My struggles with interior monologue

Recently, I’ve had critiquers and Beta readers tell me that I’m relying too much on rhetorical questions in my character’s interior monologue. That it’s the equivalent to the old cartoon announcer saying “Will Batman find the Joker? Is Gotham City safe?

Yikes! Can’t have that! Yet, I’ve seen well written examples of writers using this device, so it must be that I’m over-using it. I’m still struggling with this new writer piece of advice and so I thought, Hey self, maybe others are too. Let’s write a blog post! Then a writer friend of mine on critiquecircle.com shared that she’s getting feedback that her characters seem flat. She shies away from internal monologue because it’s a form of telling.

And it is.

But when used right it’s a form of “good” telling. So I thought we might be good examples of two ends of the spectrum and explore how we can get to a nice middle.

For interior monologue, I look on it as a spice that needs to be used wisely, as I’ve definitely read some published books where there are paragraphs and paragraphs (uninterrupted by any action or dialogue) of internal thought and it just saps the momentum and mystery right out of the characters and the scene. (Alright, already, I get that he lusts after her!)

But when used right, it helps illuminate the motivations of our POV character that we otherwise could not get across effectively through action or dialogue. It might reflect things our character can’t say aloud or can even contradict what she says and does. It helps readers connect with our POV character and not have them be like actors on a stage — we allow the reader into their heads.

But like a spice in cooking, it can be overused. My problem is I’m overspicing with that fun little spice called the rhetorical question. Especially when, as a devotee of Deep POV, I want to avoid using the distancing phrase “She wondered.” I can’t find much advice on the blogs. I wrote to another writer friend of mine about it and got some good feedback. But I still don’t feel like I’m wrapping my mind around how to change it into a statement or even when I should leave it out altogether. So I thought I’d write this post and see if anyone had some advice.

Here’s what I’ve been told by the ones that told me I overused it: that I should let the reader ask the question in their own minds. But then I had one say that in one spot I was doing it correctly but didn’t tell me why, argh! I think it has to do with character illumination. The area where she said it was okay, revealed an aspect of the character that couldn’t be shown through action or dialogue. I think where I need to work on cutting it back is where I question what’s happening? Maybe? I still don’t know… I thought I had an a-ha moment when revising a scene where the POV character has fallen asleep and then wakes up (she’s time-travelled). Here’s the original:

Isabelle snuffled and sat up quickly. She must have dozed off for a few minutes. Had she imagined the whole thing? Frantic now, she looked to where she had left her purse on the nightstand.

And I changed it to:

Isabelle snuffled and sat up, rubbing her eyes. Frantic, she whipped around to see if her purse lay on the nightstand.

Ah-ha, I thought, this is what they mean. By taking the question out and tweaking the action a little more, this might make the reader ask this question themselves. So I wrote to a writer friend and she wisely pointed out that I’d forgotten the motivation for the action in the second sentence. (And that I’d let slip in a ‘to’ verb that Janice Hardy had recently blogged about.) She gave some examples of how to do it, which helped a lot.

When still learning new tools, it’s sometimes hard to keep all of them in your head at once until you can get them ingrained.

The only blog post I found that was cautioning against it had some concrete examples (which I crave) but it was totally unsatisfying because she completely changed the character’s personality. She changed the interior question to having the character mouth off something smart via dialog and then give the guy a finger. Whoa! The character went from being introverted to this raging whatever. What if the character doesn’t act out these things? What then?

What’s your advice? Anyone have concrete examples for my feeble brain?

Here’s some articles I found:

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13 Comments

  1. Excellent post! I use questions in internal monologue, but I try not to rely on it too much. Maybe climb inside your own head and see how you think about things? Is it all questions you’re thinking? I don’t know if that will help, but good luck!

    Reply
  2. butterflywings

     /  December 22, 2011

    I read somewhere that us gals like explaining far more than showing. So we tend to add more of the internal thoughts, feelings, etc than our male counterparts.

    Not to say this is true of all ;)

    I find myself doing the telling too often as well. Usually, while editing, I change the POV for a moment (free write, not to keep in the novel). Switch to what an observer could see on the MC’s face and what those feelings are making them do/act/respond like. That opens up more showing when you return to the POV and normal writing.

    Maybe your MC wouldn’t flip someone off. Maybe she would worriedly twist up a straw, find herself hopping happily through her chores, or other ‘actions’ that make the reader understand her thoughts without the “blah, blah, blah…” (Yes, technical term LOL!)

    Thanks for the post. I have this problem so often I could write a book on what NOT to do. Can’t wait for everyone’s ideas of how to fix this :)

    Reply
  3. I don’t think it’s an issue to use (to see if…) here since it’s in her pov. It’s only when you ascribe motivation to someone not in pov that you get into trouble (how do you know what she turned her head etc). Here she obviously knows what she’s turning her head for.

