It’s All in Your Head—Bring Your Characters to Life Through Interior Monologue

I recently read A Memory Between Us, a WWII historical romance by Sarah Sundin, and was struck by how well she uses interior monologue. I invited her to share her tips. If you’re like me, you’ll print this post to add to your writing craft files. There’s lots of great information here. Get prepared to be both educated and impressed.

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It’s All in Your Head—Bring Your Characters to Life Through Interior Monologue

by Sarah Sundin

“I can’t believe she wore those shoes.”

“Most boring date ever. How much longer?”

“If only he paid as much attention to me as he does to his computer.”

What do these statements have in common? They’re not spoken out loud—and they reveal something about the speaker.

Unlike movies, novels access a character’s thoughts, allowing a deeper level of understanding. When you write interior monologue, you put the reader into your character’s head to hear her analyze and worry and plan and judge and wonder.

For illustration, I’ll use a scene from my novel, A Memory Between Us. Maj. Jack Novak is a World War II pilot determined to win the heart of Army nurse Lt. Ruth Doherty. But Ruth has very good reasons not to get involved with any man—which Jack doesn’t know about. In this scene, Jack has plotted to “run into” Ruth in town.

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Purpose of Interior Monologue

1)    Mulling over past events

Every book, even the most action-charged thriller, needs quiet scenes so your character—and your reader—can catch her breath. Your character needs to process events and analyze her behavior and the behavior of others. Also you may need to mention events that happen “off-stage” but don’t warrant a full scene.

At the beginning of the scene in my novel, Jack is waiting to “run into” Ruth. He mulls over a past event and what it means:

Yesterday’s picnic exceeded expectations. They had all walked around the lake near the hospital. Ruth stayed by his side, listened with compassion to his tales of the ravages of Blitz Week, and accepted his nudges with his jokes. Her bright laughter and smile goaded him into the third phase of his plan.

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2)    Goal setting

Those quiet scenes must still move the story forward. Goals must be set and decisions must be made—even if that decision is despair—“Whatever shall I do? No hope remains!”

While waiting for Ruth, Jack reviews his plan:

Time to cross the Channel and spend time alone with her, which wouldn’t be easy. Ruth’s defenses resembled the flak batteries on the European coast. Jack had to be subtle or he’d never reach the target.

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3)    Subtext

We don’t always say what we mean. We conceal motives, feelings, and attitudes. Sometimes we mean to deceive, but usually we’re being polite, professional, reserved, or tactful. And sometimes voicing what’s in our hearts could cause us pain or shame. Subtext refers to those unspoken words that conflict with the spoken message or illuminate it.

When Jack and Ruth meet up, she rightly suspects his motives, and he wants to ease her mind:

Jack released a sigh. “Oh, come on. You’ve known me almost three months. I’ve never made a move on you, and I’m not about to start now.” Nope, he had to wait a while.

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4)    Analyzing others

Since people don’t always say what they mean, we analyze them. As a writer, you need to know what all the characters in a scene are really thinking. The fun comes from having the other characters guess—sometimes right, sometimes wrong.

Men from Jack’s squadron offer him and Ruth a ride downtown. Jack refuses, but Ruth climbs into the back of the truck…

Ruth smiled down at him, a challenge in her eyes. She expected him to join her. She didn’t want to be together, but she wanted him to follow like a lovesick schoolboy. Well, he wouldn’t play along.

He saluted. “Enjoy the ride, Lieutenant Doherty. See you around.”

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5)    Showing feelings

In fiction, feelings can be shown through actions, dialogue, and internal physical reactions—but the deepest level is revealed in thought.

Jack guessed wrong. Ruth is furious at him for abandoning her, which makes him angry.

“Don’t pin this on me. You’re just mad ‘cause I didn’t play your game, ‘cause I didn’t heel like your pet dog, and now you’re mad.”

“No, I’m mad because you left me with those men.” Her voice broke.

“Those men?” His anger detached, sent out feelers, and attached to something new. If anything happened, those men would be in the guardhouse—no, strapped to a bomb—an incendiary bomb. “Did they touch you? Tell me.”

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Pointers for Writing Interior Monologue

1)    Keep it true to character

You’re deep inside your character’s head. Stay there. If your heroine speaks in long, flowery sentences, she thinks in them too. You may have noticed, Jack uses military aviation references. He’s a pilot not a poet.

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2)    Avoid the “Information Dump”

When our character is alone, it’s tempting to write long pages of introspection and backstory. Don’t. Your reader needs to know far less about the character’s background than you do. Keep reflective scenes short, and intersperse passages of thought with meaningful activity.

