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. I put everything into dialogue. I would figure out what the character wanted or was thinking. Then, I would find a way to have him speak this thought aloud.

Back then, I had two friends reading my work—the same two who set me right about senses (Thank you, 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—unless I showed them his thoughts—they did not know if he was telling the truth.

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. They did not know if he actually liked the guy he was talking to or was secretly wishing the bloke would take a long walk off a short pier.

No matter how much of his heart the character poured into his dialogue, 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 contras in the story. In this case, the contrast is between what is being said and what is being thought.

In writing, as in drawing, contrast is what brings out three-dimensionality.

Now, adding contrast does not mean that what a character is thinking always has to be the opposite of what he says. Characters don't all have to be pathological liars. Some characters say what they mean—but very few characters, even the most honest, say everything they mean. Showing the character's thinking gives the author a chance to fill in the story, to add details, nuances—shading.

Is the character worried about what he is saying? Is she excited for a reason she has not yet put into words? Is he tired, so that his main attention is not on his dialogue, but on how quickly he can get home and relax. Is she actually thinking about cheese? Or chocolate? Does he have a hidden agenda?

(Hidden agendas do not need to be bad things—picture a character trying to subtly discover a friend's schedule so she can plan a surprise birthday party.)

Finally, thoughts can just be a chance to put across information no one would bother saying in words: how long people have known each other, where the character's watch came from, some tidbit of background information about the setting, that sort of thing.

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 fits the story.

Most authors use a mix. The second one is probably the least common. Direct thoughts in conversation form are rare. Often, if they appear, it is to emphasize irony.

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, by seeing their expression, how they move, and what they do.

Sometimes the show-only method works. I think it's relatively clear in my example above what is going on. As a reader, however, I find sometimes this method does not work. Not every reader has the same expectation of what a certain gesture or action means.

If the reader's expectations do not match those of the author, the reader is left scratching their head and saying, “Huh?” This happens to me with certain writers. (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. Sometimes, I can't even tell what the reaction is.

The internal thought responsible for the motivation of the character did not communicate it self to me in the scene.


I also notice that my husband and some of my guy friends are even more puzzled by these passages than I am. They entirely miss subtle emotional subtext. So much of what happens in such ‘show not tell' scenes is totally lost on them.

So, personally, I prefer either example Four or a mix of One and Three, unless the particulars of Three make the meaning so plainly obvious that even a drunk monkey could follow the scene. If I were writing the scene in the examples above, I would decide which option to use based on the purpose of the scene. If the woman's emotional reaction to the couch 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.

Or, if it was THE AMAZING SOFA!*

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 am aware of the need, which is: to 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.


* (THE AMAZING SOFA is a superhero invented by my ten-year-old son, Juss, who always writes the words in all caps and italics. Oddly, THE AMAZING SOFA actually is a mind-reading couch.)