The primary problem of the internal monologue is how much we have our character’s tell the reader versus how much we let the reader infer from their actions. When we’re writing a first draft it’s best not to think too hard about this and simply write it all out and edit it later. In a first draft it doesn’t matter if we tell too much because we are simply working out the story and refining the balance of showing and telling comes later.

The primary question we need to ask, as with any editing, is does the reader need to know this now? This question might be slightly complicated by whether we’re dropping hints to develop as the story progresses, but if we’re doing this during editing and have the full story then it can be easier to experiment with moving these hints around. If we’re dropping subtle hints then the question of whether they need to know this information now becomes more a question of ‘have I made this too obvious?’ but, once again, we can experiment with how obvious we make it to find what we think works.

An example might be if we’re in the middle of an action scene and add a long section of thought with breaks the action and drama. This would be the wrong place for an extended internal debate but sitting staring out of the window anxiously considering a question would be the place.

However, when it comes to the internal monologue we have two more important questions to consider: What does the character want us to know? How do they want to be perceived?

Both these questions effect what a character will reveal in an internal monologue, particularly in a subjective narration. These questions are not entirely removed by an omniscient narrator, a third-person narrative that is the voice of the author, Dickens would be an example. In this case we would ask what we want the reader to know and how we want the character to be perceived. There is a general assumption that the authorial voice is reliable because the author has no reason to lie, but that doesn’t mean we have to tell the reader everything.

We can ‘lie’ by omission, spreading the information around in chunks, or the internal and the external may be at odds. Simply because a character behaves one way doesn’t mean they can’t be thinking something else, just like people characters can be contradictory or wear a façade. As we develop a story we have to decide if we want to drop the façade, which usually happens in stories, and if they do will this be to the other characters or only to the reader.

When we have a contrast between what the other characters know and the reader knowing more it’s referred to as ‘dramatic irony’. It creates situations where characters behave in way that isn’t necessarily ironic but is in conflict with what the reader knows to be true. The classic example would be when the reader knows one character is in love with another but this character, for whatever reason, can’t tell the person they’re in love with. For example the trope of a character driving the person they love away because it’s ‘better’, ‘safer’, because they’re an emotional mess or numerous other reasons. Dramatic irony would be the reader saying, ‘don’t leave they love you really, it just…’

The opposite might be when other characters seem to know more about the protagonist but whatever it is they know isn’t mentioned in the internal monologue and no-one says specifically. This can be a tricky one to pull off, particularly in a first person narrative where we’re always inside a character’s head, because it can appear to be avoidance and can become conspicuous. If other characters keep mentioning ‘that thing that happened’ but the main character always thinks ‘I wish they wouldn’t mention that thing’ the reader may become impatient and frustrated if there’s no obvious reason for it. Sometimes if we want to write it that way it can be best to drop hints and make fewer direct mentions because, as I keep saying, repetition creates emphasis.

If in doubt it can be best to ask someone you trust to read your story and give you their impressions: What did they gather about a character? When did they realise this or that? Was there anything they wanted to know but didn’t find out?

Most importantly don’t worry about it in the first draft. First drafts are never perfect.


For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on characters see Finding The Characters.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

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