Cup of Dcaf: Thoughts and Internal Dialogue

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Anyone who reads a lot of fiction will be familiar with italicized font, and what it signifies: internal dialogue or thoughts. This is a very common tool used in first- or third-person close points of view, and it helps bring the reader more intimately into touch with the character’s identity and personality. After all, people can very easily say one thing while thinking another.

This, when used judiciously, can be very effective in making your stories deeper, your characters more fleshed-out. When I think about the ways that Robert Jordan used thoughts to demonstrate Mat Cauthon’s recalcitrance despite his overt heroism, or how Scott Lynch cleverly hints at plot details in Locke’s thoughts while not quite giving it away, it’s very clear that this can be an incredibly effective tool for enriching a story.

However, like many things in writing, it’s all about how you use it. I’ve read books that positively bombarded me with thoughts, to the point where more text is committed to the character’s internal monologues than to actual dialogue. It came across as mostly off-putting in once instance, and in another it almost worked because of how the story was structured.

This was due mostly to the cast of characters. In one story, there was a wide group of protagonists, with a varied supporting cast and plenty of character interaction. In a situation like this, the constant thoughts interrupted the flow of scenes and seemed to push aside otherwise interesting characters. In the other instance, however, it worked a bit better.

It was a first-person POV, and featured a protagonist who really didn’t have much interaction with other characters throughout the story. Most of the conflict was internal, and his thoughts served to fuel that conflict. When the character did interact with others, his thoughts took a little more of a backseat to the dialogue. The balance was maintained, for the most part.

I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that a lot of my Cup of Dcaf posts advocate balance in writing. I think this is pretty key, because while using narrative devices absolutely can help make stories stronger, I find that they work better when used as a device instead of a premise. I’ve seen a lot of stories over the years where the author wanted to be edgy or innovative and thusly took a device and turned it into the backbone of a story. These very rarely succeeded, because the reader was hammered over the head with things that are being forced onto the page, instead of being worked in naturally with the flow of the story. Whether it’s POV shifts, flashbacks, thoughts, or what have you, these narrative tools have a supplementary role in writing, and generally don’t work when they’re used as the main focus of a story.

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