The internal monologue can also be used to fill in backstory and introduce memories. I list the separately because we can fill in backstory without showing memories or we can show memories to fill in backstory. When I say ‘show memories’ I refer to flashbacks rather than simply telling the reader about the memory. For instance we may reveal backstory by saying, ‘I was afraid of heights because I fell out of a tree as a child’; or we may flashback to the memory of the character falling out of a tree. One method isn’t necessarily better than the other though a flashback can be more effective if we want to show rather than tell or make a memory more vivid. Whereas telling the backstory may be more effective if we only want a quick direct reference to keep the pace moving forward. However, at the same time, a flashback can be short and telling a backstory can be vivid so it’s not as simple as one or the other.

Whichever we choose internal monologue can be used to introduce them. A character may see something that starts them thinking about that past event, perhaps a tree that reminds them of the one they fell out of, or someone might say something about heights that gets them thinking. As with real life the external can prompt the internal.

Alternatively they could be thinking about it for another reason, perhaps they have signed up for a charity skydive and they are thinking about how much they dislike heights and how foolish they feel for signing up to skydive. While this is once again the external prompting the internal they don’t have to occur in the same scene, though they might. The character could sign up for the skydive then go for a drink and while they’re sat there with their drink they start thinking about this dislike and move from feeling good about their charitable gesture to feeling terrified of going through with it. It could be they haven’t even realised until they think about the skydive that they’re terrified of doing it, perhaps they start thinking about all the things that could go wrong and become increasingly uncomfortable. In such a case they might not be thinking of memories that happened to them but memories of things that they have read, newspaper articles for example.

The internal debate this would prompt would be included as internal monologue but in this instance it may have two sides to it. Part of the character may be thinking it’s a good idea to face their fears or that they’re being foolish, while the other side is dissecting all the ways they might die. The internal debate can be difficult to pull off because we don’t necessarily want to go on for too long and end up repeating ourselves but any internal debate can be trimmed in editing to make it clearer and more concise. We may decide to have a short internal debate to establish that throughout the build-up the skydive the character is thinking about it and we might return to it from time to time to remind the reader that this is going on in the character’s mind although it is not constantly on the page.

Once we’ve established the way a character thinks we don’t always have to refer to it because the reader will begin to recognise situations that would prompt such a reaction and when we show the character’s behaviour they’ll begin to say ‘well, they must be thinking this’. Finding this balance between enough for the reader to know what the character is thinking and telling the reader what a character is thinking can be hard to find and the only way to do it is with experimentation to see what works best for the story we are trying to write. There’s no universal because we all have different writing styles and different ways of telling a story, this doesn’t make one method right and another wrong, simply different.


For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on internal monologue see Finding the Characters.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. This is the last part.

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