Tag Archives: writing a character’s thoughts

Crafting Interior Monologues #amwriting

In writers’ forums, you will find a great deal of discussion regarding interior monologues, or how writers express their characters’ thoughts. 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.

For the genres of Sci-fi, Fantasy, and in most YA novels, it is an accepted practice to italicize a protagonist’s thoughts, and 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 italics.

A rather vocal contingent at any gathering of authors 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.

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 does exactly that. This is a personal style choice that you, as an author, must make for yourself, based on the genre you are writing in and the preferences of the intended audience for your work.

If we choose to omit dialogue tags for these internal conversations 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.

So what, in my opinion, 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)?

I found a wonderful, highly detailed article on crafting Interior Monologues, written by Harvey Chapman, for the website, Novel Writing Help. The following quote pertains to my post today:

Here are the possibilities open to you…

  1. Writing the thought in first person, present tense (which is the way we actually think them) vs. writing it in third person, past tense (so that they blend in with the rest of the text).
  2. Using italics vs. using normal text.
  3. Using a “he thought” tag vs. not using one.
  4. Wrapping the thought in quotation marks (either single or double) vs. not using quotation marks.

We can dispense with the final option straight away: Never use quotation marks around a character’s thoughts. Why?

Because the reader will assume the words are being said out loud, and will then have to make an awkward mental shift when they see a “he thought” interior monologue tag, rather than a “he said” dialogue tag, at the end.

We can also dispense with using italicized text when the thought is translated into third person past tense.

The only point of italics is to make a different voice and tense stand out from the regular voice and tense being used. When both the thought and the text surrounding it are in the same voice and tense there is no need for italics.

The following excerpt from Benny’s Gambit, a short fiction work-in-progress, illustrates how I write 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 reader’s 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 verbalize all that information in 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 work well when expressed as an interior monologue, especially if you want the reader in your protagonist’s head, as in the next paragraph of Benny’s story:

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot. He dipped the mop in the bucket and wrung it out, unobtrusively watching the elevator doors as they glided closed.

The first sentence is in the third person, past tense, as is the third sentence. The thought is italicized because it is in the first person present tense, showing his real-time experience. In those two paragraphs, the reader has also gained a whole lot of information.  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. I could easily have have written it all in third person past tense but I chose not to, for a specific reason: I want you in Benny’s head.

Interior monologues are crucial to the flow of novels in which the author wants the reader planted 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.

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. When they are done well and sparingly, interior monologues can create an intimate connection with the protagonist.
    3. If an interior monologue is used in most speculative fiction, it should be short and set off by italics, and only rarely with the speech tag ‘thought.’
  • Italics should never be used for long passages.

Credits and Attributions:

Novel Writing Help, The Complete Guide to Interior Monologue, by Harvey Chapman, © Novel Writing Help, 2008-2017 https://www.novel-writing-help.com/interior-monologue.html#more-78, Accessed Oct 1, 2017


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