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Internal Dialogue: First Person or Not?

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Recently an editor at a small publishing house wanted me to rewrite all internal dialogue in be first person, present tense. My novel is written in third person, past tense. She said first person is standard for internal dialogue, and she also urged me in several places to change the text to internal dialogue. I didn’t do it.

As a reader, if I’m reading a third-person, past-tense story and suddenly the author switches to first person, present for internal dialogue, I find it jarring.

So I don’t write internal thoughts that way. I try to keep the internal dialogue to a minimum, because the formatting requires italics, and so many readers hate italics. (“Distracting, annoying, and hard to read,” they say.) So my internal dialogue is often quite brief, a word or phrase. Even when it’s longer, it stays in third person.

Examples: The first example is how I wrote it. The second example is how the editor wanted to change it.

Conner hit the floor and did forty push-ups, muscles responding as they were trained to. The effort calmed him enough to sit down and continue his search of the paperwork. He willed himself to be cool and logical. First, find the address, then go get Bodehammer.

Conner hit the floor and did forty push-ups, muscles responding as they were trained to. The effort calmed him enough to sit down and continue his search of the paperwork. He willed himself to be cool and logical. First, I’ll find the address. Next I’ll go get Bodehammer.

The style and level of internal dialogue may vary between genres, but in the crime stories I read, I couldn’t find any examples of first person internal dialogue in third person narratives. In fact, there was hardly any internal dialogue or italics at all.

What do you think? Is there an industry standard? How do you write internal dialogue?
L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and has a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, coming out in September. Her third Jackson story, Thrilled to Death, has just been completed, and she's writing a fourth. When not plotting murders, Sellers enjoys cycling, hanging out with her family, and editing fiction manuscripts. Contact her at: Write First, Clean Later.


  1. I think it makes sense to write internal dialogue in the same person as the rest of the narration.

    Not that, I would know for sure, but it reads more smoothly.

  2. I don't care for internal dialogue because too often, authors use it as an "explaining crutch" for a character's actions or comments, or even to embellish their personality. That's not needed if the writing is strong. When it is used, it should move the story forward, not just add word count. I've read some internal dialogue that made me wonder who wrote it - an evil twin? LOL. Gremlins sneaking in at night to put thoughts in the protagonist's head?


  3. I'm only qualified to answer this as a reader, but I think example one sounds normal. In example two, the internal dialogue is weirdly jarring.
    Just my opinion.

  4. Your version gets me in the head of character. The editor's version is stilted and jarring.


  5. I agree with Mark. The suggested changes pull me from the flow of the dialog.

  6. I like your version better. The editors version doesn't seem to fit with the voice of your narrative.

  7. I don't know, but I like the first version better too. I despise italics!

  8. Standard style for internal dialogue: Italicized, first person. HOWEVER, your example *isn't* internal dialogue. It's what your character is thinking, almost as if you said:

    First he had to find the address, then he had to find Bodehammer.

    I think the problem is that you wrote it 'then go get Bodehammer'. If you want to avoid all this fuss, I suggest you change it to,

    First, find the address; then get Bodehammer.

    The 'go' makes it more like an internal command. Without the 'go', it sounds more like he's going over in his mind what he needs to do.

    Yes, I know it's very picky, but I think this might remove the ambiguity and satisfy your editor.

    For those who don't understand internal dialogue vs. narration in a case like this: internal dialogue is the character's exact thoughts -- as though he said it out loud. Italicizing these is the same as putting speech in quotation marks. And these are always first person, present tense. Narration is always what your normal narration is; in this case, third person, past tense.

    Hope all this is helpful.


    1. I like BJ'so suggestion. Besides solving handling the ambiguity, it removes an imprecise verb and tightens the parallelism in the two sections of the sentence.

  9. Of course, after re-reading your post, I see that this is only one example.

    However, the difference I noted is still correct. And it's really the writer's choice as to whether put thoughts into internal dialogue or simple narration.

    Some publishers/editors may have their own preferences for such things, though. Perhaps that publisher prefers internal dialogue over narrated thoughts. If that's the case... well, you've got an argument on your hands. :)


  10. I prefer the first version. Second version reads like a subliminal message to the reader.

  11. I agree with you. If your story is third person past, so should be the inner dialogue. Also, I was told Chicago Manual of Style has now changed the whole italics thing. You no longer need it for inner dialogue. Double check this before you change it though. I don't have the book, so I haven't yet.

