Today’s post responds to a request from a TKZ reader who asked about internal monologue. (I’ve heard this referred to as internal dialogue, as well, but outside the world of psychoses, I’m not sure such a thing is possible.) This is my take on the way to present thoughts on the page.
Narrative voice. For fiction to work at its finest, every word of every line of every paragraph should advance either story or character, preferably both. I discussed this previously in a post I called The Point of View Tapestry, and more recently, I addressed it in a video on my YouTube Channel in a piece I call, Point of View and Voice. When writing in the first person or close third person, every line of narration serves as a presentation of a character’s point of view. As an example, consider this paragraph from Scorpion Strike, the next Jonathan Grave thriller (July, 2018):
[Gail] was still trying to process what she had just seen. She understood that she’d fallen in love with a crusader whose combat skills had been honed over nearly two decades of training and experience with the most elite Special Forces unit in the world. Yes, she’d seen him kill before. Indeed, she’d killed right alongside him. But those incidents had all involved firearms and extraordinary marksmanship. Killing with a knife seemed so personal, and Jonathan had wielded the blade with such expert precision that it took her breath away.
That entire passage is, in effect, internal monologue. We are seeing the world through Gail’s eyes. And, because this scene comes from very early in the novel, we learn a little backstory, too. In the previous scene, separated by a space break, we were in Jonathan’s point of view as he killed their attacker with a focused precision that clearly comes naturally to him. That scene was essentially internal monologue, as well. Done effectively, your narrative voice carries a lot of the water for internal monologue.
Quoted thought. The accepted practice these days is to italicize quoted thought, and then tag it as if it were dialogue: Nice place, Jonathan thought. It’s a simple, effective convention that I believe can easily be overdone. If the narrative voice handles the description of a place well, the reader–who is firmly rooted in a character’s point of view–will know simply by word choice whether or not the character is impressed or repelled.
I approach italicized quoted thought with the same trepidation with which I approach dialect. Misspellings and startling contractions stop the narrative and break the spell for the reader. (I feel the same about expressions in foreign languages that are then translated for the reader. A much better approach is, “Please have a seat,” he said in Russian. Why make me plow through unintelligible Cyrillic characters first?) A little bit goes a long, long way.
The reader who asked me to address this topic presented to me in an email a passage for which his freelance editor took him to task. He granted permission for me to share it here. This is a paragraph from his work in progress:
Phil was right. I’ve been doing my best to keep evil out or to deny it. But what’s the alternative? Permanent depression? I’m pretty depressed right now . . . Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe Lara was with some guy and something happened and he panicked and had to ditch the body.
His editor told him–and I agree–that this passage comes off as “inauthentic” if only because we don’t actually think in words. We certainly don’t think in complex logical analyses. We think in bursts of reaction and instinct that can be an enormous challenge to present effectively on the page. The example above doesn’t work because it is too complex. In this case, the fix is simple:
Phil was right, Paula thought. She’d been doing her best to keep evil out or to deny it. But what’s the alternative? Permanent depression? She was pretty depressed right now . . . Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe Lara was with some guy and something happened and he panicked and had to ditch the body.
The same passage that feels clunky in italicized thought works (though it’s absent context) as straight narrative and communicates the same thoughts.
As a further example that’s a little closer to my wheelhouse, there are probably dozens of considerations in drawing and firing a pistol, and while all of them are present in the shooter’s head, it would be inauthentic to articulate them on the page. Imagine . . .