Dialogue in fiction: Part V – Writing your characters’ thoughts

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

Interior monologue

Revealing your characters’ deepest thoughts will help make your fiction unforgettable.

In my final article on how to write effective dialogue for fiction, we’ll move from dialogue—a conversation between two or more people—to monologue—a conversation a character has in his or her mind; unspoken thoughts that are conveyed to the reader using several methods. This is variously referred to as interior monologue, internal monologue, inner dialogue, internal thought, or internal speech. I use the terms interchangeably, while being aware that internal thought is a somewhat redundant phrase. While we explore these methods in today’s post, be prepared for a little technical talk about tenses and first- and third-person point of views.

Outside of Shakespearean soliloquy (which is spoken thought), written fiction is the only art form that allows its audience to know a character’s internal, unspoken thoughts. Only in novels can a reader delve into a stranger’s mind and learn of his fears, his insecurities, his motivations, his rationale for planning a proposal of marriage or an affair or a murder. Because of this, it’s possible to develop a far more intimate relationship with characters in fiction than it is with those in film or on TV. Throughout the history of literature, authors have used the unique platform of the novel to reveal to readers their heroes’ and villains’ innermost thoughts, such as stream-of-consciousness (half thoughts, impressions, subconscious associations) or conscious inner talk.

And we readers gobble it up. Most fiction is character driven, and I’m convinced that readers’ most-loved fiction is that which allows us to delve into the innermost thoughts of its characters, in the process finding moments of recognition—the chance to recognize ourselves in fictional characters and identify with them on multiple levels—and discovering more about ourselves. We read fiction to see ourselves reflected back, both the good and the bad, and we’re able to do that when authors allow us into the deepest recesses of their characters’ minds.

And so, if you think it’s not important to reveal your characters’ deep thoughts, you’re missing out on an opportunity unique among all the art forms to connect deeply with your audience, your readers. The success of your book will hinge on connecting with your readers, and writing meaningful inner monologue will be one of the most important things you can do to ensure this connection is made.

The fundamentals
Allow your characters to think deeply. To do this, it will help to explore your own deep thoughts as well as what you perceive to be the thoughts, intentions, and motivations of people around you. Novice writers are sometimes hesitant to explore their characters’ thoughts, possibly because they aren’t used to examining their own. Good fiction writers delve deep into their own selves to examine all their flaws, fears, and foibles, at the same time as studying others’. The human condition is of infinite interest to them, and they never stop their quest to understand it—with the goal of transferring what they learn to their fiction characters.

• Restrict internal thoughts to your point-of-view character. Most fiction these days employs deep POV with just one or two main characters (and of course, only one POV character per scene). Unless you’re writing omniscient POV, which is difficult to write and uncommon today, make sure only your POV characters have internal thoughts. Avoid suddenly jumping into a non-POV character’s thoughts in the middle of a scene—that’s considered head-hopping and a big taboo in fiction writing. (For more on writing deep POV, see my blog post on the subject here.)

• Interior monologue must advance the plot or build character. In real life, we might go a bit crazy if we knew every tiny thought in the heads of everyone around us. In fiction, we don’t need to know a character’s every tiny thought either. Just as most dialogue and narrative must propel the plot forward or deepen readers’ understanding of your characters, make sure every sentence of your characters’ internal monologue makes a meaningful contribution to advancing the plot or developing your characters.

And don’t be afraid that your readers will find interior monologue boring compared with action (narrative), description (exposition), and dialogue. A compelling story needs all four, and of the four, inner thoughts may be considered the heartbeat of most successful fiction.

When to use interior monologue
To show emotional vulnerability. This is one of the most important characteristics you can give your protagonist (your POV character). If you don’t show her to be vulnerable in certain ways, your readers may wonder why they’re finding her shallow or unlikeable. While readers may not be able to identify the reason, it’s very likely they aren’t connecting or empathizing with her on an emotional level. The way to remedy this? Give your POV character emotional depth by revealing her deepest, most intimate thoughts and feelings through your interior monologue. Fear, anger, sorrow, depression, hope, dreams, longing, courage, strength of spirit are typical emotional states that warrant the use of interior monologue.

