Editing Quick Hit: Inner Monologues

Oh shit! he thought. I have no idea how a monologue should be written! What will I do?

Ah, rest easy, writer’s inner muse. I’m here to help.

Insight into a character’s mind is one of the gifts of fiction. In real life, even when someone tells us what they are thinking, they aren’t often telling us what they are really thinking. But in fiction, we can climb right into someone’s head and learn from their very thoughts. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

But how do you convey that something is an inner monologue?

First, make sure you’re in the right kind of story. Sorry, nonfiction, you’re right out: even if we have someone’s journal, we don’t know exactly what they’re thinking (don’t worry, historical fiction; you can stay). Also excluded are stories written in “third person limited”–ie., are told by an outside narrator who doesn’t have access to the thoughts and motivations of the characters. (IMPORTANT: If you switch between characters’ perspectives, do so only at a clear break, such as a chapter, so that the reader can keep up. Don’t “head hop.” If you’re in third person limited, you’re limited!)

But say you’re in first person, or third person omniscient, and someone is thinking something. How do you write it?

  • Where is she going with this, he wondered?
  • “Where is she going with this?” he wondered.
  • Where is she going with this? he wondered.

Which of the above is clearest for the reader? The last one: the change of the font gives the reader a hint, from the beginning, that something is different about this sentence. They’ll know to read it in a different “sound” than other dialogue.

On a similar note, why does the placement of that question mark matter so much? Read it aloud. English sucks for questions, because we don’t alert readers that it is, in fact, a question until the very end of the sentence. When we ask a question, we raise the tone of our voices toward the end of the sentence (when we’ve figured out it’s a question after all!). If you move that question mark to after the “he wondered,” that lift will come on “wondered” rather than on “this?” where it belongs.

Now, if there is some reason you can’t use italics in your book (I pity you greatly), it is ok to write thoughts without italics–I think it’s just the most efficient method. If you leave off the italics, try to clue the reader in some other way. For example, don’t make it dialogue:

  • He wondered where she could possibly be going with this blog post.

Or keep it as dialogue but warn the reader up front:

  • He wondered: Where is she going with this blog post? Will it ever end?

Don’t ever use quotation marks! Those are reserved for–duh!–quotations, said aloud.

Your job as the writer is to make your story as clear for the reader as possible: after all, if they’re busy trying to figure out how to say the sentence you just wrote, they’re not getting immersed in your great story.

 

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1 Comment

Filed under Editing, writing

One response to “Editing Quick Hit: Inner Monologues

  1. Sam

    I loved this quote, “If you’re in third person limited, you’re limited.” So true! I get super frustrated when that rule (law?) is broken.

    Happy writing!

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