It’s a fact that in the early stages of craft development, beginning authors can rely too heavily on thoughts as a way to insert information into a narrative. Most of the time, conversations can convey all the information the protagonist and the reader need.
A fact that may surprise you–most people do not speak words in their minds 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our random thought processes are often comprised of complex images of what we plan to do or create, arguments and interpersonal problems we’re occupied with, and flashes of memory.
And cognitive studies (verified by Descriptive Experience Sampling) have shown that 1/3 of people experience abbreviated inner speech, where an entire complex thought is represented by a single word.
For most people, inner monologues are composed of short bursts of sentences that we “hear” as if spoken aloud.
Researchers say that most of the time, our inner monologue concerns how we see ourselves. These thoughts are often in whole sentences and phrased in a negative way. And most telling of all, we aren’t usually aware of our inner thoughts when we are having them.
However, this shouldn’t negate the usefulness of a properly deployed interior monologue.
In my opinion, there are times when revealing a critical bit of backstory can only be accomplished through the thought processes of the protagonist or a companion.
For me as a reader, the problem arises mostly when private thoughts are italicized. This is an accepted practice in the genres of Sci-fi, Fantasy, and YA novels. Many readers expect to see them presented in italics. However, we need to be aware of how daunting it is for a reader to be faced with a wall of words written in a leaning font.
And, the fact is, if the author makes it clear that the character is having the conversation with themselves, italics aren’t needed.
It was, he thought, one of those rare days, where the sun shone benevolently upon mankind. Aloud he said, “Enjoy the sun while you can, my friend. The rain is eternal here.”
A rather vocal contingent at any gathering of authors will say thoughts should not be italicized. While I disagree with that stance, I do see their point.
These authors feel that changing the font to italics creates a greater narrative distance. They think it halts the eye and sets readers apart from the character and the events of the scene.
As an avid reader, I disagree with that statement if it is applied broadly, and will argue the point, although more than a sentence or two of italicized mental dialogue does precisely that. This is a literary style choice that you, as an author, must make for yourself based on your personal preferences.
So why italicize thoughts?
- If we choose to omit dialogue tags for these internal conversations and don’t set them off with italics or a “thought tag,” the reader can become confused.
I will add here that having the bulk of the narrative in one font, such as Garamond, and the thoughts in another, such as Times New Roman, does not eliminate the confusion. In fact, that visual contradiction makes focusing on the narrative more difficult.
If you are going to go to that much trouble, just use italics. At least the reader won’t be confused.
What is the best way to indicate that a sentence or two of interior monologue in the middle of a scene is the viewpoint character’s thoughts (and not the narrator narrating)? We have three options.
We could write the thought in first person, present tense (which is the way we actually think them) vs. writing it in the third person, past tense (so that they blend in with the rest of the text) and add a speech tag.
We can italicize vs. using standard text. I overused that in my early work, but it’s too late to go back and change that now. We all evolve as we go along in the craft, and our work reflects that growth.
As a reader, I would suggest you never use quotation marks around a character’s thoughts. Why?
The reader will assume the words are being said out loud. Then they see a “she thought” tag, rather than a “she said” dialogue tag. This throws the reader out of the narrative, and they may put the book down out of frustration, or worse, leave a “one-star, did not finish” review.
The following excerpt is from Benny’s Gambit, a short story. It illustrates how I write interior monologues now, ten years on in my quest to learn something about writing. My intention is that the protagonist’s thoughts are natural and organic to the flow of the narrative. I hope to write them in such a way that they fit as smoothly into the story as conversations.
Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she came from a wealthy family. The gold watch and the sleek sports car she drove could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.
Those thoughts are seen as external observations, Benny’s outside view of another character. I could verbalize all that by giving him a conversation with a co-worker, but why? This way, the reader is shown all they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to a conversational info dump.
There are times when we want to convey information about the way the protagonists see themselves. I believe some things must be expressed as an interior monologue, if you want the reader in your protagonist’s head, as in the next paragraph.
Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot.
The first sentence is in the third person, past tense. The thought is italicized because it is in the first person present tense, showing his real-time experience. One could write it with a thought tag.
Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot, he thought.
However, at this point in my writing life I would probably write it this way:
Benny looked down at his mop and thought what an idiot he was.
In an early draft, I chose italics because it felt smoother to me. Nowadays, I would likely opt for the external view.
Whichever way you would choose to write them, the reader has gained a lot of information about Benny’s situation in two short paragraphs, but weren’t treated to an info dump.
Interior monologues are crucial to the flow of novels in which the author wants the reader firmly in the protagonist’s mind. However, these are tools we must use sparingly.
The majority of thoughts should be shown through actions or external observations by the characters. These ruminations are critical to creating an intimate portrait of your protagonist but shouldn’t take over the narrative.
When they are done well and sparingly, interior monologues can create an intimate connection with the protagonist.
If an interior monologue is used in most speculative fiction, it should be short and set off by italics or phrased in the present tense and identified with the speech tag ‘thought.’
Please, if you choose to use italics, do your readers a favor, and avoid indulging in long paragraphs.