Kristen Lamb

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5 Reasons Internal Dialogue is Essential in Fiction (And How to Use It in Your Story)

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Today, I have a special treat for you guys. Author, speaker, editor and long-time W.A.N.A. International Instructor Marcy Kennedy is here to talk about internal dialogue—when to use it, why we use it and how not to get all cray-cray with it.

Trust us. As editors, Marcy and I see it all. Often newer writers swing to one extreme or another. Either they stay SO much in a character’s head that we (the reader) are trapped in The Land of Nothing Happening or we’re never given any insight into the character’s inner thought life, leaving said character as interesting as a rice cake.

Like all things in fiction, balance is key. Marcy is here to work her magic and teach y’all how to use internal dialogue for max effect.

Take it away, Marcy!

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Understanding why something is important to our writing lays the foundation for bettering our writing because it acts as a measuring post. When we know why we should do something and what benefit we’re supposed to gain by doing it, it helps us recognize when we’re not receiving that benefit.

Since I’m here to talk to you about internal dialogue, let’s look at what that means specifically for internal dialogue. If our internal dialogue isn’t providing one of these benefits, then we’re either doing it wrong or we’ve tried to include it in a spot where it doesn’t belong.

With that in mind, let’s look at the main reasons why internal dialogue is important to include in our fiction.

Reason #1 – Internal dialogue replicates real life.

When we write, we want our work to feel realistic and authentic (even if it’s set on a strange planet, includes magic, or has dragons living next door to our banker). We want it to feel like these people could have lived and would have done the things we describe them doing.

In our lives, we’re always thinking—noticing things happening around us, trying to solve problems, giving ourselves a pep talk or a dressing down. If we want our characters to feel real, we need to have them do the same thing.

How to Apply This to Our Fiction:

Make sure our point-of-view character reacts to important events through internal dialogue. For example, if we reveal a shocking piece of information—like an affair—our POV character better try to come to grips with it and think it through. You would, wouldn’t you? If they don’t have an appropriate reaction, the reader will feel like the story isn’t believable.

(And just as a word of caution – remember that fiction is supposed to be “better” than real life in some ways. This means we shouldn’t share absolutely every thought that goes through our character’s head. We only share the ones that matter to the story, including to the character’s emotional growth.)

Reason #2 – Internal dialogue creates a deeper connection between the reader and the characters.

For a reader to invest their time in our story, they need to care what happens. Internal dialogue is one of the tools at our disposal to make them care because it creates an intimate connection between the reader and the point-of-view character. We hear their thoughts in the same way we hear our own, and that allows us, as readers, to share their feelings and concerns, experiencing them as our own. We also get to know them better, and they become more real to us because of it.

How to Apply This to Our Fiction:

A large part of internal dialogue is our POV character forming opinions on what’s happening around them. Make sure to let them pass judgment and interpret the events around them and the people they meet. This shows their personality in a deep and personal way because they’re not trying to put on a mask for the outside world. Their private thoughts are meant only for themselves. They’re honest and raw. (If this leads them to form false impressions and later find out they’re wrong, that’s even better.)

Reason #3 – Internal dialogue helps control the pacing in our fiction.

I once heard the analogy that pacing in fiction is like creating the perfect rollercoaster ride. If you had a rollercoaster that only went up, only went down in one continuous drop for three minutes, or stayed completely level the whole time, no one would ride it. A good rollercoaster needs the anticipation of the rise, the heart-in-the-throat drops, and the shocking loops and twists. Good fiction needs the same.

How to Apply This to Our Fiction:

If our entire book is composed of high-speed action scenes, our readers are going to grow as bored as if our whole book is a character sitting in their room and thinking. We need the internal dialogue to create the anticipation for the action, allow the reader to breathe, and build them up for the next drop. To do this, we should have “sequels” following our “scenes” where our main character slows down for a minute to react to the setback and consider their options.

Reason #4 – Internal dialogue minimizes confusion by revealing motivations.

The heart of fiction is the why. Why is our main character acting the way she is? Why does he want to reach his goal so badly that he’s willing to suffer the possible consequences?

When those motivations aren’t clear to the reader, the reader ends up either feeling confused or feeling less engaged with the story. When the reader doesn’t know or understand our POV character’s motivations, their actions seem random and, at times, can even make our character come across as stupid.

How to Apply This to Our Fiction:

Before our POV character acts, it needs to be clear what their plan is and why they’re pursuing that course of action. So, for example, don’t have them shoot their best friend in the leg unless the reader knows why they did it. (You might think that’s a ridiculous example, but in my work as an editor, I’ve seen even worse unexplained events perpetrated by a POV character.)