To emphasize dramatic moments. All of us have a hundred thoughts racing through our heads at any given time, and your POV character is no different. But just as with every detail in your story, you’ll need to be selective about which of your protagonist’s thoughts you present to your reader. Choose the most highly charged emotional reactions going on in your character’s head at any given point in a scene, places where you’re character uses profanity or is extremely frustrated, for example.

To reveal character motivation. Readers want to know why your character is acting the way she does. What motivates her? Fear? Anger? Jealousy? Revenge? Altruism? Love? Lust? It’s essential that you continually show readers the motivations that justify your characters’ actions. Doing this will add depth to your characterization and help move the plot forward at the same time. The best way to do this is by showing readers your characters’ deepest thoughts.

To show character growth. In fiction, just as your plot needs an arc, your protagonist needs an arc to show her change and development over the course of the story. She cannot be the same at the end as she was at the beginning. The events of the story must force her to struggle, change, grow, and acquire wisdom—or perhaps the change is negative or destructive. But there must always be change, and she must have learned something. By examining her thoughts and exposing them to readers, you can show the struggles and conflicts she’s undergoing in the course of that necessary change.

To reveal the truth. Your protagonist’s deepest truths may be too dark, too painful, too desperate to share with any other character. Or she may be unable to be honest with other characters. Or her outer actions may be at odds with her inner convictions. One of fiction’s greatest advantages is that it gives the author, using interior monologue, a chance to share a character’s honesty and truths with readers, even if that character is unwilling or incapable of sharing them with other characters.

To differentiate between your characters. If you have more than one POV character, you show their unique personalities through their choices, actions, speech, and thoughts. Varying their language, word choice, and speech patterns in their dialogue means also doing so for their thoughts. For example, in any given scene, use your POV character’s mental state—her thoughts—to describe every aspect of the scene, including how the setting and other characters appear through her eyes. If your next scene has a different POV character, write the scene through his eyes.

To lighten or darken the mood or tone. The mood may be light, but you can have your POV character thinking dark thoughts, or vice versa. Perhaps it’s a funeral scene, where the mood is serious and sombre, but your POV character is mentally laughing at the pallbearers’ clothes or the trick he just played on the deceased’s family, fooling them into leaving him a big settlement in the will.

To slow the pace. While dialogue typically quickens the pace of the plot, interior monologue slows it. Sometimes your POV character’s thoughtful, thought-provoking mental reflection is just what you need in between fast-paced action scenes.

Lots of thought bubblesFormatting and mechanics
Let’s start with one of the most frequent questions fiction authors ask: Should italics be used for internal thoughts or not? It helps to understand that interior monologue is similar to dialogue that’s spoken aloud. The differences (and some similarities) lie in the conventions you use to convey the interior monologue. So the simple answer is yes, often you can put your characters’ thoughts in italics to offset them from the regular text.

→ Dialogue: “Should I take the shortcut today?” Davis asked.
→ Interior monologue: Should I take the shortcut today? Davis thought.

This seems simple, right? Well, yes, but there are a number of exceptions to this guideline, which I’ll discuss in the rest of this article. (Note that in the above example, the question mark always goes directly after the question, just as it would in dialogue, and not at the end of the sentence.)

When you write interior monologue, sometimes you want a thought to stand out, to be set apart from the rest of the story. Other times, you won’t deem it deep enough to stand out and you’ll want it to blend in with the narrative. You have three basic ways of presenting interior monologue, and the method you choose will partially depend on the point of view you’ve chosen for your protagonist—first-person POV or third-person-limited POV. (I’m limiting my discussion here to these two POVs, since they’re the most commonly used.)

1. Thoughts can be shown by using italics—or not. This is often a style choice made by the author or publisher. But never use quotation marks for interior monologue. Readers will think it’s spoken dialogue, and they’ll be confused, if only momentarily. While italics are the conventional treatment, they can be intrusive, and they should be used in moderation and usually only when you’re writing deep POV.

2. Thoughts can be shown by using thought tags—or not. A dialogue tag, as you’ll see in my blog post on dialogue basics, here, is the “he said, she said” part of the dialogue, the noun and verb showing who the speaker is. In the case of interior monologue, this is called a thought tag.