    Lynnette Labelle

  12. I like that expression: subliminal message to the reader. That's what bad internal dialogue really is. Must remember that. ;D


  13. Thanks!

    Any writers want some more "internal dialogue", how about: Lefty put down the book. This book is great. or I must get more by this author

  14. I appreciate the show of support. The problem I had with some of the suggested edits was that she wanted me to change narration to internal dialogue and make it first person. It seemed like a move in the wrong direction.

  15. Um...the first way you wrote it is present tense.

    The verb "Find" is present tense and from the infinitive "to find."

    As in, "I find this interesting."

    These are declarative sentences, with the "You" as subject implied.

    Your guy is actually saying..."You find the address." That is present tense (him talking to himself). Can also substitute "I."
    "I find"---yep, present tense.

    The second way your editor suggested is actually future tense.

    "Will find" and "will go" are future tense, so I find the suggestion bizarre.

    As far as internal dialogue, most of the time it adds little to nothing to the story. Too much is the mark of an amateur lacking the skill to blend thought into prose.

    It seems just fine the way it is. But that is just my opinion, for what it is worth.

    Good luck!

  16. Hi :)
    For a thorough understanding of internal dialogue in a novel, I suggest reading any C.J. Cherryh book, especially CYTEEN.
    Great post.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Love From Canada

  17. L.J., I think you were exactly right not to change the text. A character isn't necessarily going to think "I" when deciding to do something.

    Editors' suggestions don't always make your work better.

    Bob Sanchez

  18. I don't like a LOT of internal dialogue, but I prefer first person present when it's done. On occasion, however, a book will flow better with the "he thought" third person. If a switch to internal dialogue is too jarring in a read, it's probably because it wasn't the right time to drop into it, or the technique was overused.


  19. I must be marching to a different drummer. I like internal dialogue in short bursts, I don't mind if it's in italics (which eliminates the need for a tag), and I prefer it be first person, present tense. Why isn't internal dialogue as acceptable a tool as spoken dialogue for bringing out a character's personality?

  20. I agree with B.J. Internal dialogue is the character's thoughts, and people don't think in third person.

    Lillie Ammann
    A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye

  21. Lj,

    The first example reads much better than the second. I think I could deal with internal dialogue changing to first person - maybe. The way you wrote it doesn't sound like 3rd person, but doesn't through me out. It is clear the character is thinking through the task at hand.

    Writing thoughts from the past in present tense tosses me right out of the story - makes me wonder if we just moved to the present, if perhaps the narrator is the one thinking, etc. Too jarring.

  22. Great discussion here and lots of good points to ponder.

    I do agree with Dani that too much internal dialogue is not a good thing, but -- isn't there always a but? :-) But, some characters do talk to themselves more than others.

    And BJ is right about the one example in this post. It is better written as narrative unless the internal dialogue was written: First I had to find the address, then go find Bollander. (in italics)The narrative version BJ suggested is much smoother, in my opinion.

  23. I totally agree with BJ and MaryAnn Miller.

    This is a much-debated subject in the writing world. In my opinion, both the use of internal dialog and the style in which it is delivered depend on the context of the scene, the personality of the character, and the personal preference of the author.

    There is not black and white answer. In some cases, too much internal dialog or italics may prove distracting, or may, as some have suggested in this thread, serve as a 'crutch' for relaying backstory within the narrative.

    One can use a knife to chop vegetables or to kill someone. The responsibility lies not with the knife but with the one who wields it.

    Internal dialog can prove an excellent tool for bringing the reader into the mind of the SHOW rather than TELL what's happening in the character's internal landscape.

    Overdoing it is not advisable. Avoiding it is also not advisable, in my opinion.

    it must always be in present tense unless the person is thinking about the past...example:

    "Damn, I shouldn't have done that!"

    Just as one can speak in the present about the past and use past tense, one can do the same in internal dialog. The bottom line, as others have noted, is that it must sound the same as the way we normally speak.

    The example you give as your editor's suggestion is NOT a good example of internal dialog.

    Hope this helps...


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