Reason #5 – Internal dialogue conveys information that can’t be given any other way.

If, for example, you have a character who needs to deceive everyone around them, you’ll have them acting one way and thinking another. Another example of this is backstory that influences who our characters are and why (there’s that word again) they act the way they do.

They might not think that events in their past are influencing them, so they’d have no reason to talk about it with anyone else, but we can make the reader aware of it through their thoughts.

How to Apply This to Our Fiction:

Inserting backstory can be tricky. The key is to share only backstory that’s essential to the front story, to drip feed it, and to use a present event to trigger our character’s thoughts about the past events.

Need More Help with Internal Dialogue?

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Check out my book Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide. In it you’ll learn the difference between internal dialogue and narration, best practices for formatting internal dialogue, ways to use internal dialogue to advance your story, how to balance internal dialogue with external action, clues to help you decide whether you’re overusing or underusing internal dialogue, tips for dealing with questions in your internal dialogue, and much more!

It’s available in print and ebook format and most places (so you can grab it from Amazon, Kobo, Apple iBooks, or Barnes & Noble).

If you prefer live teaching, I’m running a webinar called Internal Dialogue: The Voice Inside Our Characters’ Heads on Saturday, August 15.

The webinar will be recorded and made available to registrants, so even if you can’t make it at the scheduled time, you can sign up and listen later at your convenience.

Click here to sign up for Internal Dialogue: The Voice Inside Our Characters’ Heads.

P.S. I’m also running a webinar on techniques to make our dialogue shone on Wednesday, August 12. Find out more here!

***

THANK YOU, Marcy! Alrighty, then. For being the AWESOME guests you guys are, all comments today count double in my contest.

WE love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

I hope y’all sign up for Marcy’s class and, heck, why not make a DAY of it?

Remember! Due to popular demand I am running my Your Story in a Sentence class this Saturday (after Marcy) and participants have their log lines shredded and rebuilt and made agent-ready. Log-lines are crucial because if we don’t know what our book is about? How are we going to finish it? Revise it? Pitch it? Sell it?

69 thoughts on “5 Reasons Internal Dialogue is Essential in Fiction (And How to Use It in Your Story)”

  1. foguthfoguth

    IMHO, internal dialogue is why books are usually better than the movie 😉

  2. Russell J. FellowsRussell J. Fellows

    I love using internal dialogue, though I sometimes think I rely upon it a bit too much. It can add a lot of tension to a scene for suspense or mystery stories.

  3. areeceareece

    Reblogged this on Amy Reece and commented:
    Another great offering from Kristin Lamb! What are your thoughts on internal dialogue?

  4. Peggy BjarnoPeggy Bjarno

    I love the bit about the roller coaster — it is SO TRUE, and really nails the whole thing about pacing. Thanks!

  5. VPurcellVPurcell

    I learned some new things like having internal dialogue creating anticipation for the action. And it reinforced some things that I’m doing right! Yahoo – as a first time writer it’s nice to know I’m on the right track. Thanks so much for the helpful advice…. and so clearly explained.

  6. DharmeshDharmesh

    I am trying that with my novel, I am trying to keep the internal dialogue balanced but my main character is such a chatterbox!

  7. Amy ReeseAmy Reese

    All great reasons that make perfect sense. Thanks for this post, Marcy.

  8. drakes1drakes1

    Extremely helpful Marcy, thank you! And to you too Kristen. I am over half way through my debut psychological thriller novel so this information is very helpful indeed at the present time. Thanks again! Mark

  9. kdrose1kdrose1

    Another awesome post for information! Taking your class too! Thank you!

  10. kdrose1kdrose1

    Reblogged this on authorkdrose and commented:
    Another Great Post on Writing from Kirsten Lamb’s Blog- Internal Dialogue!

  11. marycatherine72marycatherine72

    Thank you so much for posting this! Very interesting–I’ve always wondered if there was some kind of “rule” about internal dialogue in writing.

  12. Rachel Funk HellerRachel Funk Heller

    Great article Marcy! I do believe I now own your entire “Busy Writer Guide” series. Great, great resources.

  13. frenchc1955frenchc1955

    Thanks for a great article! I agree that internal dialogue is crucial to character and plot.

  14. T.D. DonleyT.D. Donley

    I really liked this article. To me, the internal monologue of Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games is what made those books so successful. I think it’s one of the greatest examples of how internal monologues should be used.

  15. T.D. DonleyT.D. Donley

    Reblogged this on A Writing Mama's Journal and commented:
    I really liked this article. The internal dialogue of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games is one of the main reasons for that story’s success in my opinion.

