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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
• • • • •
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
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.
• • • • •
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.