Inner Dialogue

Inner Dialogue

One of the biggest things that makes books stand out from movies is inner dialogue. I love movies, but books give you a closer relationship with the main character by putting you in their head. Instead of watching the protagonist on the screen, you get to experience their story through their eyes, feel their emotions, and hear their thoughts.

How do you, as a writer, take advantage of this strength of novels and write inner dialogue that will bring your readers closer to, and make them care more about your main character?

First things first, you need to make it clear that the dialogue is inner and not just the point-of-view character speaking out loud.

A popular way of doing this is to put the spoken dialogue in quotation marks and the inner dialogue in italics. The first few times you do this in your story, follow the character’s thoughts up with “he thought,” and then after the reader has gotten the idea that italics mean thoughts, you can start skipping the thought tags.

I shouldn’t have done that, she thought.

You can also put the inner dialogue in quotation marks. However, if you do this, make sure you include a “she thought” afterwards every time so the reader knows that the character is thinking instead of speaking.

“Why is he doing that?” Alyssa thought.

Another option is to underline inner dialogue. Like italics, it makes the thought immediately differentiable from what’s spoken.

This was a bad idea, Henry thought.

For indirect thoughts, you can skip the italics, quotation marks, and underlining altogether. An indirect thought is something your character is thinking but is in prose form instead of being presented word-for-word as they thought it.

I wondered if he knew what he was doing. I winced. It certainly didn’t seem like it.

See how that thought isn’t being shown written exactly how the character is thinking it? If it was, it would read like this:

Does he know what he’s doing? I thought, wincing. It certainly doesn’t seem like it… 

The biggest difference between direct and indirect thoughts is that indirect thoughts match the tense the rest of your book. In the above example, the prose is past tense, and when the thought is indirect, the thought is also given in past tense. However, when the thought is direct, it’s put in present tense.

Also, a thought tag is often unnecessary for indirect thoughts; the reader can usually tell when the protagonist is thinking something.

I clenched my hands together on my lap. Could Lexi stop talking her stupid pyramid scheme for once and actually act like she cared about the family?

Without including any thought tag, it’s obvious that the above is the main character thinking.

Enriching Prose with Memories

Now that you know some ways to punctuate inner dialogue, let’s look at how you can use inner dialogue to enliven your story and bring your readers closer to your characters.

A wonderful way to add a personal touch to your story’s descriptions, as well as reveal important info about your protagonist, is to enrich description with your protagonist’s memories.

Her eyes were the exact shade of blue as the skies over the ranch house I stayed in when I was a child.

Saying her eyes were as blue as the protagonist’s childhood skies instead of just saying “her eyes were blue” does several good things.

First, the blue of her eyes is now more specific. Her eyes are not just as blue or blue as the sky, but they’re as blue as the unpolluted skies in the country.

Second, it gives the protagonist an emotional association to the blue. If the point-of-view character loved his ranch house life, he’ll feel pleasantly towards the woman’s blue eyes. However, if he had a terrible childhood, he may be unpleasantly reminded of the ranch house every time he makes eye contact with this blue-eyed gal.

Lastly, it gives the reader an interesting tidbit about your protagonist: that he grew up on a ranch.

Using Inner Dialogue as an Explanation for Motivation

Do you ever watch a movie and wonder Why is the character doing that? It’s not an uncommon reaction from me while watching horror. With inner dialogue, however, your readers don’t need to wonder why your character is doing something because your character can just tell them.

I knew it was stupid to call him when the bot could track my cell signal, but I couldn’t bear the thought of the thing taking me by surprise and killing me, and me never getting to say goodbye. I’ll make it short, I promised myself

Without the inner dialogue, the reader will wonder why in the heckin’ world the character is making a phone call when a killer robot who can track cell signals is hunting her. With the inner dialogue though, the reader will understand the character better and even empathize with her.

However, don’t use inner dialogue as an excuse to make your characters do stupid things for the sake of plot. Just don’t. If the action is something the character would actually do in real life, then explain why they’re doing it with inner dialogue. If it’s not something the character would do, and you’re just making them do it so your plot can go from point A to point B, then inner dialogue is not going to help.

Inner Conflict

And now for the crunchiest way to use inner dialogue: using inner dialogue to create inner conflict. This can range from the protagonist having a moral dilemma, to trying to figure out what to do in a certain situation, to struggling with self-doubt.

Moral dilemma: It would be so easy to just let the soldiers carry her away. It would be so easy to not risk my life, to just go back home.

Trying to figure out what to do: She didn’t know what to do! Who did she believe? Her father, or this woman she’d known for… what? Two weeks? But Dad’s lied before… 

Self-doubt: I gawked at my opponent. There was no way, clumsy, fat me could beat him. I squeezed my eyes shut. Just kill me now.

Using inner dialogue to create conflict is a great way to make your story more engaging as well as bring your reader closer to your characters. We’ve all struggled with self-doubt, so we can relate to a protagonist going through that same issue, and we’ve all struggled with what is the right and correct thing to do.

The choices your character makes reveal who they really are as a person, which in turn helps your reader get to know your protagonist more and like them better. Even if your character makes the wrong choice in a situation, the reader can relate to that as they too have made bad choices, plus it will make your character seem more human.

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October 7, 2019

Sophia Uhlenhoff

Sophia is a writer of soft sci-fi and fantasy, who spends more time daydreaming about her books than actually writing them. She also enjoys procrastinating by playing Skyrim. If you see her, tell her to go write.

Currently, she's a student of creative writing at Boise State University and a Chaos Gate author at Fiction Vortex. Her dream is to live in a tree house next to a waterfall and have a pet bunny named Mr. Floofers.

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