  16. Jon ChaissonJon Chaisson

    Ah yes, internal dialogue! Love using it, sometimes too much so. 😉
    If anything, I kind of learned to use it in moderation when I realized I could just as easily give the character a physical reaction rather than an internal-thought one. [Instead of ‘What the heck is he going on about, he thought.’, I realized “He stared, boggled by the man’s unending chatter.” Says the same thing, only in a less clunky, no-action way. 🙂

    • Jon ChaissonJon Chaisson

      Oof–sorry, really bad grammar there. This one-line comment box really doesn’t help in pre-send editing!

      • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

        LOL. We will judge you FOREVER because we NEVER mess up in comments *grins* 😀 ((HUGS))

  17. thegatheringfirethegatheringfire

    Thanks so much for the insightful article! I found it very instructive and the ideas were clearly laid out. Much appreciated!

  18. FritzeFritze

    I have been thinking there’s something off with the section of my story I’m working on, but wasn’t sure what was missing. I think I’ve been jumping between important scenes without the sequels to break it up a bit. Thanks for the reminder!

  19. Deborah MakariosDeborah Makarios

    I love internal dialogue for the way it lets us hear the character’s voice when “no one’s listening.”

  20. nancysegovianancysegovia

    Great ideas, that I haven’t heard explained this way before

  21. Shannon GuytonShannon Guyton

    Great timing for reading this — I was struggling with a scene being too storytelling-ish and I think adding some inner dialogue will make it more lively. Checking out the webinar. Thanks!

  22. doovinatordoovinator

    Wonderful, as always (am I really saying this? Does she think I’m just an ass-kiisser? Maybe I should grab a beer–)

    • Marcy KennedyMarcy Kennedy

      Hehe. Love the touch of internal dialogue there 🙂

  23. JennJenn

    Very helpful. I love internal dialogue in books. I think that’s the difficult thing with making movies based on books because you lose so much of that. It takes a great actor to convey what the character is thinking without saying a word.

  24. PHSPHS

    Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    This is very informative information about internal dialogue which is very helpful to those working on deeper POV techniques – reblogging on Archer’s Aim!

  25. sarastinsonsarastinson

    Wonderful and very helpful information! Thank you so much!

  26. KM NovelsKM Novels

    This is a great resource. It gives us all something to think about when were in the zone and banging away on the keys. Thanks guys!

  27. enetteventerenetteventer

    This is a great post but my problem is that most of my character’s internal dialogue sounds the same. So I’m currently working on trying to give them each a more distinctive “voice.”
    Do you have any advice that could help?

  28. emilyardenauthoremilyardenauthor

    Really useful post – thanks for sharing. I think I have been doing a lot of this unconsciously, but it is good to actually think about it and find ways to do it even better.

  29. Flynn GrayFlynn Gray

    Reblogged this on Flynn Gray and commented:
    Some very useful advice, and well worth a read.

  30. JohnJohn

    Thanks for the great article. I enjoyed reading your ideas and look forward to applying them.

  31. Cassandra PiatCassandra Piat

    Thanks for the great article. I also think that the reason that a book is usually better than the movie is definitely because of the internal dialogue which allows us to know the character better and understand his/her actions. Sometimes in movies it remains shallow because we don’t have that internal dialogue thing going with the character.

  32. aurorajeanalexanderaurorajeanalexander

    Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    Marcy Kennedy talks on Kristen Lamb’s blog about internal dialogue and how to use it in books. What an amazing blog post – definitely worth reading!

  33. mitchteemleymitchteemley

    Running into many of these issues with the screenplay I’m writing currently. Good advice, Kristen!

  34. inviationsusanginviationsusang

    Enjoyed your post. Always good to have a lesson on polishing the story being told.

  35. Laura IrrgangLaura Irrgang

    I’m curious if you have any thoughts on formatting with internal dialogue. Do you think these thoughts are best set off with italics? In different lines/paragraphs, or within other action in paragraphs? Is one way more effective or powerful in your opinion? Or is this just a stylistic preference? I also get tripped up with tense. If I’m writing in past tense, but the character has a thought in the moment, can the thought be written in present tense or is that awkward/incorrect?

  36. Regina MaeRegina Mae

    Great article and I found it at the perfect time! I’m writing my first work of fiction and use some internal dialogue in it. This article really helped me hone in on which of those dialogues to keep, and which to throw out.

    Reply
    November 20, 2015
  37. Alexander M ZoltaiAlexander M Zoltai

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Today’s re-blog is certainly for writers—But—readers also might want to explore why the characters in books need to think 🙂

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