3. Thoughts can be shown directly, using the first-person present tense, or indirectly, using the third-person past tense. I’ll discuss direct vs. indirect thoughts a little further below.

These three options—italics or not, tags or not, and direct vs. indirect thoughts—manifest themselves in different ways, depending on the story’s POV. In all of the following examples, keep in mind that these are not rules but only conventions and style guidelines; you’re free to apply any that suit your fiction’s needs. But once you apply a particular style, you should be consistent with it.

Story or scene written in third-person POV
a) Thought in first-person present, italicized, with tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. I’m not going to make it, she thought. I need Josh now more than ever.

b) Thought in first-person present, italicized, without tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. I’m not going to make it. I need Josh now more than ever.

c) Thought in first-person present, not italicized, with tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. I’m not going to make it, she thought. I need Josh now more than ever!

d) Thought in first-person present, not italicized, without tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. I’m not going to make it. I need Josh now more than ever.

Story or scene written in first-person POV
e) Thought in first-person present, italicized, with tag:

I struggled up the hill, glancing over my shoulder at the dark figure gaining on me. I’m not going to make it, I thought. I need Josh now more than ever.

f) Thought in first-person present, italicized, without tag:

I struggled up the hill, glancing over my shoulder at the dark figure gaining on me. I’m not going to make it. I need Josh now more than ever.

g) Thought in first-person present, not italicized, with tag:

I struggled up the hill, glancing over my shoulder at the dark figure gaining on me. I’m not going to make it, I thought. I need Josh now more than ever.

h) Thought in first-person present, not italicized, without tag:

I struggled up the hill, glancing over my shoulder at the dark figure gaining on me. I’m not going to make it. I need Josh now more than ever.

In the latter examples, can you see how the thought tags (in red) are unnecessary because, being in first-person POV, we’re already in the protagonist’s head for the entire scene? There’s no need to identify a thought as such because the reader already knows it’s a thought.

Italics are also unnecessary, but they do serve to offset the more dramatic, emotional thoughts from character’s regular thoughts (which would be the entire first-person narrative). I don’t like the last example (h) at all, and I don’t recommend using it. It’s too jarring to go from the narrative in the past tense to the thought in the present tense, with no tag or italics to distinguish the thought, and the last thing you want to do is jar your reader out of your fiction. I prefer (e), with a tag, or (f), with no tag, just the italics offsetting the thought.

I’m not a fan of (d), for the same reason. While the thought portion is clearer than in (h), it’s still a bit jarring to go from third-person past-tense narrative to first-person present-tense thought with no visual cue like a tag or italics to distinguish the thought. You’ll no doubt have your own preferences, and there are always exceptions, but as a general guideline, only mix tenses and POVs when writing interior monologue if you give the reader a visual cue like a tag or italics to show the thought.

And again, whether you’re writing your character in first-person or third-person POV, try to limit your use of italics and saving them for deep POV when you want to emphasize more emotional, intense thoughts.

Direct thoughts versus indirect thoughts
Lost in thoughtNote that all the above permutations of written thoughts are in the present tense. That’s because they are direct thoughts, written as though the POV character is speaking dialogue aloud. Just like regular dialogue, direct thoughts should always go in the first-person present tense, no matter whether you’re writing in first-person POV or third-person POV, or whether the rest of your story is written in the past or present tense. In this way, direct thoughts are most closely related to dialogue. Just as you wouldn’t write your dialogue in the past tense, avoid writing your direct internal thoughts in the past tense.

Indirect thoughts, on the other hand, read as if they’re part of your narrative, and they always go in the third-person past tense. The only exception to this will be if your entire story is already written in the first-person present tense. In that case, of course, your character’s thoughts will also need to remain in the present tense.

