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Character Inner Monologue...ugh.

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by DragonOfTheAerie, Nov 27, 2016.

  1. So, I have a problem I've been coming across constantly in my WIP. I'm not sure how exactly to handle this, or how to fix it.

    I'm struggling with how to show my character's thoughts in the narrative. She is a first-person narrator and she seems to think a lot. I have a ton of inner monologue going on all the time. And it's driving me CRAZY. I don't know why exactly; maybe there's too much of it, maybe it's too 'telly' and obvious. we've all heard 'show don't tell,' right? I don't place a lot of stock in writing 'rules' but whatever, this one is helpful oftentimes.

    My character is constantly asking herself questions about what's going on, or telling us what's going on in her head. I use the words "I wondered" "I thought" "I realized" what seems to me like way too often. I have lots of passages like "I realized I couldn't trust X character, no matter what they claimed" or "I decided I wasn't going to give up." which show changes of heart or mind. But I keep thinking, there has to be a better way to show my character's priorities have shifted or that they don't trust a character than just SAYING it outright.

    And the typical "show don't tell" solution is "show it through their actions..." But what do you do if your character is in turmoil and doesn't know what to do? What if they can't act? What if the struggle really is happening in their thoughts? My character spends lots of time indecisive about who to trust and what to do. I'm struggling with how to show this inner turmoil without long, boring passages of "I thought this. Then I thought this. Then I thought this. Then I thought this..."

    Then there's when my character is trying to figure something out and is asking herself a barrage of questions. I have whole PARAGRAPHS like this: "Could I trust what X character said? I wouldn't put it past her to twist the truth, but to lie outright? Was what she had said about X thing true? What could I do other than trust her? Did I have any other options?" Paragraphs of that. It makes my brain start to leak out my nose, but I don't know how to trim those passages.

    Not showing my character's thoughts would make her actions look illogical and ill-considered at best, and completely confusing at worst. Heck, I need to write this stuff out so *I* can figure out in *my* mind what's going on. I feel like the reader has to see it to get a full grasp of the situation too. I really don't know what to do.

    I feel like my character's thoughts take up way too much space. Do other characters think this much? Is it my first person narration that's causing this? If these long inner monologues have to be kept, then I at least wish I knew a way to make them less painfully dull. Honestly I get sick of watching my character's indecision and I sense the reader will too...but does that mean I can't have a character be indecisive? I just don't know.

    (You'll probably end up saying you need an example actually from the story. Yeah, I'll post one up in the morning, but as of now I'm up in my room posting on mobile away from the computer.)
  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Ahh, first person is fun isn't it?

    The thing about first person is that is basically is all inner monolog. Like, the whole framework of first person is that the person is telling the story from their own memory, so if it comes accross as telly as too much thinking that is par for the course.

    However, there are ways to get around it being super obvious.

    So, you noted that you tend to find phrasing like "I thought, I realized, I wondered." You can take all of those out. All of them.

    So instead of:

    I realized I couldn't trust X character, no matter what they claimed

    You can just say:

    I couldn't trust x character, no matter what they claimed.

    Having a character ask themselves questions or debate with themselves is normal and good. But pick the key questions and then move on.

    I really would need to see an example to understand where your concerns really lay... but for now I would suggest picking up a few books written in first and studying how that author shows the thoughts and feelings of the character.
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2016
    Russ, cydare and Demesnedenoir like this.
  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I'd like to second this. When you're writing internal monologue you can remove anything like beats and tags (if you want to). It should/will be obvious that it's internal thought anyway, and there's only one person speaking inside the mind of the character (if it isn't, then you may have to make that clear, unless... etc..)

    If your character is asking themselves a question it should be clear that it's a question without you telling the reader they're asking themselves a question. Depending on how comfortable you are with it you may be able to just write down the thoughts themselves, without any explanation at all - like you're talking directly to the reader, sort of.

    I write in third person, but I tend to try to do internal monologue in that way. Usually it's spread out between other things though, like chat lines or actions or such. Here's an example from a recent story though:
    This is Toini remember her old friend Roy who had a crush on her. It's not exactly internal monologue, but it's not straight up narrator voice either. Probably something in between (if someone knows the technical term, feel free to enlighten me).

    Let's see if I can rewrite the first part in first person. It should be largely similar:
    It's not an exact change from third person to first, but it's pretty close. I'd say the above now is all internal monologue. I don't know about anyone else, but when I just let my mind wander it's rare that words come up. It's more concepts, feelings, and images. I think it's fine to try and replicate this in writing by not adding in tags, or necessarily even using complete sentences (within limits). I feel it works, but I could be wrong.
    Caged Maiden, cydare and Heliotrope like this.
  4. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team


    I'll second, second Svrt. ;)

    First person is often very telly and deeply rooted in the narrator's voice, as they are 'telling' the story after all. It is a very different narrative strategy than say, third omni, where the narrative might be presented in such a way as "showing" the story as if it were a film. I think this is why many people either love first or hate it.