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3)    Don’t get in the way of the story

In active scenes, interior monologue is a powerful tool to make action scenes emotional, and to make dialogue sparkle. However, too much interior monologue can interfere with the pace of the story and interrupt the flow. Don’t make your reader stop and mutter, “Wait. What were they talking about?”

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Methods of Writing Interior Dialogue

When I speak in my head, I use first person, so in a first-person point-of-view story, interior monologue is easily written. In a third-person POV story (like A Memory Between Us), there are three methods for writing thoughts. Each genre and publisher has its own standard, so analyze novels from your target publisher to see which method they prefer.

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1)    First person, non-italicized

Example: Gertrude flipped her mink stole over her shoulder. I can’t believe Hortense wore that old thing, she thought.

This method requires the phrase “she thought,” or the switch from third- to first-person will jar the reader. This is rarely used nowadays, although I see it in children’s books.

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2)    First person, italicized

Example: Gertrude flipped her mink stole over her shoulder. I can’t believe Hortense wore that old thing.

The advantage is that this reads exactly like it occurs. The disadvantage is that readers subconsciously skip italicized sections. I use italicized first-person rarely, for very short interjections or for internal prayers.

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3)    Third person, non-italicized

Example: Gertrude flipped her mink stole over her shoulder. How could Hortense wear that old thing?

This is the method I used in A Memory Between Us. It reads smoothly and is favored by most publishers. It does require more wrestling from the writer to flip first-person to third-person while retaining the character’s voice. Helpful tools include questions (like in the example above), “if/maybe/perhaps” (“If she checked her watch, maybe he’d get the hint.”), and “if only” (“If only he’d look her way.”)

You love your characters. You understand your characters. Interior monologue can help your readers love and understand them too.

• • • • •

Author Bio:

©2008 Linda Johnson Photography

Sarah Sundin lives in northern California with her husband and three children. When she isn’t ferrying kids to soccer and tennis, she works on-call as a hospital pharmacist and teaches Sunday school. She is the author of the Wings of Glory series—A Distant Melody (Revell, March 2010), A Memory Between Us (September 2010), and Blue Skies Tomorrow (August 2011).

Learn more about Sarah by visiting her website: www.sarahsundin.com

 

 

 

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About A Memory Between Us:

B-17 bomber pilot Major Jack Novak has never failed to meet a challenge—until he meets army nurse Lieutenant Ruth Doherty. When Jack lands in the army hospital after a plane crash, he makes winning Ruth’s heart a top-priority mission. But he has his work cut out for him. Not only is Ruth focused on her work in order to support her orphaned siblings back home, she also is determined not to give her heart to any man.

As the danger and tension of World War II rise to a fever pitch, Jack and Ruth will need each other more than ever. Can Jack break down her defenses? Or are they destined to go their separate ways?

From the English countryside to the perilous skies over France, A Memory Between Us takes you on a journey through love, forgiveness, and sacrifice.

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• • • • •

A Drawing

In honor of Sarah’s visit, I’m giving away a CD: Big Band Love Songs.

To enter the drawing, just leave a comment for Sarah by midnight December 9th (Pacific time) and enter your email address when prompted during the comment process. (You don’t have to leave it in the body of your comment this way.)

On December 10th, I will hold the drawing and post the winner’s name here as well as in a comment and will contact her/him via email to get a mailing address. (I don’t share your information with anyone, other than sending your mailing address to my guest, and I don’t add your name to any mailing lists.)

Congratulations to the drawing winner, Debra E. Marvin!

Note: Offer void where prohibited.
Odds of winning vary due to the number of entrants.

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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19 Responses to It’s All in Your Head—Bring Your Characters to Life Through Interior Monologue

  1. Enjoyed this post. It’s all a matter of down-loading brain to paper so the reader can peek into the writer’s head.

    Dr. B, author “The Mandolin Case”

  2. Wow, lots of great stuff in here! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Debra E. Marvin says:

    I love to do but I’ve seen warnings to not over do it. Anyone want to comment on ‘where to draw the line?”

    Great post Keli, thanks Sarah for great suggestions!

  4. Cathy West says:

    These are awesome tips, Sarah! I always get that sinking feeling that I’ve done it all wrong though, when I read posts like this! Hopefully I am just a paranoid person! I love the way you explained this though, and I’m also very interested in your book, it looks great!

  5. christicorbett says:

    Sarah,
    This is something I’ve struggled with, so I’m very happy to see such great information all in one place.

