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12:17 pm: Wright's Writing Corner: Interior Dialogue

Interior Dialogue:  Readers don’t trust dialogue.  Have your characters think, and have what they think be juxtaposed to the dialogue, showing a new angle.
This one I learned the hard way.
When I first started writing novels, I was under the impression that the best writing was like a screen play, all dialogue. So, I set out to write just that…as much dialogue as possible with description in between.
I would figure out what the character wanted or was thinking and I would write it down as something he said.
Back then, I had two friends reading my work—the same two who set me right about senses (Von Long and Danielle Ackley-McPhail). When I finished a chapter, I would send it to them, and, invariably, they would write back, along with a request for more sense impressions, “What is he thinking?”
To which, I would stare at the page in absolute puzzlement and then, gesturing at it wildly, cry out, “But I just told you what he was thinking! He said it out loud!”

Then, one day, it struck me. 
They did not believe him.
No matter what I had the character say. Unless I did something to indicate in the text what his opinion was, they did not know if he was telling the truth or not. They did not know if his happiness was true or feigned. They did not know if he agreed with his words or was just saying them to be polite.
No matter what he character said, it never occurred to them that this was also what he was thinking.
And that was when I realized that internal thoughts are another form of “The Trick”—another chance for an author to show a contrast between two ideas in the story, in this case, what is being said and what is being thought. And in writing, as in drawing, it is contrast that brings out three-dimensionality.
Now, adding contrast does not mean that what a character is thinking always has to be at odds with what he is saying. Some characters say what they mean. But showing thinking gives the author a chance to fill in the story, to add shading.
Is the character worried about what he is saying? Is she excited for a reason she has not yet put into words? Does she have a hidden agenda, good or bad, that she does not wish to reveal. (Hidden agendas can be good—picture a character trying to subtly discover a friend’s schedule so as to plan a surprise birthday party, for instance.)
Interior or internal thoughts and feelings can be indicated in two ways. The first is to put the thoughts on stage:
1)         She loved the old couch. It pained her to see it in such bad shape.
Or, even:
2)         She thought, “I love that old couch. How sad that they let it get like this.”
The second is to show without telling:
3)         She ran her hand slowly over the old couch, stroking its worn upholstery and running her finger along the crack in the polished wood of the arm. 
Or, show with some tell.
4)         She ran her hand slowly over the old, worn couch, sad to see it in such a state of disrepair.
Which method is better? Whichever one tells the story. Many successful works use a mix. The second one is probably the least common. Direct thoughts in conversation are used occasionally, but most works do not rely on them, unless they have some special gimmick that makes it work.
Modern writing books push the third: showing with no telling. Showing is great for two reasons. One, you often have a good chance to use either visceral reactions or sense impressions, both things that can make the story more vivid for the reader. Two, that is how we tell what other people are feeling in life, but seeing their expression, how they move, and what they do.
Sometimes showing only works. I think its pretty clear in my example above what is going on, but, as a reader, I find that sometimes they do not work. Not every reader has the same expectation of what a certain gesture or action means.
If the expectations do not match those of the author, the reader is left going, “Huh?” This happens to me with certain writers I have read. (They have all been women, though whether that is causal or by chance, I do not know. Still, I think of it as ‘that mistake women writer’s make. ) I get to a scene, something happens, the character has an emotional reaction, and I am left going…”Bah?” with no idea of what caused the character to have that reaction.
The internal thought responsible for the motivation of the character just did not communicate it self to me in the scene.
I also notice that some of my guy friends seem even more puzzled by these same passages than I am, as if they are missing even more subtext. I often discover that these same fellows have entirely missed the emotional subtext supposedly conveyed in a ‘show not tell’ scene.
So, personally, I prefer a mix of One and Three, or Four, unless the particulars of Three make the meaning plainly obvious. If I were writing the scene in the examples, which option I picked would depend on the purpose of the scene. If it was important to either the plot or character development, I would go with:

         She ran her hand slowly over the old couch, stroking its worn upholstery and running her finger along the crack in the polished wood of the arm. She loved the old couch. It pained her to see it in such bad shape.
If the matter were of very little importance, I would use something more like Example Four.
I would not use Example Two on something as unimportant as a couch unless I were writing THE HAUNTED SOFA, A GOTHIC FOR OUR TIME, and her direct thoughts were being overhead by the mind-reading entity dwelling in the old couch.
Am I good at internal dialogue? Sadly, no. I believe it is my weakest area, but, at least now—thanks to my friends questions--I have the gist if it, which is: use internal dialogue to add contrast to the story, help fill in background, and hint to the reader the causes of the characters emotional reactions.
When done right, Internal Dialogue gives the reader a deeper sense of three-dimensionality and depth, hopefully, without weighing the story down.
I learned the hard way. Maybe, just maybe, you won’t have to.