    Here are the first few lines of my WIP:

    My dad and I have two unspoken rules:

    One: Never mention my mother.

    Two: Avoid the landlady at all cost.

    The first rule is easy. The second is challenging, especially when she is pounding on your door at six-thirty in the morning.

    Mrs. Skein, our landlady, is the most feared woman in Bay Ridge. I can tell it’s her by the bleached hair sticking up above the half moon window on our front door and the way she screeches my dad’s name like a wounded ally cat.

    Usually when she comes knocking my dad curses and escapes through the back door to the small garages we all have behind our single story units.

    But we stay because she offers the cheapest rent in town, and I’ll tell you why: No heat, no hot water, no electricity between six p.m. and six a.m.

    I’m not kidding.

    Note how I have purposely deeply rooted the reader in the narrative voice ASAP. My narrator has grabbed hold of her role as the 'story teller'. I could have started with:

    My dad and I lounged by the window one lazy Saturday morning when all of a sudden a pounding at our door warned the landlady was ready for a fight.

    But that strategy woudn't have been as effective for estabishing narrator voice ASAP.

    Trying to "show" in first person, is not always as effective as taking the storyteller reigns and telling throught personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2016
    cydare and Ireth like this.
  5. cydare

    cydare Minstrel

    Another suggestion to add is ground long paragraphs of internal monologue by adding in some action. Ideally, she'd be physically pushing part of the plot forward (Getting to city X, creating object Y, etc), but every-day basic stuff is okay too. Even if she's alone in a room with only her thoughts for company, she can be doing the odd thing like shifting around from seat to seat, cleaning her room, indulging in an activity that soothes her if she's agitated...and so on, so forth.

    So as a quick example:

    It was hard to decide whether I could trust what CHARACTER said. I wouldn't put it past her to bend the truth, but to lie outright? I held the ribbon she'd given me in my hand, twisting and untwisting it around my fingers until I could feel its edges fray. Was she capable of that?
    Heliotrope likes this.
  6. Russ

    Russ Istar

    Helios first answer nails most of it but leaves out the fancy writing term for your problem.

    Using these terms is called "filtering" and it makes your writing weaker no matter what person you are writing in and creates greater distance between the protagonist and the reader, and can damage immersion. So it is not just bad with inner monologue.

    Avoid filtering as much as possible. I am short on time this morning or I write a long segment on how to avoid it (my wife kicks my ass when I filter and she is great at avoiding it, I learned the hard way), instead just google filtering and writing and read a few of the articles on it. It can really improve your writing.

    The amount of inner dialogue needed varies on the nature of the plot and the characters and your writing style. I would however suggest less navel gazing is better than more. :)
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    "Filtering" is an interesting term. I've thought of what Russ is addressing in a slightly different way, but it comes to the same thing.

    Your POV characters are like real people. They have introspective and "extrospective" modes. The vast majority of time, we operate in the extro- mode. We usually don't think about ourselves in the third person even when being introspective. One doesn't think, "I realized," but simply realizes.

    Now, when relating an event to another person, we will often cast the tale with a kind of third person treatment, cast ourselves as a third person character, and say "I realized." But that's after-the-fact, not real-time. I.e., we are filtering a tale as a narrator outside the events, or at a distance from those events.

    Such narration is not always bad, but the filtering automatically introduces a "separate narrator" vibe. In omniscient voices, this can work well. But in close first and close third, it's an intrusion.
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2016
  8. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    Today, I wrote the word "Exposition" on a notebook as I planned some key internal monologue parts...and I put little hearts and smilies all around the words because this is my favorite part of writing, now.

    I used to suffer from the "she thoughts" a lot. Now I just write like I'm telling someone something important. The less I do to it, the better it feels, even. Perhaps you are over-thinking HOW you're trying to tell, and you should just talk like you're having a conversation about something that matters a lot, to someone who cares a lot about it. :)

    A lot of this exposition stuff I avoided for the last few years, thinking it "weak" and inherently "bad" but the more I use it, the more I love it. I think this is the easiest way I find to get a character's voice and thoughts across, maybe amuse at the same time, and it's faster than showing every single thing that happens. If you scale exposition back to its most primitive form, it is probably not an extremely useful tool to over-use. Statements like, "It was hot. The harbor was closed." They do a job, sure, and short sentences that are direct do absolutely serve a purpose. But I avoided all exposition because no matter what I wrote, it felt just that basic and dull. But then I just let my actual weird voice peek through the character's words, and I'm having a blast with including exposition. So excited that I can't wait to jot down some reflective scenes that I can include in the next book I'm rewriting.

    Hope that helps. Try to feel less anxious and just let your natural speaking voice flow. That always sounds like terrible advice, but it's some of the best I've ever given/ gotten. ;)
  9. Jackarandajam

    Jackarandajam Troubadour

    Fight Club is my favorite reference for excellent FPN
  10. ok, I said I would post an example, and forgot somehow...

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