Interior Monologues

MP900321209In writers’ forums you will find a great deal of discussion regarding interior monologues. It’s true that beginning authors can rely too heavily on them as an easy way to dump blocks of information into a narrative, instead of deploying it. A few people will even tell you they despise interior monologues, and while I disagree with them, I do see their point.

First of all, it is an accepted practice to italicize thoughts. But we are all aware of how daunting it is for a reader to be faced with a wall of italics.

A rather vocal contingent will say thoughts should not be italicized, that it creates a greater narrative distance, setting readers outside of the character and the events of the scene.

MSClipArt MP900390083.JPG RF PDAs an avid reader, I disagree, although more than a sentence or two does exactly that. If we choose to omit dialogue tags for them, and don’t set them off with italics, it becomes confusing. The finished book ends up looking like a bunch of closed quotes were left out, and gives the impression of an unedited manuscript, even if the publisher has subtly changed the font just for thoughts.

If you, as an indie publisher, do choose to leave them in the standard font but add dialogue tags such as she thought, it makes me wonder, why are you bothering to have an interior monologue at all? If you feel that strongly, skip it entirely and find a different way to express your ideas, because readers will have to stop and read it twice.

Interior monologues have their place, and when a writer is expressing a character’s most intimate thoughts, the current accepted practice for writing interior monologue is to use italics. We use them to represent a character’s thoughts in real time, as they actually think them in their head, or the precise words they use. For that reason, italicized thoughts are always written in:

  • First Person: I’m the queen! After all, we don’t think about ourselves in the third person, even if we really are the queen. We are not amused.
  • Present Tense: Where are we going with this? We think in present tense because we are in the middle of events as they happen, so while memories may reflect the past, our immediate actions and mental comments are unfolding in the present, and we want to convey that sense of immediacy. What a mess.

The Website, Novel Writing Help says:

It will be perfectly obvious to the reader that these words are the character thinking and not the author narrating. And the thought itself, as well as not becoming confused with the rest of the text, gains an extra emphasis, like in this example from Clare Morrall’s novel The Man Who Disappeared.

Felix, a man whose world has just fallen apart, is standing out in the street watching his family eat their evening meal without him…

   He wants to believe in this cosiness, this world of families, this labyrinth of deeply entwined love.
   That’s the key, of course: love. He has been told this for as long as he can remember. ‘We love you, Felix,’ one of his aunts used to say, ‘and that’s all that matters.’
   What have I done, Kate?
   Frost glints on the road, nearby car windscreens are clouded with ice. Felix blows on his hands and shuffles his feet around, trying to bring some feeling back to his toes. (End of quoted passage)

As you can see in the above passage, Felix has many thoughts, but only the most intimate, personal thoughts are shown through an interior monologue—the rest are written as part of the scenery, and they create the image of the situation he has found himself in. (Just so you know, I liked that passage so much that I just bought the Audible book.)

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADThis is how we want to write our interior monologues. They must be natural, and organic to the flow of the narrative. Thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way you will retain the readers’ interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters:

Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she came from a wealthy family. The gold watch, the sleek sports car she drove could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.

You could put all of that into Benny’s interior monologue, but why? This way, the reader is shown all they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to an info dump, and we aren’t faced with a wall of italics.

Some things must be expressed as an interior monologue, if you want the reader in your protagonist’s head.

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot.

Now the reader has also gained a whole lot of information, in only two sentences.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is that Benny is actually a detective working undercover, and Charlotte is the secretary of his quarry.

autumn leavesInterior monologues are crucial to the flow of novels in which the author wants the reader planted firmly in the protagonist’s mind. However, the actual monologues must be used sparingly, and the rest of his/her thoughts should be shown through their actions or external observations.

Those external observations are a subtle part of worldbuilding, when you are writing a narrative that is an intimate portrait of your protagonist.

So, to wind this up, I feel that:

  1. Interior monologues are an organic part of some kinds of narratives, but not necessarily all narratives.
  2. If used sparingly interior monologues can create an intimate connection with the protagonist.
  3. If an interior monologue is used, it should be short and set off by italics, and only rarely with the ‘speech tag’ thought.
  4. Italics should never be used for long passages.

That last one is hard–what do you, as an indie publisher, do for quoted passages or letters between protagonists? Those sorts of questions are a ‘whole nother’ blog post, as we say where I come from.


Filed under Adventure, Books, Fantasy, Humor, Literature, Publishing, Self Publishing, Uncategorized, writer, writing

6 responses to “Interior Monologues

  1. I can’t help but recall my days in the asylum and of all the wonderful denizens who sustained me with their unexpected antics. Of course, that was long before I toured with Lord Shelby and the armies of the Quadrich Legion, and long before the dragons flew high over the entire realm. Yes, I always enjoy remembering everything I did, everything I encountered, and everything I and those around me said or did just prior to the first sentence of the next paragraph. For without such interior monologues I would not be able to remind myself (and surreptitiously you also, dear reader) of the important events necessary to know if you, dear reader, are to enjoy the story at hand. I thank you for your indulgence.


  2. I really appreciated this Connie. I had a beta reader stop me and say that I was suddenly writing in present tense when it was interior monologue that had not been set apart. Still learning.


  3. David P. Cantrell

    Another excellent lesson. Thank you.