Character Thoughts to Advance Story

Internal Monologue: How To Use Your Character’s Thoughts To Advance Your Story

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You know the books that pull you in so powerfully you feel you’re part of the story itself, not just a spectator watching from the sidelines? I always come away from a book like that thinking, How did the author do that?! One of the common denominators of such stories is the use of internal monologue.

Internal monologue refers to putting the character’s thoughts onto the page. More than any other tool in your writer toolkit, internal monologue gives readers a window into your character’s mind, a look at the thoughts they share with no one else. No matter what’s happening on the surface, we get a real view of what’s underneath.

Let’s look at how you can use this technique to make your characters come alive for your readers.

Use internal monologue intentionally

Internal monologue is a tool, it’s not a thing you want to do haphazardly. Like any other writing technique, internal monologue is most powerful when used to accomplish goals you set for a scene. What is it you want to show your readers about your characters at a particular point in time? How can internal monologue help you do that alongside your dialogue and exposition? Here are two things to keep in mind:

  • Aim for a balance, you want it to feel seamless. Writing too much of your character’s thoughts will slow down a scene, but too little or none at all can make readers feel disconnected from the character.
  • Advance plot and character development, don’t just pick at random. You could show us all kinds of thoughts inside your character’s mind, but focus on those that help you advance the plot and the internal character arc.

Use internal monologue for character development

Think about your own patterns of thought for a second. What do they reveal about you beyond the surface of the thoughts themselves? The very structure, tone, and nature of our thoughts expose all kinds of information about your past experiences, your worldview, your cultural outlook and preconceived ideas, your personality, and much more.

Now apply that idea to your characters. Can you see what a wealth of knowledge that gives you to draw from? Internal monologue is about more than just letting us in on a character’s thoughts, it’s also an opportunity to show us things about their deepest self: their past, their worldview, their religious or spiritual outlook, their personality.

Here are just a few aspects to consider:

  • Is your character an optimist or a pessimist?
  • Is your character guided by any particular religious doctrines or spiritual notions?
  • Does your character often hear a parent’s (or other figure’s) words repeated in their own thoughts? If so, how does this influence their behavior?
  • Is your character suffering from self-delusion of some kind?
  • Does your character have a positive or negative self-image?

Each one of these can be developed in your character’s thought patterns. So, identify specific traits you want to highlight about a character and work to display them in the words, phrases, patterns, and tone of their internal voice; give them highly nuanced self-talk. Your readers will begin to infer all kinds of things about your characters that you don’t have to come out and tell them. This is one of those subtle and powerful ways to show instead of tell that will add depth and authenticity to your writing. 

Use internal monologue for reader insight

Think about all the ways you hide your true self, your deepest opinions, your uncertainties from the world by the simple act of keeping your thoughts to yourself. Amazing, isn’t it? Humans have the astonishing power of a completely separate internal life if we so choose.

What can this truth do for your characters? What parts of herself/himself does your character hide from others and why? How does that change her/him over the course of the story?

And what about the reader? If you let the reader in on this, imagine how it might create a sense of closeness with the character that simple dialogue and exposition can’t accomplish. Dialogue and exposition keep readers on the same level as the other story characters: we see what they see and know what they know. But put your character’s thoughts on the page just for readers to see, and suddenly you’ve given them deeper access, greater insight, and a feeling of personal connection. 

Writing mechanics: Two ways to use it

Let’s talk mechanics for a minute. There are two main ways to style character thoughts: direct and indirect internal monologue. One is not necessarily better than the other, but the effect is different. You can use one or the other consistently, or you can alternate to vary the feel of your prose. Notice that direct internal monologue most often uses italics for character thoughts—to signal they are a character’s exact words—whereas indirect internal monologue doesn’t use italics.

Direct internal monologue: writing the character’s exact thoughts

  • John ran after her, without all his usual thought or careful planning, moving on pure instinct. But she was already gone. He just stood there in the pounding rain and thought, I did it. I really did it.
  • NOTE: You can write direct internal monologue without tagging thoughts for a closer read.
    • John ran after her, without all his usual thought or careful planning, moving on pure instinct. But she was already gone. He just stood there in the pounding rain. I did it. I really did it.

Indirect internal monologue: narrating a sense of the character’s thoughts

  • John ran after her, without all his usual thought or careful planning, moving on pure instinct. But she was already gone. He just stood there in the pounding rain. He’d done it. He’d really done it.

If thinking about a character’s internal monologue is new for you, start to look for it in the books you’re reading. Highlight it, underline it, study it and the way it affects you as the reader. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself using it with confidence in your own writing.

How have you used your character’s thoughts to really bring them alive on the page? What are some other aspects of internal monologue you’d recommend to writer friends?

6 thoughts on “Internal Monologue: How To Use Your Character’s Thoughts To Advance Your Story”

  1. David P. Cantrell

    Great article Paige. I’m a fan of internal monologue as a reader, but I tend to over use it when I write. Your ideas will help me. If I use italics to identify internal dialogue, should I restrict there use for other purposes, for example to emphasize a particular word? Will readers get confused?

    1. Hi David,
      I’m glad you found the article helpful! Don’t worry about italics for internal monologue interfering with italics in other instances. It’s standard to use italics for emphasis, and readers will recognize the difference. I think you do want to be careful and intentional about usage in each instance, but if you’re consistent and thoughtful about it, readers will intuit your meaning. Best of luck with your writing!

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