The Dos and Don’ts of Internal Monologuing

Look, there’s a time and place for monologuing. Most of the time we’d say err on the side of LESS, but there are moments when your protagonist really needs to stop and take stock of what the frick is going on.

However, we have some provisos.

Yes, your story needs downtime now and then.

Yes, a little navel gazing is fine.

Yes, internal thoughts are necessary and useful and character-building and plot-developing etc.

BUT. There should be a balance between action (external stuff) and reaction (internal stuff) at all times.

Too little introspection and you risk the reader feeling too distanced from the protagonist, unable to see what’s really going on in their head.

Too much is… well, too much, especially when you stop every three seconds to tell us about their innermost musings and interrupt the action to do so.

So how do you keep your navel gazing from becoming too self-indulgent? 

DO: Physicalise emotions

Think about how your character’s emotions might provoke them to act/react. Adding physical elements to introspection not only helps to break up long chunks of monologuing but also complements the inner conflict with external representation. Maybe their musing makes them break down into a sobbing mess. Maybe they find themselves drawn back to a location that was significant in their past/earlier in the plot. Maybe they instinctively carry out a habitual action or activity to distract themselves. Maybe they start a fight. Balance up the action with thinking and doing, doing and thinking.

DON’T: Infodump exposition

Show don’t tell blah di blah di blah. But it’s true. Don’t use a period of introspection simply to spoonfeed a whole load of info into your reader. Ditto don’t just use your protag’s inner musings to reiterate what’s just happened, blow by blow. We know. We just read it. Show us what’s changed. Show us what’s new. A monologue that reads like a summary of prior events or an introduction to what’s about to happen is, like, ugh. Challenge yourself. See how minimal you can make this section, in fact. How much can you leave out and still allow the reader to connect the dots? Can you leave clues but still be candid about what’s really going on, so as to build even more tension for the final reveal?

DO: Focus on character change

Remember, kids, humans are innately selfish, self-obsessed, narcissistic beings. It’s true. Even you. The first thing we think when something significant happens is: How will this affect ME? Yeah, yeah, we’ll eventually move on to considering other people and the wider repercussions but any introspective monologuing is initially gonna be concerned with the character thinking it. Use this to your advantage to a) show us how the situation has altered them as a person, and b) how the situation has forced them to react/change their plans. Good character development is all about transformation and crossing thresholds, so make use of your monologuing to show us that.

DON’T: Keep it all in

There is abso-toot-ly no reason why navel gazing needs to be internal. Dialogue is a great way to add a lil’ interest to this downtime and avoid long stretches of inner thoughts where nothing much happens. Stuff happens = people try to make sense of it. Stuff happens = people disagree about what to do next. Stuff happens = people talk about how it makes them feeeeeel. HOWEVER, keep in mind the previous don’t and make sure your dialogue doesn’t turn into a forced and stilted method of infodumping exposition. Keep it short, snappy, to the point, and interspersed with action.

DO: Break it up

Think about the way you think. No matter how zen you are, your thought patterns ping all over the place like a dot to dot puzzle that never actually turns into a coherent picture. A long, methodical stream of consciousness monologue is not only unrealistic but it can start to get tiring after a while. Even Hamlet – king of soliloquies – knew the trick: break it up into a string of thoughts: To be or not to be? Should I keep slogging or snuff myself out? Life is hard and maybe the eternal sleep would be easier. But is it actually like sleep? Will I dream when I’m dead? Is there an afterlife? Ahh that’s why people don’t just off themselves willy nilly – they’re too scared of what might come next… Dot to dot to dot. Ping! Ping! Ping! Link together all those little thoughts and observations and memories and reactions and details to make up a series of think-pieces.

EXERCISE: 20-MIN MONOLOGUE

FIRST: Set a timer for 20 minutes and freewrite the ever-living heck out of whatever your protag might be thinking/musing/pondering/worrying about right now. Let your train of thought run away with you. Brainstorm. Get out every bit of fluff in your head. It doesn’t have to make sense. It probably won’t. Let your character repeat themselves and be super angsty and commit all the don’ts in the list above if you like. This is just a splurging exercise. You can prune it later.

THEN: Start to sift through what you’ve written and pick out little individual thoughts and phrases and bits that might work as dialogue/internal monologue and think about how best to structure your introspective scene using all/some of the points in the list above. How are you going to balance action and thought? How are you gonna avoid infodumping? How can you demonstrate character change? How can you introduce dialogue into the scene? How can you string together each separate thought in a natural way?

You might end up with a multi-layered, deeply psychological scene that adds a whole load of richness and introspection to your character development.

You might end up with one or two lines of throwaway internal thoughts that you can weave into the action.

You might end up deciding to scrap the whole lot and getting on with the bloody story.

It’s going to be different every time you do the exercise, but this freewriting technique is a good ‘un to try whenever you hit a moment of potential downtime/navel gazing, and help you sort out what’s useful and what’s extraneous when it comes to monologuing.

No go forth and soliloquise your socks off.

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