Internal Monologue

By John Gilstrap

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 . . .

I see that Harley’s hand is at an awkward angle. I bet he’s concealing a gun, so I’d better draw mine. Let me make sure that my shirttail doesn’t get in the way as I move my left hand to my abdomen to keep it out of the way while I move my right hand to the holster that is clipped to my belt at the four o’clock position . . . 
Or . . .
Jonathan didn’t like the angle of Harley’s arm. The son of a bitch has a gun.  Jonathan cleared his shirttail with his left hand as he moved his right to the holster on his hip . . .
Okay, that example is admittedly a bit over-the-top, but it illustrates the point. As I mentioned in the video referenced above, we tend to think of writing and the teaching thereof in terms of character and setting and dialogue and plot as if they were separate things, when in reality, they are all interdependent threads in the same garment.
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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

19 thoughts on “Internal Monologue

  1. Great post, John — Internal Monologue is something I use a LOT writing in deep POV.

    First, your quote: “I see that Harley’s hand is at an awkward angle. I bet he’s concealing a gun, so I’d better draw mine. Let me make sure that my shirttail doesn’t get in the way as I move my left hand to my abdomen to keep it out of the way while I move my right hand to the holster that is clipped to my belt at the four o’clock position . . . ”

    I had to laugh, because I’ve read a couple of books where that kind of description was riddled through it. Obviously written by a gun person who had to make sure everyone knew he was an “expert.”

    As for internal monologue (which is how I’ve heard it), Browne & King’s “Self Editing for Fiction Writers” has a great section on how to handle it. One “guideline” I’ve followed is if you’re writing in deep/close/intimate POV, you should never (OK, almost never), need “he thought” as a tag.

    And I’ve convinced my editor that the “talking to oneself” inner monologue the only place I’ll use italics … You idiot, why did you do that? Because “he wondered why he did that” doesn’t sound right, and the italics eliminate the need for a ‘he thought’ tag. I also set though italicized thoughts off in their own paragraph.

    • Terry, in general, I agree that tags are not necessary, but I confess that I probably overuse them for one simple reason: I’m fortunate that my novels are also produced as audio books. No matter how talented the voice artist, an audience can easily get lost without the dialogue tags.

      • Very true about audio. When I was auditioning narrators, I made it clear I had to be able to tell the difference between narrative, dialogue, and internal monologue and chose a passage reflecting that, and how they handled it was a big factor in who I hired.

  2. I’m no expert, but the example without the italics and attribution feels better to me, provided that, in the context, it’s absolutely clear to the reader than we’re in the character’s head.

    I’m a craft junkie, but this is an area where my thinking is still in the developmental stage. (I suppose we could say that everything we think we know is still in need of development.)

    In the Jonathan example (the “poor” example), it’s pretty clear that the actual writing is weak in that all the details are unnecessary. The passage would be weak, in my opinion, even if it were not interior monologue.

    But in the submitted passage, I really do not understand why you need the italics or the attribution.

    Could you help me to understand?

    • Sheryl, “need” is always a wrong term when it comes to writing fiction. The word itself implies that there are rules, and as I’ve noted here a few times, I don’t believe that such things exist. (Which is not to say that there are not accepted conventions and very good suggestions.)

      The examples I used are there to make a point about how NOT to use italicized thought. More times than not, I agree that italics are not necessary.

      • other than that we “need” to write!!

        I call the rules ‘tools’–when to use them, when not, why use them, why not. The danger for newbies is that when we say there are no rules, some of them haven’t a clue about the craft, become rebellious, and reject the study of the craft.

        “There are no rules,” they say when an editor suggests changes. Of those who reject the craft, one in a million becomes an excellent writer. (IMHO) The rest produce shoddy work. Unfortunately some of it even sells.

        • Any “newbie” who does not strive to learn about the craft is doomed to failure, just as he should be. They insult themselves just as surely as they insult those who agree to read their collection of words on a page. There are many ways to learn craft, but the trick is to practice it. Practice, practice, practice.

          Anyone who can draw letters on the page is a writer. Those who study and practice may evolve into good writers, but precious few will hone the craft to the degree that it will be valuable to a publisher willing to write a check.

          Tools and rules are entirely different things. We all know what a hammer is and how it works, but in a pinch, I can hammer a nail just as well with a flat rock. That doesn’t make the nail any less sunk. Talk rules with any of the early impressionist painters, or with any of the Beat authors.

          As I have said many times, when it comes to creative works, long-standing very good suggestions help a writer to hone his craft. But the very notion that there hard and fast rules by definition stifle creativity.

  3. My WIP is in 1st person POV. Looks like I need to be extra careful and not let my protagonist “think in words.” Thanks for this post, especially with examples. It was helpful!

  4. Publishers have different house rules for writing in deep POV. My editor would crucify me over “he thought, he liked, wondered, wanted, saw, felt, smelled, etc.” If we’re in deep POV, inside the character’s head, the tags aren’t necessary, because that’s not how we think. For example, if a bullet shattered my windshield, I wouldn’t think to myself, “Oh, sh*t, I thought.” I’d simply think, “Oh, sh*t” and then duck. Neither way is wrong, per se, it’s more a style choice. I also use italics sparingly. By separating the inner dialogue to it’s own paragraph, the content makes it clear that it’s internal dialogue. But again, it’s a style choice.

    • Those kind of attributions are easy enough to eliminate in first person, but what do you do when you’re writing in deep third POV and there’s more than two characters in the scene and you need to bring the attention to the main character?

      • In deep 3P, the POV character–the character who owns the scene–is the only one who perceives anything. If s/he can’t see it, hear it, smell it, etc., then it has no place in the scene. This is why it’s so important to choose your POV character with care. Not to keep flogging my YouTube channel, but the video I linked to in my post goes into this topic in detail. Here it is again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5lRCBOGXOY&t=2s

    • Same here, Sue. I work in deep POV almost exclusively, especially for my series character Louis. Almost every graph I write is filtered through Louis’s POV, especially description. Sometimes, I will insert a “thought” or italics, but it is rare. It’s just a feeling, no hard rules or anything. I really believe a writer has to, within the framework of solid craftsmanship, work from their gut on this issue. Does this *feel* right, does it *sound* authentic, as John says. And as you note, every editor and house is different. But a good editor will honor a writer’s singular style, I think.

  5. AZAli, my answer would be exactly what John said. One POV character per scene, whether you’re writing in 1st or 3rd.

    John, I just recommended your YouTube series to a new writer on LinkedIn. You’ve got a ton of valuable information on your channel. Good stuff!

  6. Johm, what an amazing video!
    I write in deep 3rd POV and rarely use italics. Right now I’m writing a scene where the heroine is in a room with no light. Total darkness and it has been challenging. She can’t see anything and for the first time in a long time, I’ve had to say she heard or she felt a couple of times. Glad to get them out of that room!

    • Glad you enjoyed the video, Patricia. In his phenomenal book, RED DRAGON, Thomas Harris created a POV character who is blind. His attention to detail, absent visuals, is amazing. When I was adapting the book for the screen, Dino DeLaurentiis told me that Harris pressed for those scenes to be shot with the screen dark. Fortunately, Dino talked him out of that before the project came to me.

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