Internal Dialogue: The voices in your head

Have you ever had a conversation with yourself? Ever had to convince yourself to do something, go somewhere, kiss a boy/girl, walk away from a fight, bite your tongue? We all have. Internal dialogue is those conversations your POV character has with themselves.

girl staring at her reflectionWhy use internal dialogue?

What would a novel be without internal dialogue? This is somewhat lost in movies because it’s hard to show what a character is thinking unless they talk to themselves out loud. This is what’s so exciting about a book. You can jump right inside a character’s head and understand why they hesitate, charge in, or run away. Internal dialogue often answers the Why question – but it also answers the Who. Internal dialogue is a great device for characterization.

Internal dialogue is not narration. Two movies demonstrate this really well. Eat, Pray, Love is narrated with a voice-over. You hear Julia Robert’s thoughts, but she’s speaking to the audience not to herself. “Maybe my life hasn’t been so chaotic. It’s just the world that is and the only real trap is getting attached to any of it. Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.”

The 1995 movie While You Were Sleeping is one of my favorites – I watch it every Christmas. The entire movie is predicated on someone else overhearing a conversation Sandra Bullock has with herself. “I was gonna marry that guy.” She has many neurotic conversations with herself: “Forty-five dollars for a Christmas tree and they don’t deliver? You order $10 worth of chow mein from Mr. Wong’s, they bring it to your door. Ooh, I should have got the blue spruce – they’re lighter.”

See the difference?


There is no trick to punctuating internal dialogue. You don’t need to use single or double quotation marks, or use italics. The transition should be natural. Punctuate internal dialogue as you would any other sentence. If you use quotations to designate internal dialogue, you’re forced to use the he thought/she thought dialogue tag to distinguish been spoken and internal dialogue, and it’s going to become tedious and hard to read.

Use Deep POV

Use deep POV for your internal dialogue to bring readers closer to the action. Put them in the driver’s lap as they experience the story. There seems to be a great debate about whether internal dialogue in deep POV needs to be 1st person present tense, no matter if the rest of the story is written in 3rd person, past tense. I’ve read novels that changed for internal dialogue, and those that haven’t. As long as it was consistent, I didn’t find either jarring as a reader. I think it’s personal choice. Know the rules, then break them – that’s my advice. Know why you’re choosing one over the other.

One word of caution – it’s tempting to use internal dialogue to tell the reader backstory, perfom an info dump – tell the reader everything. All the rules of Show Don’t Tell still apply.

Be Brutally Honest

Have you ever analyzed the conversations you have with yourself? Do you use proper syntax? When I have those private conversations, they are short and to the point and I’m blunt with myself.

Do you call yourself bad names for being clumsy or obtuse? Have you rationalized things you’ve regretted later? Do you run through a mental to-do list? Bolstered your courage? Ever had a conversation with someone who would ask a question, silently answer it and ask another before you have time to respond? You need that kind of authenticity for your internal dialogue.

Internal Conflict

The easiest way to show internal conflict is through internal dialogue. One of the protags in the historical fantasy Marcy and I are writing is a princess. She’s developed this rock-hard exterior persona who’s self-assured, strong, courageous, impermeable to doubt. Early critiques showed us that readers had a hard time relating to this character – they didn’t like her. She had no flaws. We focused on the internal dialogue to show readers that her exterior persona was just that, a facade.  She unceasingly over-achieves to maintain that confident cover, but that’s a flaw that readers can relate to rather than a spoiled rich kid who’s had everything come easy or handed to them.

Marcy is blogging about dialogue, beats and tags next week.

How effective is internal dialogue in your WIP? Do you struggle with writing internal dialogue? 


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.


14 comments on “Internal Dialogue: The voices in your head

  1. I loved the information about the internal dialogue. The novel I’m working on is written in 1st person past tense and I’ve been using italics for internal dialogue which I’ve written in present tense. You said that if the novel is written in 3rd person one doesn’t have to use italics. Would this also apply to my 1st person past tense POV?
    Thanks so much for your awesome posts.

  2. I’m a person who never stops talking–at least when I was younger. For purposes of self-preservation (people find incessant talkers annoying), I learned to internalize the conversation. So now I never stop talking on the inside:). In any case, I still struggle with how to punctuate or “show” that the character is talking inside their head. In the sample above, you still began the conversation with quotation marks, but I think that was only so we could see where her chatter started. If there is a good website out there that has larger sample of how to do this I’d love to see it! Thanks again-I really enjoy your blog! God Bless, Mary Ann

    • There shouldn’t be any interruption, or additional punctuation required. The writing should be clear enough for the reader to intuitively know the character is talking to themselves without having to use quotation marks or italics. The examples above were for narration vs. internal dialogue – not punctuation. When deep POV is written well, the thoughts of the character should flow as naturally in the prose as the spoken dialogue allowing you to avoid the he thought/she thought tag. If you choose to switch from 3rd to 1st or 2nd person and/or from present – past etc in internal dialogue do it for a stylistic reason – not to prop up the writing. Internal dialogue should stand on its own merit without any additional formatting or punctuation. Ted Dekker does this really well – so open one of his books and have a look. 🙂 Hope that helps.

  3. Great post that got me thinking. When writing inner dialogue I catch myself slipping into present tense which, when read back, looks all wrong because the story I’m telling is past tense. Should inner dialogue be the same tense as the main body of the story? I always seem to get confused over this!

    • Hi Dave,
      I more or less answered this in the reply to Mary Ann. There’s no rule about it, I’ve read books that maintain the tense and POV, and others that haven’t. As long as it’s well written, I haven’t found one more distracting than the other as a reader – but that’s me. If it feels awkward to you maybe have a couple of trusted writer friends, or a critique group read it and get their opinion.


  4. Really good post on internal dialogue and POV, well thought out and well written. And I totally LOVE While You Were Sleeping, as well. =D

  5. I’m always having an internal dialogue. In fact, I have trouble hushing myself in order to listen to those who are talking to me. If I could get that kind of energy into a character – even if only in short bursts – I can see it making my writing better. Thanks again for the good info.

  6. Pingback: Writing Tips Wednesday – Dialogue Building Blocks « Dave Farmer

  7. Excellent advice! I’m going to have to work on that. I kind of did that with a protagonist in the 5th book of my series…only I did it with a character ‘interview.’ I couldn’t stand her, which would make it hard to write that last book. I sure wish I’d known about this then, because revealing why anyone should like her through internal dialog would have been great! 🙂

  8. Marcy, You say, “I’ve read novels that changed for internal dialogue, and those that haven’t.” I need some examples. Could you give us the names of a few novels? Thanks

  9. Pingback: Zinging Dialogue « J. L. Mbewe

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