How To Do Interior Monologue In Fiction Writing

How do you correctly go inside the head of your lead character when writing a scene in your novel?

David posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

As always, thanks for your time. The question on your last blog post about “Camera Management” brought to mind a similar question. How should one format a switch from POV camera angle to POV inner monologue? Do you put the inner monologue in to italics? Does it need it’s own stanza/paragraph/line? An example I’m having trouble with is below:

Paul walked across the room and picked the neatly organized pile of papers up off Todd’s desk. He shuffled them out of order and turned some upside down and backwards. That’ll get him (Italics? Add “he thought”?). Paul left the room with a sense of vindication.

This is a simple example, but I find that there are many sections of my writing where I face this dilemma. Ultimately, my question boils down to this, when writing in the different POVs, when should you follow inner monologue with “he/she thought”? When should it be in italics? How should it be formatted?

Randy sez: Handling interior monologue (or interior emotion) is like riding a bike. Once you get it, you’ve got it forever and can never have a problem with it again. But until you get it, the whole thing might seem awkward.

There are two kinds of interior monologue, direct and indirect.

Direct interior monologue tells you the exact thoughts of the character, using exactly the words he is thinking. Many writers prefer to write direct interior monologue using italics. (I’m in this camp.) The trend in recent years has been to eliminate the italics if it’s clear that these are the verbatim words going through the POV character’s mind.

Indirect interior monologue tells the approximate thoughts of the character, without giving the exact words he’s thinking. So far as I know, nobody ever writes these using italics.

Most novelists use both direct and indirect interior monologue, mixing them well, because it just feels better when you do so.

Now how do you insert interior monologue into a scene?

Follow these simple rules of thumb, and you’ll get it exactly right 95% of the time:

  • Each paragraph should focus on either the POV character for the scene or on anything else in the scene (one or more of the other characters, the setting, etc.).
  • If a paragraph focuses on the POV character, then you have four tools at your disposal, which you can mix and match as you like–Action, Dialogue, Interior Monologue, and Interior Emotion. If the paragraph goes on too long, it’s fine to break it up into multiple paragraphs. The Action and Dialogue should show what the POV character is doing or saying. The Interior Monologue and Interior Emotion should show what the POV character is thinking or feeling.
  • If a paragraph focuses on anything other than the POV character, then you have three tools, which you can again mix and match as you like–Action, Dialogue, and Sensory Description. The Action and Dialogue will show what non-POV characters do and say, but you should only show them if the POV character can actually see them or hear them. The Sensory Description will show anything that the POV character can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. However, you should NEVER bother to say that he is seeing them, hearing them, smelling them, tasting them, or touching them, because the reader knows who the POV character is, so it’s a waste of words to say so.

Now let’s look at David’s example. It’s pretty good as it stands but we can juice it up a bit to get more inside Paul’s skin.

Paul picked up the neatly organized pile of papers off Todd’s desk, shuffled them out of order and turned some upside down, some backwards. That’ll get the little dweebhead. Paul strode out of the room. A surge of adrenaline kicked through his veins and his feet felt light. If this didn’t vindicate him with the boss, nothing would.

If you compare David’s original to this one, you’ll see that I did the following:

  • Eliminated the stage direction about walking across the room, which isn’t all that interesting.
  • Joined the words “picked” and “up.”
  • Combined the action sentences into a single comma-separated list of actions.
  • Italicized the interior monologue and changed “him” to “the little dweebhead” which might be a term that Paul uses a lot, and which therefore feels like it’s his verbatim thoughts.
  • Juiced up the verb “left” to “strode”.
  • Changed the expository phrase “with a sense of vindication” into some interior emotion (the feelings of adrenaline in his veins and the lightness in his feet) plus some indirect interior monologue about vindicating Paul in the eyes of his boss.) I’m guessing here on who Paul wants the vindication from.

Interior monologue is one of the most powerful tools the fiction writer has. Mix it well with Action, Dialogue, and Interior Emotion and it’s hard to go wrong.

This has been a quick overview of interior monologue. My Loyal Blog Readers know that my pesky book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES has quite a bit more detail on how it’s done.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

7 Comments

  1. Richard Mabry April 18, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    Randy, Nice explanation and good job of juicing up the paragraph. As always, you’re right on. Thanks for all you do.

  2. Chihuahua0 April 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    That is a nice paragraph, especially if it’s meant to be a quick yet light-hearted/suspenseful scene, although a little more context is needed to establish the exact mood.

    What is the exact rule for using direct and indirect interior monologue together? A few months ago, I used italics for some thoughts and italics for another, but that felt too awkward, so I dropped the italics.

  3. Brent Pope April 18, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    This stuff helps me so very much with my craft. I was thinking, though, the phrase about Paul walking across the room needn’t have been eliminated if if could have added to the tension. “Paul stomped across the room…” or “Paul tiptoed across the room…” both help paint a more vivid picture of not only what’s happening, but the significance of the events.

  4. Tracy Campbell April 20, 2012 at 6:28 am #

    Hi Mr. Ingermanson:

    I’ve been following your blog for sometime and it’s about time I let you know how much I love your detailed writing tips.

    I wanted to let you know that I purchased your Snowflake Program. I’m using it to write my middle grade novel – love it.

    I also purchased the book you co-wrote with Peter Economy–“Writing Fiction for Dummies”, a fitting title. I use the program and the book which marries the two beautifully.

    Thank you
    Tracy

  5. Eron Pllana March 5, 2016 at 5:03 am #

    Great stuff over here. I’m thirteen but I was moved up a year so I have to learn extra curriculum English. This was useful to me, thanks!

  6. Sandee Bach October 4, 2016 at 9:18 pm #

    I thought a monologue would be in first person. Why are you using third person?

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