Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Ask the Editor: Internal Monologue

This post first ran on February 12, 2009 and it's as relevant as ever! ~ Dani

QUESTION: What is your take on internal monologue? How frequently should it be used and how should it be formatted? Contrast its usage as opposed to indirect thought exposure where summaries of what goes through a characters head are exposed but not the exact wording.
Donald James Parkerhttp://www.donaldjamesparker.com/
Angels of Interstate 29
ANSWER: Internal monologues -- sometimes thought of as stream of consciousness or internal dialogue -- is different for different types of novels. A literary novel may have pages and pages of stream of consciousness. James Joyce, anyone? But it takes a deft hand to pull that off and not lose the reader in a jumbled mass of disconnected thoughts.

In most contemporary commercial fiction – which encompasses a wide variety of genres – internal monologues should be used sparingly. Readers come to mysteries and romances and westerns and science fiction more for the stories and the actions, not so much for the kind of character development that calls for a lot of internal dialogue.
One thing to keep in mind is whether a particular character would be prone to talking to himself or herself. Don’t just do it because it appeals to you as the author. And does everyone in the story do it, or just the central character?
Also keep in mind that internal dialogue is not the same as having a character think something, although sometimes the lines between the two have been blurred.
For example:
This is really creepy, she thought, stumbling in the darkness through the brambles. There was an old barn here somewhere. She’d be okay if she could just find it. Suddenly the barn doors burst open and a tractor bore down on her. Oh, my God, I’m going to die.
The first part of that example contains her thoughts. She’s not really talking to herself until, Oh my God, I’m going to die. Current formatting guidelines from most publishers say put internal dialogue in italics and in first person, present tense.
When writing a character’s thoughts, I have not been able to find a hard and fast rule on whether a writer should include “she thought”, but I personally don’t like using it, so I would prefer the example to start: This is really creepy. Sarah stumbled in the darkness through the brambles….etc. It’s still clear that the thought belongs to her, and the reader gets it, I’m sure.
Whatever you decide on your usage of internal monologues, remember that less can be better than more. Internal dialogue often reflects what a character is unable to say aloud, and sometimes will even contradict what he or she just said. If that technique is over-used it loses effectiveness.

Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. She won her first writing award at age twelve with a short story in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Awards Contest and continues to garner recognition for her short stories, books, and screenplays. You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Pageread her  Blog,  and follow her on Facebook and Twitter


  1. Good article on a troublesome subject, Maryann.

    One question. In both the original example and your revision, "This is really creepy" is not italicized. The addition of "she thought" in the original makes italics unnecessary, but should you italicize the sentence in your revision since it's written in present tense? Just want to make sure I understand.


  2. Exactly my thought, Shelley. I take out the tags if the thought is in italics. But I read an awful lot of novels with both, so editors clearly disagree, or do what they bloody well please.

    I am concerned about my internal *dialogues* though. Sigh. Should I use different fonts? LOL.


  3. I totally agree. My feeling is the narrative is the POV characters thoughts, feelings etc., you neither need the she said or italics.

    Having said this, I know plenty of folks fell differently.

    a.k.a. Marilyn

  4. As always, I think it depends on the story. I personally don't like italics.

    Great post.


  5. I would tend toward both parts of that example being in italics without the 'she thought'. If I'm telling the story (chapter, etc.) from her point of view already, then I'd describe how it felt creepy. If I felt the need to say, This is creepy, I'd categorize that as internal dialogue.


  6. True, the lines do get blurred. That's what
    makes it confusing at times.
    Morgan Mandel

  7. Interesting discussion, especially as I am working with a literary writer who has a question about running narrative or you might say journal style internal monologue. I know there is no 'right' way to do it but merely what works. Some great popular fiction writers such as P.D. James have pages of narrative, and sometimes internal monologue very well done. I wonder about this in my own writing as well.
    Lynn romaine (www.ecosuspense.blogspot.com)

  8. In terms of how I posed the example, Shelley is right. "This is really creepy" should have been in italics.

    Before writing this post, I did a search for articles on this topic and found several that weren't always in total agreement. The best thing to do is follow the instructions of the publisher. :-) My last editor at Five Star had me put all internal dialogue in italics, but stream of consciousness was not.

  9. For me, as a reader/editor, the switch from third person to first person with direct use of "I" for internal dialogue is jarring. So as a writer, I avoid that construction.

  10. In a first-person narrative, isn't the whole a kind of monologue? How could I separate thoughts from the rest of the story?

  11. The last comment is a very good point. I just read a first-person POV novel that used internal commentary in quotes, and had exactly the same impression. If you're already talking to the reader in first-person, the italics seem completely redundant. Only in a few cases did the italicized comment create any feeling of extra emphasis. Mostly it just seemed like a font gone mad.


  12. What JDS and Dani said about books written in first-person is right. Internal dialogue, or as I like to call it, mental comments, are handled differently. My advice in the original post was for stories written in third person.

    In first person narratives, I don't think the mental comment needs any distinctive punctuation or format. Robert B. Parker does it well for his characters by having the comment be a separate line. It's pretty clear what it is.

    But again, this can vary from publisher to publisher. Sigh....

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  14. Clearly and simply stated.



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