Friday, June 13, 2014

Interiority - Part 2

Last week we began talking about interiority referring to the character's inner life. Today we'll continue with tips on using interiority to improve your story.

Internal thoughts and narration do not require quotation marks.

It is debatable whether internal dialogue should be italicized or underlined. Style guides insist that italicizing internal thoughts is the same as putting speech in quotation marks.

Dick walked down the hallway that smelled of disinfectant. I hate this place, he thought.

As mentioned last week, some readers find the switch in tense annoying if the story is written in third person. It can take them out of the total immersion experience.

I have seen interiority presented in many ways:

Third person without offset: Dick walked down the hallway that smelled of disinfectant. He hated the place.

Third person with italics: Dick left the conference room. I really blew it, he thought to himself. What now?

Third person with quotation marks: "I really blew it," Dick said to himself as he left the conference room. “What now?”

Third person close up: Dick left the conference room. I blew it. What now?

Narration first person: I walked down the sidewalk feeling a twinge of disgust. I really blew it.

Narration third person tense switched: Dick followed the sidewalk feeling a twinge of disgust. I really blew it, he thought.

Narration third person tense not switched: Dick followed the sidewalk. He had blown it and it disgusted him.

It is up to you whether you choose to relate thoughts as internal dialogue or internal thoughts and narration. As a rule, talking to oneself with quotation marks is a speed bump that rewording into internal thought or narrative removes.

Dick rubbed his face. His eyes were dry. His limbs were heavy. He had to stay awake. There would be plenty of time to sleep after the crime was solved.

You can ramble for sentences while using third or first person describing thoughts without formatting or italics and get away with it as long as you are focusing on only one point of view character for that scene. 

Use internal narration to reveal things the character can't say but wants to, undermine the words coming out of his mouth, or to express his true feelings.

"No, I can't go with you," Jane said. Because if I went with you, I couldn't bear to return, then where would I be?

"Of course, I'd love to." Sally smiled. I'd love to wring your wretched neck.

Internal narration can be used in small doses to reveal backstory.

"I see," Dick said. It was suddenly clear that Jane had been lying to him for months, perhaps years. What had she said last summer? “Sometimes you have to leave to stay.” And the summer before that, when she left for a girls’ weekend in Frisco, had she been with her friends or her lover? Dick’s fist curled, but he kept his arm down. Gentlemen never hit ladies, even if they weren’t acting like ladies, even if they were cutting your heart out while you were still conscious.

Revision Tips 

1. Mark the places where you have used internal narration or dialogue. Is it formatted consistently?

2. Is there more internal dialogue than dialogue? If so, consider reducing it or turning it into dialogue between characters.

3. Does the internal narration serve a useful purpose? If not, change it or cut it.

4. Does a single passage ramble on too long and interrupt the flow? If so, trim it.

5. Have you been consistent with verb tense and point of view?

For more on revision, check out Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Great examples, Diana, and very thoughtful.

    I always use italics. In the following sentence―Dick left the conference room. I really blew it, he thought to himself. What now?―I would eliminate "he thought to himself." Why is that needed if the reader knows he's thinking to himself?

    Dick left the conference room. I really blew it. What now?

    I can't show italics here, but the last two sentences would be in italics.

    I'm not sure if there's a right or wrong way. The most important thing is to be consistent throughout the story so the reader knows what you're doing.

    1. Consistency is key. I've so many different examples, I don't like them all in the same book. :)

    2. I agree with Polly. You don't need a tagline (he thought) if you have an action that identifies him as thinker. And the italics for short, immediate thoughts seem to be the easiest for the reader to decipher. Quotation marks are confusing--is he saying it aloud or is he thinking it?

  2. Good pointers, Diana, and I liked that you suggested not using a lot of internal dialogue. I've read on other blogs dealing with writing that publishers are wanting less and less. In my rewrite of Doubletake, I took out lots of internal dialogue. It was even making me wince.

    And I do agree with Polly about taking out 'he thought to himself." If you put the thought in italics it is clear what it is.

    1. I say use it when it counts most, then it has more impact. I read a book recently where the character constantly "talked to the audience." It's another practice that some use to affect and others to annoy. :)

  3. All I can say is it's a good thing my protagonist does not walk around the house muttering to himself ... like somebody my wife knows.

  4. I don't have a problem with italics, but if you do that, it removes the need for a tag. The formatting tells us it's what the character thought.

    1. I'm not a fan of the tag. It is completely unnecessary if you are writing from that person's point of view. The only time it may be needed is in remote omniscient POV when they switch the verbal camera from person to person within the scene. I find those phrases (he thought, she thought) distancing. I cut them except in dialogue when a character might say, "I thought" or "he thought."

  5. "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" by Browne & King has an excellent section on handling interior monologue. For my writing, I've distilled their suggestions to italicizing the 'thinking to oneself' words: You really blew that one. and putting it into second person, because that's how most people talk to themselves. I normally set those kinds of thoughts in their own paragraph.

    Then, for the 'not talking to himself' thoughts, I just write them out in normal text because I write in deep POV and (hope) my readers know the character is thinking. I probably use "he/she thought" fewer than 5 times in a book.

    And yes, there's rarely a need to say "thought to himself" because who else can you think to?

    I'm almost ready for first round edits of my next book, and these are the sorts of things to watch out for.

  6. Rather than use, he thought to himself, or a similar tag, I use italics mostly.

  7. I prefer italics...and no lengthy soliloquies. Short, sweet, and to the point. Also, the use of present tense in direct thoughts makes more sense to me that putting those thoughts in past tense -- just like dialogue, but without the quote marks.

    Great post, Diana. It lived up to my expectations after reading Part 1. :-)


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