Direct thoughts provide deeper POV than indirect thoughts, but both are effective, and they should be balanced. Save direct thoughts, because they are deeper, for the most dramatic moments in your story. In terms of how to format them, convention dictates that direct thoughts are often set in italics (but not always), while indirect thoughts are never set in italics. Here are some examples:

i) Direct thought in first person, italics, present tense, with tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. I’m not going to make it, she thought. I need Josh now more than ever!

j) Indirect thought in third person, no italics, past tense, with tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. She wasn’t going to make it, she thought. She needed Josh now more than ever.

k) Indirect thought in third person, no italics, past tense, without tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. She wasn’t going to make it. She needed Josh now more than ever.

l) Indirect thought, narrative and thought in first person, past tense, no italics, without tag:

I struggled up the hill, glancing over my shoulder at the dark figure gaining on me. I wasn’t going to make it. I needed Josh now more than ever!

Can you see how, in examples (j), (k), and (l) in particular, there is only a subtle shade of difference between the narrative and the indirect thought itself? In those examples, it could be argued that they’re not even indirect thoughts; they’re simply a continuation of the narrator’s voice, whether that’s Sadie, the author, or “I.” You may be writing like this already, but perhaps you’ve been unaware that you’ve been switching from narrative to indirect thought and back. It’s good to be aware of the distinction.

Summarizing first-person POV vs. third-person-limited POV
There’s a difference in how you’ll write your character’s thoughts, depending on whether you’re writing in the first-person or third-person limited.

First-person POV. When writing in the first person, virtually all of your narrative is coming from the mind of your POV character, including her interior monologue. In fact, as we’ve seen in my examples above, there will often be little distinction between the narrative portions of your text and your first-person POV character’s interior monologue. The question of whether to use italics is technically a moot one: they’re simply not needed. It will be clear to readers that the internal thoughts are your POV character’s because the entire story is from her POV. If you were to italicize her thoughts, the entire story would be in italics!

However, as my example (h) shows, without italics, jumping from past-tense narrative to present-tense thoughts can sometimes be jarring. The solution is to write the bulk of the protagonist’s thoughts in indirect thought style, as in my examples (j), (k), and (l). They will blend in with the narrative, and that’s perfectly okay. Use italics, but again sparingly, for emphasis, when the protagonist is having a highly emotional thought, just as you might put dialogue in italics for emphasis (if the character is shouting, for example).

Third-person-limited POV. Use of interior monologue becomes a little more complex when you’re writing from third-person-limited POV. This is because you now have a narrator’s voice and/or authorial voice to contend with along with your POV character’s voice. Sometimes there’s only a subtle distinction between the narrator’s voice and the POV character’s voice, so italics help with differentiating between them. Even so, italics may not be needed if the POV character’s voice is clear, and you may decide to follow the guidelines for first-person POV and use italics only when emphasis is needed.

Remember, the whole point of italics for thoughts is to differentiate them from the main narrative, and if the thoughts are clear without italics, then italics may not be needed. Whatever you decide, remember that your decision is a style choice and not a rule, but once you’ve made a choice you’ll need to stick with it consistently.

A few thoughts on thought tags
Be conservative and minimalist in your use of thought tags. You shouldn’t need much more variety in your tags than “she thought” or “he wondered.” When you do use them, follow the same guidelines as those used for dialogue tags, which I’ve written about in detail here.

One thing to note: I often see the tag, “Davis thought to himself.” There are very few occasions where you need the “to himself” tacked on the end—it’s redundant, so try to avoid it. Of course he’s thinking to himself—who else would he be thinking to? About the only exception I would condone as an editor is if you need the two extra words “to himself” to help the rhythm of the sentence, and that won’t be often.

In summary
In this article, I haven’t touched on how to handle interior monologue if you’re writing the narrative portion of your story in either the first-person or third-person present tense. The present tense, while more difficult and nuanced to employ for fiction and therefore much less commonly used, still uses the same principles for internal thoughts that I’ve given you here.

A discussion of dialogue in fiction isn’t complete without considering the importance of interior monologue, which affects every aspect of characterization and plot. I hope I’ve covered the key elements here, and that you’ll go forward with your fiction writing with a keener awareness of how essential interior monologue is to adding depth and breadth to your characters and your story. Mastering your characters’ thoughts—both the content of those thoughts and how you deliver them—will make the difference between a good book and an unforgettable one.

♠ ♠ ♠

book and manuscript editing

Arlene Prunkl is a freelance manuscript editor
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook
July 10, 2014


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