    As for the questioning thing, in isolation like you present it here I don’t think it makes a difference. Reads fine if she’s wondering to herself. If however you do it a lot I can see it would become an issue (as would anything you keep repeating) and might require a little tweaking. I think in the example you give above, if she thinks about what has happened rather than whether or not she imagined it (so not ‘Did I imagine it?’ but rather ‘She woke with the image of the tall man grabbing for her purse’) and then the evidence of seeing the purse makes her realise the truth of the matter (whatever that might be).

    It’s tricky because it isn’t clear from the short example what she’s supposed to have imagined or not. But i assume it must be quite a wild thing for her to not be sure if it really happened, so a visual repeat of it in her head might provide a good cue for her to look for her purse.

    regards,
    mood

    Reply
  4. I’ll tweet this Friday morning. Maybe someone else has thoughts to share. :)

    @mooderino, you’re right that the “to see if” phrase isn’t an issue for POV. However, it *is* a telling phrase rather than a showing phrase. “to see if” isn’t something we can visualize. The suggestion I gave to Angela was just a simple change: “and checked for her purse on the nightstand.” It’s a subtle difference, but one is more visual than the other. I’ve been dinged for this recently as well, which is why Angela and I were talking about it. :)

    Reply
  5. Firefox just ate my comment, so let’s try this again…

    Rhetorical interior monologue can read better as a direct thought (as in “Did I imagine the whole thing?” instead of “Had she imagined the whole thing?”). Note that you can only do that for the POV character.

    As for “Show, don’t tell,” bear in mind that a lot of those rules come about because newbies tend to veer to the other extreme. There are times when a bit of telling would help matters.

    Take the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. I enjoy those, but it took me a few books to understand some of the scenes, because what Kate does and says when about to cry is what I do and say when irritated. That made some scenes really confuse me until I read some of the snippets from Curran’s POV.

    Have you tried writing in close POV? That can help.

    …Unless you, like me, tend to write introverted daydreamers. Then you have to figure out how to convey that without entering info-dump rabbit trails.

    Reply
  6. Great post! I’m not sure how much of a problem this is for me. I’ll have to take a look @ my WIP. But I did want to add that if you want to keep the idea that she might have imagined what’s happened, make it more overt, you could possibly add something like: “So she hadn’t imagined last night” (or whatever is the case). Or “Ok, not imagining things.”
    Just a thought.

    Reply
  7. I think the reason is that you are only asking the rhetorical question to “infodump” something on the reader. It’s another sneaky way of telling. But again, I don’t do enough interior monologue, and everyone tells me I have not motivated my characters properly or have not explained their actions.

    Reply
  8. I don’t really have any advice, but I would like to comment on something you said in your conclusion.
    Writing an introverted character throws up these kinds of tricky dilemmas. A more extroverted character will feel the need to tell surrounding characters exactly what they are feeling/thinking etc.through dialogue. An introvert may not do that if, for example, she doesn’t express herself well when talking to others. In this case, having her pose the question just to herself does show us (as the reader) that she is an introvert. If you are worried about showing vs telling then you certainly wouldn’t want to tell us outright that your character is an introvert and this is actually quite a good way of solving that problem.
    If, of course, you come to the redrafting phase and you feel you have over used that particular ‘tool’ then you can prune a few out using the advice other people have left for you. But the occasional use of internal dialogue and rhetorical questions is not a problem for me so long as it is honest to the character who is using it.
    That’s just my two pence. Great topic – Mike.

    Reply
  9. Hi Angela–I came over here from Janice Hardy’s blog!

    I’d never heard this issue come up until a couple weeks ago at writers’ group, when one of us criticized the practice in someone else’s story. I cocked my head and said, “I did that all the time in my book and you never commented on it,” and she replied, “Well when you did it it worked.” That was flattering and all, but I have no idea why it was working for me and not for this other guy, and so when I do it in my next work I’ll be all paranoid. ;)

    I’m not sure I grant that internal monologue is telling, any more than I would say dialogue is telling. I don’t think the end-all and be-all of the show vs. tell dichotomy is whether something is visual. I think what it’s really about is whether you “zoom out” or “fast forward” or whether you don’t. Is a book written in first person all telling?

    Anyway, interesting topic. Happy new year!

    Reply
    • LOL, I feel your paranoia! Please, if you figure out why yours worked, please let me know :) I’m reading Loretta Chase right now, whose one of the most respected romance writers, and she uses the technique too, but damn if I can figure out why mine isn’t working right. Maybe I just overuse it, and like any good technique that’s overused, it fails.

      Happy New Year, and thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
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