You Keep It All In: The Inner Monologue
There’s a common theme to my last four romance DNFs: the overuse of inner monologue.
Now, I like a good inner monologue as much as anyone. They can be superb ways of conveying character issues and emotional development, so nobody should take this blog post to mean “inner monologues are bad”.
But there are two things I see inner monologues doing that cause big problems: breaking up dialogue to the extent that we don’t get any sense of conversation, or replacing it altogether.
First off, let’s look at how to do it right. Here’s a terrific example from Jeannie Lin’s fantastic The Hidden Moon combining inner monologue and dialogue:
Gao looked exactly as she remembered, exactly as she’d imagined him whenever she’d closed her eyes. He was spare of build, whipcord-lean, and dressed in a dark tunic. In the dimness of the morning, he could have disappeared into the shadows. Barely there, yet ever so present.
“It’s been seven days,” she ventured, then bit her lip. That made it sound like she’d been keeping count. Which she had.
His dark gaze held hers for a long moment. “It has been.”
Gao wasn’t smiling, but the corner of his mouth twisted upward as if curiously pleased. For her part, Wei-wei couldn’t say what she was feeling. She’d considered that she might never see Gao again. Someone like Gao and someone like her. A desert and a stream — their paths were never meant to cross.
“My brother’s wife is having her baby.”
“Is that so?”
“Everyone else at home was occupied,” she explained, for lack of other things to say.
She searched for her next words. He seemed to be doing the same, brow furrowed. The last time they’d seen one another, there was tragedy and scandal involved. Gao had intervened in a potentially dangerous situation to help her and her brother. It seemed inadequate now to pleasantly inquire about his health.
We get a lot of information about the heroine’s feelings, backstory, attraction to hero etc conveyed in the monologue; the dialogue itself is unemotional and fist-chewingly stilted. And this is perfect, because the MCs are in a horrendously awkward situation. They ought not be talking; they aren’t supposed to know each other; they have no business being attracted. Gao is a street thug to Wei-wei’s lady, and the class difference isn’t just a theoretical obstacle: he doesn’t have her verbal fluency or social training, and boy does it show.
The verbal exchange is just a few lines but it reveals Wei-wei’s desire to connect, Gao’s inability to respond in kind to her conversational offer, and the effect that his terseness has in shutting down Wei-wei’s efforts to reach him, even though they both want this to go better. Dialogue and inner monologue—showing and telling—interact to outline the attraction, key points about both personalities, and a goodly chunk of the conflict in a very short stretch of text. It’s a huge amount of work done by and around a conversation you might have with a colleague while making office tea.
Got it? Excellent. Go buy The Hidden Moon. Once you’ve done that, compare this, which I just made up but which is not far off a book I DNFd the hell out of.
“Hello,” Peter said.
He was as hot as ever, Jane reflected. She’d always wanted to climb him like a tree, with his firm thighs and visible abs—how did he keep so shredded while doing a 12-hour desk job as CEO of a multinational corporation that had made him a billionaire with its USP of delivering Christmas presents to underprivileged children?
“Hello,” Jane replied.
She could have kicked herself. Could she not have thought of a more arresting opening, something that would make her a bit more striking than the average impression given by her medium height and mid-brown hair? The many glamorous women Peter squired to the sort of parties that kept his photo in the magazines probably said far more interesting things than ‘Hello’. Like, Take me now, big boy. She wouldn’t mind saying that.
“Would you like coffee?” Peter asked.
Jane felt her stomach squirm at the very thought of putting anything into it. She’d skipped breakfast because of this meeting, which would, she hoped, determine the fate of her own tiny Christmas stocking manufacturing business, and if she was honest because the thought of getting this close to Peter’s delicious chiselled jawline gave her an appetite that had nothing to do with food. She probably ought to have something, but not coffee, since she’d given up caffeine six weeks ago due to her ongoing sleeping problems. Would it be too demanding to order her favourite decaf soy latte?
Oh no! The words had come out far more brusquely than she’d meant. Had Peter’s caramel brown eyes hardened? She couldn’t tell as he flipped open his top of the range laptop…
As before, the narrative is delivering lots of backstory and detail. But here (and obviously this is an exaggerated example) it’s doing it at the expense of two things: Peter’s character, and the MCs’ interaction.
Those go together. Dialogue tells us about both parties individually, and about the way they bounce off each other—how they mesh, or clash, understand each other or don’t. It shows us what both parties are prepared to reveal, what they hide, how they react to one another.
The dialogue in this scene is excruciatingly dull, but that doesn’t have to matter—see again The Hidden Moon extract’s far from scintillating surface conversation. The problem is that this scene is purely Jane, Jane, Jane, and the lines of dialogue are props for that. It might as well be unbroken monologue, because we haven’t learned anything meaningful about Peter, only about what Jane thinks of Peter, and we also haven’t learned how Jane and Peter work together as a pair. That’s the nature of inner monologue, the self, and that might well be fine in a chick-lit type novel that’s all about the narrator. In a romance—a book about people connecting with each other—it can be a kiss of death.
It’s also a kiss of death to anything interesting that might be happening in the dialogue. Try it again:
“I just recreated brontosaurus meat in my lab,” Peter said. “It’s delicious.”
He was as hot as ever, Jane reflected. She’d always wanted to climb him like a tree, with his firm thighs and visible abs—how did he keep so shredded while doing a 12-hour desk job as CEO of a multinational corporation that had made him a billionaire with its slogan of ‘Jurassic Park on your plate’?
“Well done!” Jane replied.
