How do we convey the innermost thoughts, feelings and motives of our fictional characters to bring a story to life? One of the most effective ways to do this is through the use of internal (or inner) monologue.
An internal monologue is a key and useful feature in many styles of writing. It’s a method employed to give readers a greater insight into the main characters in novels, non-fiction, script writing and poetry. This specific narrative technique shows us how a character is feeling – often in relation to other characters and events within a story – and gives us a deeper understanding of their personality and motivations.
As writers we are constantly seeking to polish this aspect of our skillset to communicate more effectively with our audience, and for our writing to make more of an impact.
In this article you will learn how to write internal monologues, learn the definition of inner monologue, and read some interior monologue examples. By the end of this guide you will have all the tools you need to polish your narration – whatever its format and genre.
What Is An Internal Monologue?
In literal terms, internal monologue is the result of specific cerebral function which causes us to ‘hear’ ourselves speak in our head, without physically talking or making sounds. This phenomenon is often also referred to as internal dialogue or our inner voice. It’s basically a stream of verbal consciousness that no one but the person thinking it can experience.
In fiction, inner dialogue is often written in italics so that it’s obvious the words aren’t being spoken aloud; rather that they are the thoughts and feelings of the character.
The exception to this rule is indirect internal dialogue (internal narrative written in the past tense). A stream of consciousness can often be a longer piece of internal monologue and so it may not always be written in italics, but its function will be obvious from the lack of quotation marks, and, perhaps, the use of thought tags.
This way, as readers, we have the true experience of ‘listening in’ on a verbal flurry taking place in somebody else’s head, although this literary encounter will often require acute concentration since such an outpouring of words doesn’t always make immediate sense, or follow a linear pattern.
A stream of consciousness is most effective in character-driven literary or genre fiction with a single point of view. It wouldn’t be impossible in other types of fiction, but it would be a challenge not to have a lot of head-hopping!
A classic internal monologue example (in real life) may be the way we deliberate a purchase in a shop:
I really shouldn’t buy that hardback book with the gold foil sprayed edges since I already have the ebook on my Kindle… On the other hand, it would look incredible on my coffee table and wow all my guests.
This excerpt of interior monologue reveals my own tendency to dither, and that I am easily lured into spontaneous credit card action when I find myself in a Waterstones store!
Similarly, when we want to share the innermost thoughts and feelings of our protagonist (for example) to evoke empathy from our readers, we might decide to breadcrumb facets of their past in and amongst dialogue and action.
You may have a character who, so far in your book, is very professional and cut-throat at work. But then, if you show their inner dialogue when passing a cute puppy in the street, the reader may suddenly warm to them and understand their plight of having to be a certain way at work.
This targeted piece of interior monologue can have a striking effect, helping your audience to gloss over something they might not normally agree with in terms of said character’s present behaviour or characteristics – because they can see the inner workings of their mind.
How To Use Internal Monologues In Your Writing
When it comes to putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, interior monologue is used in two main ways – either as a soliloquy or a stream of consciousness.
The former would come into play, quite literally, when penning a play, so that a character can share their innermost thoughts and emotions aloud with the audience. If you tried that in a novel it may come across as a major info dump and pull your reader away from the action.
Alternatively, the latter concerns itself mainly with books – predominantly of the fiction genre. Once again, typically when we are writing novel-based fiction, we will either present internal narrative in italics (for the most part) or as a chain of thought, which may or may not be structured.
Let us explore some of the best ways to integrate internal monologue into our fiction. Here are 6 reasons why you may wish to add inner monologue in your writing:
1. To Shine A Light On Your Character’s Thoughts
The sharp contrast between dialogue and the powerful inner thoughts of a character can be shown extremely effectively when peppered sporadically and thoughtfully throughout a story, hooking us into the drama and mindset, making characters more 3D and relatable.
In the recent BookTok sensation, The Spanish Love Deception, author Elena Armas takes us inside the head of her female protagonist, Catalina, a lot of the time. Catalina is full of self-doubt throughout the rom-com on her slow burn journey to love with her quarry, Aaron Blackford:
Somehow, somewhere between slipping into my velvety fawn heels and the graceful, airy burgundy gown I was wearing, my head had started spinning questions. Important ones. Will I be able to find Aaron in the crowd? And also: Will he be okay? Will he get to the venue and find his seat? And the star of the show: Maybe I won’t see him until after the ceremony. What if I can’t find him?The Spanish Love Deception by Elena Armas
We can see this works well in romance, but what about other genres?
In a crime novel, you might choose to accentuate your main character’s thoughts by employing a similar internal monologue, where the protagonist analyses the array of suspects without giving away her thought processes to said suspects.
In fantasy, you may have a wicked queen plotting her revenge on the princess. By employing dramatic irony via inner monologue, you can add a new layer of suspense because the reader knows what the queen is planning but the victim doesn’t.
2. To Reveal A Character’s Unique Point Of View
This is particularly constructive when we want to show the way a main character relates to both the characters who are in their midst in a specific scene, and those who are referred to by others.
Through internal monologue we get a true sense of relationship and dynamics, and emotions are laid bare. There’s a rawness and depth to this type of inner dialogue and often it can trigger our own emotions, evoking empathy with the protagonist, allowing us to truly feel as if we are walking in their shoes. Additionally, it’s a good way to breadcrumb a character’s traits and beliefs – as long as there’s not too much ‘telling’.
