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Internal Monologue

Last week we discussed point of view. Today we’re going to cover a corollary question: Depending on which point of view you’ve chosen, what is the best way to explore the inner thoughts of your main character(s)?

Many of you are probably familiar with internal monologue. It goes kind of like this.

Rebekah ducked into the restroom. She pressed herself against the wall and took deep, calming breaths.

If my heart beats any louder, they’ll be able to hear it in the next room.

See that italicized portion? That’s Rebekah’s actual thoughts, as she’s thinking them, in real time. It can be a useful tool. It shows the reader how our main character thinks, what her personality is.

It can also be misused. Case in point:

Carter burst through the door and laid his deep green eyes on Rebekah. “I found you!”

Oh, no! He found me! And he’s standing by the bathroom door, so there’s no way for me to escape. I guess I’m going to have to confront him about how I saw his mother having an affair with the principal.

I’ll never be able to shake that image from my head. The last thing I ever wanted to see in my life was Mr. McMichael covered in apricot preserves.

Why have I never noticed how green Carter’s eyes are? They’re kind of pretty now that I look at them. I think I’ll look at them a little longer.

It only took a split second for these thoughts to cascade through Rebekah’s mind. She crossed her arms. “You aren’t allowed in here!”

Now, this isn’t an excerpt. I just made it up (can you tell?). But even while writing it, Editor Thomas wanted to throw a penalty flag. Plot interference! Cursor will be placed at the spot of the foul! Repeat chapter!

And, what’s worse, I’ve seen books that do this. I’ve edited them. Um, no, Rebekah did not just think all of this in a split second. I’m a fast reader. It took me just as long to read that nonsense as it did for her to think it. She did, in fact, just stand there staring dumbly at Carter. There may have been drool.

That’s not the worst of it, either. Remember, this is coming after a scene where Rebekah got chased into a bathroom. The action is flowing. The blood is pumping. And then the author throws a fountain pen into the machine. It all comes to a screeching halt.

Why? So the author can force us to relive a scene that only happened a chapter or two ago, and because he wants to signpost Rebekah’s feelings, saying, “Look, look, she thinks his eyes are pretty!”

So that’s how to do it poorly. This brings us back to our initial question: What is the best way to explore the inner thoughts of your main character(s)?

The answer: Probably not with internal monologue.

Before you ever started prewriting your new bestseller, you ought to have visited the hardware store. Your author’s toolbox should be well stocked. If you take a look through it, you’ll find that a lot of your basic tools are much better suited for the job than internal monologue.


Carter burst through the door and laid his deep green eyes on Rebekah. “I found you!”

Rebekah jumped back against the sink and gripped it tight. Her knuckles turned as white as the porcelain.

She opened her mouth to shout, then hesitated. Her voice came only as a whimper. She cleared her throat and smoothed her hair.

I’m just using narrative. I haven’t done anything I wasn’t already doing in the scene. But by simply describing the action, I’ve given you a window to her mind. She’s scared. She’s angry. And then she has second thoughts. See that hair-smoothing? Classic self-consciousness.

In effect, instead of telling you what Rebekah is feeling, I just showed you. Reading emotional cues is instinct. Study how people act in stressful situations, and trust your readers to be able to understand it if you describe it right.

And what about the more nuanced bits of what Rebekah is thinking? That’s all best left for dialogue.

“Carter, I–listen, we need to talk.”

Carter shut the door and leaned against it. “Yeah, we do. I’ve been trying to talk to you all week. You haven’t been answering my calls.”

Rebekah closed her eyes, then opened them to chase away images of last week. She let her eyes linger on Carter’s. “Yes. I know. And I’m sorry. But I didn’t know how to bring it up and…”


Rebekah brushed her cheek. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

There. That’s all of the detail, and more, that was in the internal monologue above. And it’s better. Why? Because it doesn’t break the flow. The chase runs right into this tense dialogue that the reader has been anticipating. It’s the rhythm that defines your work as a storyteller. Suspend…and deliver.

There is a place for internal monologue. That place isn’t scattered hither and yon. Internal monologue needs to be used sparingly, and it needs to be pithy. Remember the first of Rebekah’s thoughts we highlighted, where she commented on how loud her heartbeat was? That was a single sentence, and it was directly related to the action. It adds color and shows a little of her personality. It is, therefore, legit.

There are a few other rules for internal monologue. Always denote it with italics. Always state it exactly as the character is thinking it–you’d be amazed at how many books I’ve edited that go like this:

John dove back into trench. He wondered what they were going to do to him next.

That’s just italicized narrative. It’s extremely awkward.

One last rule: If you’re writing your book in first person, don’t use internal monologue. We’re already getting the story from your main character’s perspective. We don’t need the italics.

Remember, every tool you use must be subservient to your story. If any part of your writing hinders the drive of your narrative, cut it off and throw it away. It is better to enter success without any internal monologue than to be exiled to the outer darkness of anonymity.

This article took three read-throughs.

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