She could have kicked herself. Could she not have thought of a more arresting response, something that would make her a bit more striking than the average impression given by her medium height and mid-brown hair? The many glamorous women Peter squired to the sort of parties that kept his photo in the magazines probably said far more interesting things than ‘Hello’. Like, Take me now, you T-rex of a man. She wouldn’t mind saying that.
“Would you like some triceratops steak?” Peter asked.
Jane felt her stomach squirm at the very thought of putting anything into it. She’d skipped breakfast because of this meeting, which would, she hoped, determine the fate of her own tiny prehistoric ready-meal manufacturing business, and if she was honest because the thought of getting this close to Peter’s delicious chiselled jawline gave her an appetite that had nothing to do with food. She probably ought to have something, but not triceratops, since she’d given up meat six weeks ago due to her newfound commitment to veganism…
Nope, still awful, and in fact more awful because I don’t know about you but if he’s a dinosaur meat ready-meals merchant, that’s what I want to hear about. Subordinating the dialogue to the monologue in this way diminishes its impact, gives us no sense of a back and forth, makes it extremely hard to keep track of what the conversation is about, and takes a hell of a lot longer to convey useful information.
A dialogue passage doesn’t have to have sparkling conversation to work brilliantly. But if a conversation would interest the reader on its own terms, why not let it do so, rather than making it all about something else? And if it wouldn’t, consider why you’re making us read it at all. There may be an excellent reason, of course. Great things can be done with apparently boring conversations. But if what’s being said is purely a frame to hang an inner monologue on, that rarely makes for a satisfying scene.
This is not to say that an unbroken inner monologue is preferable. It is not unknown in romance for the conflict to be resolved by one or more MCs going over and over their problems in their head, until they come to a new opinion or understanding. That can do a lot of work, but, again, a romance is about both the people in the relationship. The conflict isn’t fixed by the hero realising after seven pages of hard thinking that his dead wife would have wanted him to love again. It gets fixed when he talks to the new love interest, listens to them, and offers a proper meaningful grovel for his previous 200 pages of jerkery. When, in fact, they interact successfully.
If one MC is doing the heavy lifting alone in their head, whether on the conflict or the resolution, that by itself will struggle to make for a satisfying read in a genre that’s about human interaction. The internal stuff needs to support and enhance the external (the behaviour, the dialogue).
Ask yourself: What happens if I cut all the interior monologue bits? If I chop this MS down to just the dialogue and interactions, do I still have the bones of a romance: the attraction, the enjoyment of each other’s company, the conflict, the desire, the bits that make readers swoon or cry or tweet that you’ve ruined their life? Am I building the characters (in action and dialogue) or just talking about them? Is there enough actually happening between the characters, on page, to support what the inner monologues say is happening between them?
There’s no perfect percentage of dialogue to inner monologue—if a book works, it works. But if inner monologue gets in the way of the reader seeing how the MCs work together…that’s not what they picked up a romance for.
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If the title didn’t give you an earworm already, you can get it here.
Your writing advice is crystal clear and thought-provoking, as always. But in this case I want to thank you for introducing me to the delightful Beautiful South, who I’d never heard of, even though tho they seem to be the same vintage as me. (Got the ear worm now, small price to pay.)
“I don’t know about you but if he’s a dinosaur meat ready-meals merchant, that’s what I want to hear about.”
Good lord, me too!!
Also, the whole “thinking of eating gave her an appetite for something else” and “seeing the watch he was wearing made her wish she was against his skin” trope has to die the death. No! This is not how life works, at all.
This is fascinating, and I agree, but it leaves me thinking. If you’re writing third-omniscient the narrator is the narrative voice, and knows everything. Fairly similar in loose third-person, where one can presumably get away with slight head-hopping.
However, if someone’s writing first or tight-third, all you would know about Peter is what Jane can observe/feel/think. Serious question: how do you get past that?
But that’s the fun of first or tight third! The point is that we only know what the POV character knows, plus what we as reader can observe or infer. It’s a very different exercise to dual POV.
I completely missed that the Jane and Peter Show given was meant to be dual-POV! I thought it was all Jane, all the time.
I try to write tight-third all the time (I always catch myself out missing bits).
I think my problem is you’re decrying heavy use of internal monologue, and I do it all the time as character voice (in someone’s senses, trying to tend towards using their tone, register, manner, and vocabulary, with relatively little outside that)! Are those two things, inner monologue and character voice, different? What makes one better than the other?
I really want to know this–if there’s a trick I’m missing with my feeble attempts at writing, I could do with help figuring it out!
Inner monologue is fine. The problem is when you have a scene that’s *so much* inner monologue that it’s just a person standing in a room, possibly facing their love interest, thinking for six pages. Or a conversation like the Peter and Jane one that goes:
–line of dialogue
–paragraphs of inner monologue
–line of dialogue
–page of inner monologue
–line of dialogue
so that it takes a full chapter for the hero and heroine to establish what restaurant they’re going to or whatever. That’s a problem because it usually brings the book to a dead halt. Interior monologue just isn’t the same thing as plot progression, or as romance (which takes more than one person). And while it can be brilliant as one aspect of character development, it’s inherently static and solipsistic. So my point is, if inner monologue enhances our understanding of the character in the scene, fabulous. If it noticeably interrupts the scene to build the character, not so much. It’s a matter of balance. I’d probably ask yourself if the big pivot points in your character arcs tend to take place in one character’s head, or whether they’re shown in action/dialogue/with things actually happening.
I just DNF’d a very popular book for this very problem! So nice getting your thoughts on the issue. Love your books, reviews and writing insights.