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.
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.
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?