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: