Yesterday, I got to talking with one of my writer friends about a problem we’re both having- how much internal monologue is too much?
The easy and lazy answer is, ‘it depends.’ But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Different genres allow for more- or less- introspection by the characters, and if you’re writing a short story, there’s not as much room for the character to climb up inside his own head as there is in a novel.
The friend in question writes mil-SF, so there’s not a lot of time or space for the characters to ponder the meaning of the universe. One or two sentences at a time, interspersed with the action. But he’s also working on a coming-of-age series, in which a strong internal monologue is practically required. The whole point of the story is to get to know a character, where they started off, how they ended up, and how they got there, in their actions and their thoughts.
As for me… well, everything I write turns into romance. It’s the weirdest thing, because I’m not a romantic person in real life. But it gives me a place to explore characters’ emotions and thoughts, and I enjoy that. That exploration is often done silently, in the character’s head.
But how to decide when enough is enough? I’m having this problem with the WIP, because the main character’s problems are mostly subjective and she can’t talk to anyone about them. So I can’t make her play off other characters- dialogue is always good for moving a story along if you think it’s lagging. It gets better later in the story, because she starts interacting with other characters, including the other POV character, which leads to some interesting conversations when they try to figure out what the other is thinking- and hiding!- and get it wrong.
I pondered the problem and came up with some basic questions for writers who are deciding whether to include a character’s thought process in the story:
1- Will depicting the decision process slow down the story? If yes, does that slow-down happen at a point in the story when you want a slow-down?
2- If you don’t want the story to slow down, is there a place in the story after the decision is made, where you can reasonably have the character go through the memory of the process?
3- Does the process convey any emotional impact that the decision itself doesn’t convey?
Those questions are specifically for when a character is faced with a problem and must quickly decide yes or no, because that was the nature of the discussion. But they can be easily adapted for other varieties of contemplation. The important thing is, don’t bore your readers. This is often genre-dependent, as I said above, but as long as you don’t pull a bait and switch on your readers, abruptly stopping your rip-roaring adventure for pages of pure thought from the characters, you’re probably okay. And even if you do, some fans enjoy the change of pace. A very subjective issue, internal monologues.
Your turn! How do you handle moments when your character must ponder abstract problems? Do you enjoy reading those bits? What do you do when your character wants to discuss an issue out loud, only there are no other characters to talk to?
I’ve learned not to do internal monologuiing, even for only a couple sentences, during action sequences. It warps the flow.
I think the character’s thoughts are often interesting, even required, as reactions to big events. We want to know what’s in his or her head. It’s like when a friend is telling you gossip and you gasp, “What did she say to that?” Readers do want to know reactions, and those are internal.
Also, planning is a good place for internal monologuing, and that’s good. Even if the planning is taking place by dialogue, the MC can have unspoken reservations, suspicions, or secrets, which only the readers learn about.
I like it when the glimpse into the character’s head helps me feel what he’s feeling– I’m actually enjoying going back over one character’s panic attacks, because I get the ‘feeling’ of it from him melting down. In his head. And then beating himself up because Stuff Happened while he was blue screening.
I have them work their way through the problem, internally or externally with other people, using action beats to convey the emotions and decisions.
The action beats will be related to something else going on that’s relevant to the overall plot, so the scene accomplishes more than one thing.
…and sometimes I don’t show the internal monologue at all, but observe it through a different character’s eyes, leaving the reader with expressions, actions, and verbalized questions. They get to work out what happened like anyone else in the story.
I find it helps to give them something to do while thinking. Something that allows thinking, like sewing, or knitting, or gardening. Punctuates the thoughts with touches of the outside world.
If they get too caught in thoughts, they make a mistake.
I try to use these abstract problems as a way to bounce character personalities off of each other and explain things.
Think of a brainstorming session. Character A talks to Character B, Character C points something out to Character A, Character D asks about lunch…
I write what I know. What I know is an introvert whose interior monologue never shuts off; on the contrary, it spins incessantly, like a mouse on a wheel.