[User Picture]
Date:February 17th, 2010 05:19 pm (UTC)
As a reader, internal dialogue has always seemed more natural to me when included as part of the flow of a first-person narration. I've certainly seen it work with third-person as well, but it seems harder to make it sound right. Who are you, o omniscient narrator, that you actually know what the characters are thinking and feeling other than by what they say, how they act, their facial expressions, and so on?

If the story's being told by Mentor of Arisia, or the keeper of the Akashic Record, I suppose this works, but otherwise I tend to read third-person somewhat like a film or stage script, where it's better to show, not tell. When you do first-person, however, you're pretty much exempt from that admonition, because it's all telling from the get-go.
[User Picture]
Date:February 17th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
As a writer, it's much easier to write internal dialogue in first person, too. I was able to do a lot of things in my Prospero books (narrated in first person) that I can't get away with now that I'm not doing first person.

But I think it's one of these things that changes from reader to reader, because some of my very favorite books are written in third person with a great deal of info on what people are thinking, and, to me, it seems to work well.

Of course, that could be because they were written by excellent writers.

Edited at 2010-02-17 05:27 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:February 17th, 2010 07:32 pm (UTC)
I love first person. It is easier to write, but I think my love was spawned by reading Wolfe, and the realization that I wasn't always getting an accurate image of what was going on-- it was all being filtered through the narrator. Which begs the question: Internal dialogue or no, can you really trust the narrator? ;)
[User Picture]
Date:February 17th, 2010 09:34 pm (UTC)
One of my favorite authors when I was young used to lie to the reader in first person. I remember coming to the end of the Ivy Tree and being really outraged...but I remember that book, when I've forgotten all the ones I read around it.

Is this good? Not sure.;-)
[User Picture]
Date:February 18th, 2010 03:38 am (UTC)
I remember The Ivy Tree.

The problem I had with it is that the narrator was the sort of third-person with the first-person substituted. It wasn't obviously being told.

Also, we never got a motive for her withholding the information.
[User Picture]
Date:February 18th, 2010 01:37 pm (UTC)
I thought the motive was a kind of a "so into the character in order to fool them that I even fool you, the reader" thing...we were being lied to just as they were.
[User Picture]
Date:February 17th, 2010 05:39 pm (UTC)
Another trick is to give them emotional reactions related to why they are speaking.

She blinked, shocked that he would say such a thing. "I love that old couch. How sad that they let it get like this."
[User Picture]
Date:February 17th, 2010 06:01 pm (UTC)
Interesting post. I sometimes use internal dialogue to make a liar of the character.

If done well, I think it makes for a more intimate relationship between the reader and the MC, because the reader feels closer to the character than the one(s) he/she just lied to - if that makes sense.
[User Picture]
Date:February 17th, 2010 06:06 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly.

And that goes for deliberate lies and the other kind.

By 'the other kind', I mean things like, "No, please do go. I'll be fine here. I have a lot to do anyway." She said cheerfully, her heart sinking through the floor. She had so been looking forward to their time together.

Many people do not think of themselves as lying when they ignore their emotions in order to support someone else, but it is still at odds with their words.
[User Picture]
Date:February 18th, 2010 03:39 am (UTC)
The problem arises when they are, in fact, saying exactly what they feel. Because then internal dialogue would be redundant.
[User Picture]
Date:February 18th, 2010 01:38 pm (UTC)
Then, either, you save your internal comments for later or just write:

He said truthfully. ;-)
[User Picture]
Date:February 18th, 2010 12:52 am (UTC)
As always, nicely done :)

[User Picture]
Date:February 20th, 2010 12:18 am (UTC)
I found you via Jon. Great post. I love internal dialogue moments.
[User Picture]
Date:February 22nd, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
I love internal dialogue. The "internal dialogue is BAD/WRONG/LAZY" etc. school of writing criticism annoys the heck out of me. If I wanted to watch a movie, I'd watch a movie! Hello, I am reading because I want to know what a least one character is thinking plz k thx. :)
[User Picture]
Date:February 22nd, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC)
I so agree!

I am reminded of the video game Purple Moon. This was a video game designed for girls. You couldn't change the outcome of the game, but what you did decided how you/others felt about it, and you could do stuff like look in people's backpacks and lockers to find out secret thoughts, etc.

I thought this so perfectly caught what it is that girls (women included) enjoy in life. ;-)

We want to know, as my friends said, "What was he thinking?" ;-)
Date:February 18th, 2011 07:27 pm (UTC)

One year later...

I find and read this post on internal dialogue and have to say it is one of the most informative post's I've read.In the brief amount of time it took me to read it, I learned so much. Maybe, just maybe, I won't have to learn this the hard way. Thanks!
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