Roy Straitley, the curious Latin teacher in Joanne Harris’s psychological thriller, Gentlemen and Players, displays an inner narrative interspersed with random Latin phrases to dazzling effect. Harris translates these interior dialogue tidbits into English beneath the italics, and they give weight to our perception of her loveable but pernickety MC:
I have no intention of going gently into retirement. And as for your written warning, pone ubi sol non lucet. I’ll score my Century, or die in the attempt. One for the Honours Board.Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
Perhaps we have a character whose thought process straddles two or more languages? Inserting snippets of internal narrative in another language – ensuring we have had that piece of inner monologue checked by a native speaker, of course! – can really bring the point of view of a character to life.
But less is definitely more.
3. To Display Internal Conflict
When applied with precision and sensitivity, an inner monologue can be used to tug at the reader’s heartstrings, pulling them into the page so that they will root for a character who, until now, they may not have been feeling a whole lot of empathy towards.
Kenna Rowan, the female protagonist in Colleen Hoover’s contemporary romance, Reminders of Him, has recently finished serving time for manslaughter. Five years after her incarceration, she’s on a mission to be reunited with her young daughter who’s being raised by the parents of the man whose death she caused by drink driving:
“Do you think they’ll ever give me a chance?”
Ledger doesn’t answer. He doesn’t shake his head or nod. He just completely ignores the question and gets in his truck and backs out of the parking lot.
Leaving me without an answer is still an answer.
I think about this the entire way home. When do I cut my losses? When do I accept that maybe my life won’t intersect with Diem’s?Reminders of Him by Colleen Hoover
When we work poignant inner monologue statements into our character’s mind, we can convey so much internal turmoil with very few words. It’s a simple but clever technique.
4. To Heighten A Reader’s Senses
All five of the senses can be triggered through the use of internal dialogue.
James Joyce is infamous for his use of stream of consciousness. In his novel Sirens he uses a flurry of words to great effect. As a reader we can practically hear the unique sounds of each observation. The cadence is mesmerising.
Bloom looped, unlooped, noded, disnoded.
Bloom. Flood of warm jimjam lickitup secretness flowed to flow in music out, in desire, dark to lick flow, invading. Tipping her tepping her tapping her topping her. Tup. Pores to dilate dilating. Tup. The joy the feel the warm the. Tup. To pour o’er sluices pouring grushes. Flood, gush, flow, joygush, tupthrop. Now! Language of love.Sirens by James Joyce
This is a very unique way of writing, and perhaps not something you will see a lot of in commercial fiction, but the clever way Joyce evokes the feeling and sound of water in this description.
If we are writing a work of fiction from one singular point of view, we can certainly employ the above technique, however, it is perhaps easier to use – and more commonly to be found – in poetry or scriptwriting.
5. To Divulge Self-Perception And Mentality
Internal monologues can be used to help us gain a better understanding of a character’s state of mind. Thanks to the insertion of an inner monologue we, as readers, can finally see why they act the way they do.
In Hazel Prior’s novel, Away with the Penguins, we are given many glimpses of both set-in-her-ways, grumpy Veronica and laidback-to-the-point-of-being-horizontal Patrick’s self-perception and frame of mind. As grandma and grandson, this is an interesting and essential juxtaposition used with full effect to highlight their very different characters and backgrounds, helping readers find empathy for them both.
If the author had only run with one character’s smattering of inner dialogue, throughout the book, our impressions as readers would be very different. In this instance (as can occasionally be the case) the inner thoughts of both characters aren’t always italicised. This approach, however, is more common when using indirect internal dialogue and referencing the past.
I don’t deign to answer. Instead I examine myself in the gilt-edged mirror over the mantelpiece. The Veronica McCreedy who looks back at me is as unsightly as ever, despite the generously applied lipstick and eyebrow pencil.Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior
Grief’s a weird animal… It’s like this bungee-jump of emotions. You get jolted all over the place. It gives you this sick feeling in your stomach, makes you jittery and wobbly, plays havoc with your sleep patterns. I’m beginning to wish I had a spliff at hand.Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior
If you are writing a novel with two (or multiple) contrasting points of view, getting inside the minds of your main characters and sharing their inner monologues is an essential move if you want our readers to warm to your colourful cast.
6. To Reveal Connections And Comparisons With Others
Another example of the effective use of stream of consciousness in inner narrative is when it is presented in the form of lists. This is a modernist approach to fiction and has been pulled off admirably by Markus Zusak in the literary masterpiece, The Book Thief.
Death is an actual character and a narrator in Zusak’s novel, intermittently categorising the elements of a scene. Death’s inner monologue is made clear to the reader with the use of different fonts. This seemingly random catalogue of concepts gives us a sneak peek of what is to come in the pages that follow:
the shoulder shrug
a girl made of darkness – the joy of cigarettes –
a town walker – some dead letters – hitler’s birthday –
100 percent pure german sweat – the gates of thievery –
and a book of fireThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
As writers, we might like to experiment with this technique in a screenplay or script, where it can be used as an effective tool to set the scene as an internal monologue in the narrator’s (or indeed a character’s) head.
Putting Inner Monologue Into Practice
Compelling writing is full of internal monologues. The trick is to use it sparingly (or not, depending on your genre) and appropriately for maximum effect. If your book is written in the first person, this is a lot easier as the entire book is coming directly from the main character’s mouth (and head). But beware of too much inner chit chat if your story has many points of view, or you may run the risk of sending your reader on a wild head-hopping ride.
The more you play with inner dialogue and the more you practice using it, the more natural it will feel to include it in your narration and prose, and create a clear sense of your character’s voice. It’s a chicken and an egg skillset: the wider you read and the more genres and authors you devour, the more you will spot its use and sense how it can be applied to your own unique work, and the more you will use it yourself.
So write your story with internal dialogue, try without it, and play about with tenses and points of view until your characters come to life. Are the readers inside their head yet? If so, then you’ve done your job!
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