I try to imagine life as someone who ISN’T constantly thinking “why” and “what if” and “what next”? How empty and boring their minds must be. No wonder they fill the void with chatter. Lucky they have similar-minded friends to chatter with. Can’t imagine writing that story, the dialogue would bore me.
One character I’m working with talks to things or animals if she’s working through a problem, and there isn’t anyone else around to overhear.
For action, I’ve been keeping it very symbolic. I do computer games, and I find that, even in the greatest visual spectacles I’m not paying attention to that. I’m paying attention to the metrics that matter to the fight at hand.
Project Wingman ends with this epic one on one Anime style jet fighter duel. It is visually incredible. It takes place of the just nuked ruins of the city you just captured. The bombing has left a thick overcast layer at around 10,000 feet. Under the overcast is a dark orange hellscape of a still burning metropolis.
Above the cloud layer, it is an orange tinted sunset, over waves of cotton clouds. It beautiful and horrifying at the same time.
Your plane’s systems are all wracked with static from the blasts. If you’re flying a two seater, your RIO is going in and out of consciousness the entire fight. And the bad guy is hurling swarmed of micro missiles at you, spamming out massive webs of railgun bolts to hem you in, and sending out waves energy mine spheres that must be a mile across when they charge.
It’s visually impressive, in the best traditions of the Macross Saga, Ace Combat, Gundam, and all of their clones and spinoffs.
And when I’m flying it, I’m not paying attention to any of that.
My thought processes is:
Get above the cloud cover so I can see.
Disengage, try for North/South axis (East/West means I’m flying into the sun while evading. Not good)
Extend to >40km
If he’s already used the energy bombs, and probably going to use the missiles or tails next, reverse to joust.
On joust: if missiles, wait until close then countermeasures. If railspam, watch, and find space for plane.
If energy bombs, abort and re-extend.
20km is go/nogo. If go get semi-active missiles in the air. Switch to heaters, and look for lock.
10km: salvo heat seaker missiles.
Support SAA as much as I can, evade counter attack through the merge, and start extend to 40km on other side.
Rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat. Why won’t this guy shut up and die already?
This is a 20-30m dogfight too. And the amount of stuff I’m paying attention to, vs the amount of stuff happening on screen is very very small. I’m not even paying attention to whether the missiles hit, because it does not have any impact on the decisions I need to make next. Once the sidewinders are off the rails, they are no longer relevant to my world.
Now, drop someone in who does not know the game, the world is on fire, there are lasers and missiles everywhere, everyone is screaming, every light and siren in my cockpit is going off, I just exploded and am staring at a restart screen wondering wtf just happend?
I think that’s the difference between someone who is experienced, vs a novice. The vet is not processing more information; rather they know which information is most important, process that, and ignore the rest. And the shorter the decision cycle needs to be, the less information they will process for any given decision.
I have the all-seeing, all-knowing, smart-ass Narrator fill the reader in on stuff they need to know. He’s the one who provides helpful information before the fight. Such as why Character is cranky, or exactly what super weapon Character has deployed, and why it is going to be very bad indeed for the object/monster/eldritch whatsit on the receiving end.
One must deploy Narrator with a light touch, lest he unleash the dreaded Weber Information Dump and crush the reader under fabulous yet ultimately unimportant detail. The superconducting magnets for collimating a fusion-generated plasma beam are fabulous indeed, but better enjoyed by nerds geeking out about mega-Tesla field strengths over coffee. Including that in a fight scene might be, dare I say it, overkill. [running away laughing]
I like internal thoughts, and thinking out problems. Or internally saying things she or he is much to polite to say out loud. “Yes, Lord Brian.” You blithering idiot.
When it gets down to a quick yes or no (or fight or run, or whatever) it might help for the character to have wrestled with the problem earlier, arguing with self or some verbally with someone else. Just to show that they are conflicted, and then at the moment, making that snap decision. Maybe with tears in their eyes, or horrified afterwards. But let the reader already know that she or he was badly conflicted on that issue.