Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Monologue

Plays often utilize soliloquies where a character muses their inner thoughts to the audience. Writers refer to a character’s thoughts as interior monologue. Movies, however, rarely make use of this technique, and those that do usually get berated for being cheesy.

Accomplished fiction writers, however, do make transitions in and out of monologues so smoothly that readers forget to even notice that they were just ”inside” a character’s head. Revealing these interior monologues draws readers closer to a book’s character. A character’s thoughts offer an unfiltered lens for the reader to learn not only the character’s motives but their voice. Too, authors can offer access to motives and information that otherwise would be difficult to convey.

I picked a book at random from my shelf, Wilbur Smith’s thriller, THE SEVENTH SCROLL. Flipping through it, I came to this example of interior monologue where Royan (the heroine) has just been listening to Nicholas (the hero) tell about his prior trip to Africa:

She stared at him with a feeling of awe. He had actually rafted the Abbay. It was as though she had been led to him by some strange fate. Duraid was right. There was probably no man in the world better qualified for the work in hand.

Mr. Smith consistently does an excellent job of transitioning viewpoints between Nicholas and Royan in the middle of chapters and amidst heavy dialogue. As a reader, it’s all seamless. This comes with writing practice and comfort with the direction of scenes and characters. For instance, notice that Mr. Smith didn’t find it necessary to lead off with “she thinks.”

Instead, the jump occurs from what Royan sees (i.e., “she stared”). The reader then knows subconsciously without thought to follow Royan’s perspective. So, even though the next sentence begins with “he,” the reader still knows it is Royan’s thoughts about Nicholas. As a reader, you don’t even stop to think about it, but as a writer, you have to be very conscience of this technique (at first, anyway) so that you don’t overuse it.

Keep in mind that characters’ dialogues should stand on their own as should the gestures and body language of each. In other words, don’t duplicate or rather, reiterate, what was just accomplished in dialogue by following up the same point via an interior monologue. An example:

“You stink,” Joe said. Joe glared at his son’s messy shirt. Tommy smelled bad.

Use either the dialogue or the internal monologue but not both. A reader can tell from either sentence that Tommy smells. Trust the reader. Oddly enough, they’ll follow your thoughts.


  1. That's pretty much the way I do it, too. Once in a great while I put in "she/he thinks" when doing it another way will be convoluted.

  2. Sometimes the ol' "he/she thinks" is just unavoidable, huh, Edie? I know what you mean. Granted, there's also the "he/she wonders" and "he/she feels." All sorts of good possibilities out there for us.

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