you might describe the action as through one character’s POV (your hero, for example), but delved deeper into his observations with internal monologue.

      No matter what Person you use (third person in your case) or Tense (past in your case), you still would have a POV, which can be simply navigating the scene through your character eyes (I recommend one character per scene. Let’s not complicate things for this explanation.) – or you can dig deeper into your character’s head to pull out his or her unique views & opinions (Deep POV).

      When I first tried to understand Deep POV, I thought it was only the times a character cursed, as we all do inside our heads when someone cuts us off in traffic – Damn it! (italicized). But as I explored how internal monologue works, it can be described as that unique voice you give your character.

      Here’s an example from my website link above, that illustrates a simple POV in a description versus a Deep POV example.

      Example of pure 1 character POV—BEFORE—Outside the Quonset hut, a generator kicked on and hummed. Inside, filth covered the windows and the acrid stench of cat piss filled Sam’s nostrils. Cats dodged overturned tables and cardboard boxes. He followed McMurphy across the room, toward a rusty gas stove and a beat up metal desk with a cracked vinyl chair.

      Example of Deep POV—AFTER—The annoying generator outside masked the sounds of the night, but once Sam got inside, the quiet of McMurphy’s shit hole closed in on him—and the stench. Ammonia from cat piss took his breath away and the little fur balls peered out of their dingy hiding places like vultures spying fresh road kill.

      The BEFORE does the job, but is less memorable than the AFTER version where you get a sense of who Sam is as he’s coming into the hut. His language is more colorful and opinionated. You get the feeling you’re deeper into his head and seeing, not only through his eyes, but through his opinions and life experiences. The color of the character’s voice can really draw readers in.

      I’m reading a book now that is something I wouldn’t have picked up at all. I’m judging a contest, but the author has an amazing character voice, street slang, pop culture references, and humor. It’s a delightful read.

      I’ll respond to your sample in my next comment. Thanks for sharing.

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    • In your example, you have what I would characterize as a heavy, weighty paragraph, loaded with too much introspection that appears to ramble. Beta readers I’ve had in my past would’ve told me to Stick with the Action. Best advice ever.

      I liked how your guy reveals his soft underbelly with his girl. That’s his POV. It’s almost Deep, but I would want to hear more of his personality in his voice, maybe by giving him more colorful language or an attitude. In my example with the Quonset hut, Sam is a character who is jaded and has little respect for the guy he came to meet. He hates cats too.

      When you carry on the scene and get into the line “Ray knew he was in trouble when,” you veer into backstory, that veers again into a terrorist plot. There’s too much in one setting for a reader to digest. Many of the points I mention in my post today are seen in your example.

      First, keep the faith that you can learn this. We all started somewhere in our writing and had to learn. If you have patience in telling your story and relish the vivid scenes you can build with your character(s), you will learn what to edit out and what to add. It takes time and more writing to learn the craft. If this was easy, more people would be doing it.

      Thanks for sharing your example. I hope I answered your question. If not, ask away.

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      • Thank you so much for your help.

        I think my style is more in line with – especially their idea that it’s a kind of continuum (in 3rd person) from very distant to very intimate.

        The example I gave comes in around 80 pages into the story. The reader has already learned how they met from her POV. After a tragedy – this is the first time he has had a moment alone, time to fall apart (before and after that paragraph).

        And thank you for noticing his soft underbelly – before then the reader has only seen the dangerous and rough side of him.

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    • Browne and King (Self-editing for Fiction Writers) has been mentioned a couple of times today.

      I found their discussion of POV particularly helpful, especially their idea that it’s a kind of continuum (in 3rd person) from very distant to very intimate. They give good examples.

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      • That’s great. Thanks, Eric. It sounds like a very thorough review. I appreciate the heads up. I like the idea of a range from “very distant to more intimate.”

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  10. I swear we’re kindred spirits, Jordan. I do the same thing, build from dialogue, especially when it’s a particularly hard scene. By leaving the dialogue as the framework it allows me to continue on, uninterrupted. Fabulous post. I nodded in agreement the entire way through.

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    • I KNOW!!! We’re twinsies, Sue.

      When I had my energy industry day job, I would sneak away at lunch time to write the dialogue I envisioned for an upcoming scene that I would “fill out” when I wrote at night, on my own time. It turned into a method that I now follow automatically.

      Thanks for the chuckle.

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    • Withlegalmysteries I often start by writing the trial first, even though it is at the end of the story. Once I know I have all the necessary elements for however I want the verdict to go, then I know what has to come before it, and who has to discover or reveal the clue.

      Writing dialogue is my favorite.

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