    Great post!

    Christi Corbett
    http://christicorbett.wordpress.com

  6. Sarah Sundin says:

    Thanks for stopping by everyone!
    Debra – balance is the key as in everything. In quiet scenes, the ratio of interior monologue to action/dialogue is high; in active scenes it’s low. Personally, I have an informal “one-page” rule. Any time I find myself writing a full page or more of introspection, I get tense – I’m probably overdoing it and succumbing to the info/backstory dump. In an active scene, if I write a full page withOUT interior monologue I’ve probably pulled out of my character’s head. In those active scenes it’s all about the flow. As Dr. Bibey said above, it’s downloading the brain to paper. Watch how the scene progresses on the movie screen of your mind. If the action and dialogue move rat-a-tat, throwing in interior monologue might interrupt the flow. However, if your characters pause, even for a second, to analyze or plan – that’s when you as a writer throw in that thought. Don’t forget the great tool of reading a scene out loud. It’s a fantastic way to hear how the scene flows. Or have a crit partner read it out loud.

  7. Kate says:

    I have to admit that I’ve never really thought about writing a novel, but it was wicked interesting to get an insiders view on the subject-especially on such a great story as A Memory Between Us. It is such a touching story and such a great read!

    It must take some amazing restraint on the author’s part not to overdo it on the backstory sometimes. I’ve read books we’re I’ve just gotten disinterested and lost after being tangled up in a backstory, when I’m sure the author was just thrilled to be revealing more about their character!

    Thank you, Keli and Sarah!

  8. Wendy says:

    I love that keep it true to the character. Lots of valuable insight here.

    Understand a huge Congratulations is in order for Sarah!

    ~ Wendy

  9. Wendy says:

    Still trying to figure out why my Gravatar works here on your site and nowhere else?

    Hmmm. A mystery.

  10. Sarah: I am always arguing with myself as to which way to introduce internal dialogue. Your examples are superb and I will follow Keli’s advice and copy for my files.

    I love the premise of this story and look forward to reading it. How perfectly wonderful to find new authors to read each day when I read blogs like RWJ.

    Big band was a power-house in our home. My dad’s favorite, my big brother and later, my father-in-law. He never understood how someone so young knew all the lyrics to so many of that era’s music. I’ll keep my fingers crossed to win 🙂

    Keli, as always a great post 🙂

  11. Sarah Sundin says:

    Kate – thanks 🙂 And restraint is the key word. And editing. My first draft tends to be long on introspection and backstory, then I hack it out in the editing. I’m always amazed how much better the story flows withOUT it! “But the reader needs to know….” No, she doesn’t.
    Wendy – thanks!

  12. Sarah Sundin says:

    “Rambling” – I love that Big Band music too. Sadly, I can’t get my kids interested in it.

  13. LoRee Peery says:

    Very well done. I’ve been confused at times as a reader, when internal dialog has not been Italicized. That’s supposed to be deep POV, I know. I will take Keli’s suggestion, and copy this into a craft file in order to refer back to it. My dad was in WWII and since he died so young, I picture him in the war movies alongside the heroes.

  14. Great stuff here, Sarah. Thanks for sharing these tips. Starring this for later.

  15. Sherrinda says:

    What an informative post! Thank you so much. I’ve struggled with how to do this at times and you made it so clear!

  16. Mary says:

    Lots of great information here, Sarah. Thanks for sharing. I am putting a copy in my writing tips file.

    I will have to get my hands on a copy of Jack and Ruth’s story. I’d love to see more WW II romances. I think that era has so much potential as a back drop for great romantic stories.

  17. Sarah Sundin says:

    Thanks, everyone! Glad to share my struggles 🙂
    Mary – A Memory Between Us is the second book in a three-book series – although they don’t have to be read in order. This past week I signed a contract with Revell for another three-book WWII series. This past year there have been quite a few WWII stories after years of drought – Tricia Goyer & Ocieanna Fleiss, Cara Putman, Bodie & Brock Thoene, Lynn Austin, Dan Walsh, and Susan May Warren all have recent titles on the shelves. Some great reads!

  18. Keli Gwyn says:

    Thanks, Sarah, for an awesome post!

    I’ve held the drawing for the Big Band CD, and the winner is Debra E. Marvin.

    Congratulations, Debra! I’ll be in touch.

  19. HGlick says:

    Your explanation regarding “Third person, non-italicized” monologue was extremely helpful! Thanks!

Comments are closed.