Interior Dialogue—The Bad


Interior Dialogue—The Bad

As covered in the previous post, the use of interior dialogue is a useful device in a writer’s toolbox. But it can be a double-edged weapon to wield. Let’s discuss its downsides.

Tell dressed up in sheep’s clothing

Let’s assume you are coming to a critical point in your plot which you express as:

Aidan thought, “I’ve got to do something. I’m too impatient to let this just happen. Just because Peggy told me yesterday that we were through doesn’t mean I have to buy it.”

You want to establish Aidan’s impatience and his breakup with Peggy as key points in your story. But actually, you haven’t. Or at least not well. Using interior dialogue this way is a kind of a cheat TELL. This is the most common misuse of interior dialogue.

When an event/characteristic is important to your plot, you’ve got to slow down and give it the space it deserves. You need to show the impatience. Aidan jumps up, paces the room, and/or writes an ill-advised text to Peggy.  You need to let the reader be a fly on the wall when Peggy and Adrian have their final blow-up. What she said, then what he said, she said, he said, etc.

There are some pragmatic reasons for expanding on important plot points. First, if you don’t, the reader is unlikely to remember this almost off –the-cuff treatment and may be confused about the protagonist’s motivation farther into the narrative. Secondly, even if she remembers, she won’t be convinced emotionally of its veracity because she hasn’t seen it for herself, so to speak.

However, it is possible that this is not an important plot point (although sort of hard to see how it wouldn’t be). If it isn’t, you might be able to get away with it. But it’s still TELL in quotes.

In action/high tension sequences

What if you are writing a high tension scene? You want your reader on the edge of her chair. Would this work?

Brad’s head jerked up. Something was happening in the cabin. A whiff of smoke was coming out of the chimney. Oak probably, although it might be pine. Brad started to creep forward.

Well, it’s not a chargeable offense but Brad is presumably keyed up and as tense as you hope your reader is. In this situation, I think that this bit of internal dialogue is not only unnecessary but distracting. In an emergency situation, do you notice how pretty the accident victim’s dress is? Or remark on the fluffy blue clouds as you are tumbling down the mountain to your death? These are not good places for internal dialogue.

If the type of wood is significant to the plot (although I am blanking as to how), you can have Brad think about it after the high tension situation is concluded.

Excess use

Yes, Hamlet can spend the whole play agonizing about his choices and let’s face it, we buy it. He thinks his way through and delays action in pretty much the whole play but it works. But because of the particular genius of Shakespeare. There is another set of rules for the rest of us.

And the rule is: Shit or get off the pot.

Audiences, particularly modern ones, just don’t have a lot of tolerance for vacillating protagonists. A certain amount of interior dialogue is okay as the character is deciding what to do but sooner rather than later, he must act. If he continues his indecision too long he’ll likely be seen as weak, dithering, and even morally bankrupt.

So, by all means use interior dialogue (only one POV, please) but be aware of when and how to use it.

Interior Dialogue


Interior Dialogue

In the last post, I discussed the reasons for sticking with one Point of View (POV) to allow the reader to get to know your main character. One of the prime ways is through interior dialogue. Just so we’re talking the same language, an example is: “I can’t do this,” Cecelia thought. “I’ll be humiliated.

How it’s useful

Most writers make great use of the main character’s thoughts to move the novel forward. Here are some ways you can use it to create the effects you want.

Make the character more likeable/despicable

The protagonist’s actions can be quite appalling or even just questionable but you keep the sympathy of the reader through his thoughts. “I have to do it. I can’t let him down.”  Or “No, no! It wasn’t supposed to happen this way!”

Similarly, you can show the character being nicey-nicey all the while having contemptuous thoughts. “Yes, I’ll donate to your charity, you windbag.” Or “Why doesn’t somebody tell her she looks a drowned cat?”

Of course, you can’t have this conflict between thoughts and actions go on forever. Sooner or later, you need to show a critical action by your POV character which is true to his thoughts. Another way to resolve this is to show the protagonist acting in a way which confirms that he is lying to himself. Either option allows the reader to come to her own conclusion on her feelings about the character.

Explain motivation

In old stage melodramas, this is the part where the villain twirls his moustache and announces to the audience what he is planning to do and why. You have a much easier way. The villain can think it. Arthuro’s eyes drew down to slits. “Not yet,” he thought. “Not now. It needs to hurt more.”

Having said that, and once again, you need to show the villain acting on his motivation to make the story credible.

Bind the reader to the main character

If your reader knows your hero’s inner most thoughts, it can increase her affection for or interest in the protagonist. As in real life, understanding a person’s vulnerabilities and secrets, exposing the soul beneath the façade, creates and sustains an emotional bond.

I want to give you an example of this but I’ve concluded that I can’t do it in a paragraph. Getting to the soul of the character needs the context of his life and events which affect it to be credible. In fact, a novel.

So access to the protagonist’s thoughts can be an important and useful tool

Do I have to use interior dialogue?

You don’t have to, of course but things can go one of two ways if you don’t.

A tour de force

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is brilliant. He writes about cowboys—not ones for lots of mental angst, you would think—but he never enters the mind of the main character. And yet, he communicates what the protagonist thinks and feels through his actions. Amazing achievement.  Similarly with Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, we know Brodie through her girls and their parents but never from Brodie herself.

A total bust

But avoiding interior dialogue can also result in a novel which feels superficial. Without it, the reader may feel she doesn’t get to know the hero. The novel can also feel as if it is floating at the surface of the truth it is trying to get at.

So, you don’t have to use it but prepare to have a dazzling way to achieve what interior dialogue does.

But there are some real downsides to this technique. Next post.

Sticking with One POV

Sticking with One POV

In the last post, I railed against (in a nice way) switching a POV (Point of View) within a story. It can be hard to identify why multiple POVs are an issue.

Encore—does switching a POV really matter?

I have discussed before, your job as a writer is to create a continuous dream. That is, you want your reader to be so completely engaged with your main character that s/he is swept along, totally immersed in the story. Anything which breaks the continuous dream, can kick the reader out of the tale and make it less satisfying.

Swapping POVs frequently is one way to break the dream. It discourages the reader from concentrating on your protagonist’s thoughts, fears, and hopes by introducing the same from other characters.

Fixing multiple POVs

Remember this passage from the previous post?

Mark was suspicious of the stranger in the dark hat. He ducked into an alley to catch a better look at him. The stranger kept going, looking neither left nor right, but admiring the beauty of the day.

Across the street, Mark saw Carla. He waved her over. She wondered what he wanted but crossed over nevertheless.

How do we fix it?

Mark was suspicious of the stranger in the dark hat. He ducked into an alley to catch a better look at him. The stranger kept going, looking neither left nor right, but admiring the beauty of the day.

Across the street, Mark saw Carla. He waved her over. She had a quizzical look on her face but crossed over nevertheless.

Often the fix is quite easy. The story is not enhanced by knowing what the stranger thinks. Similarly, you stay with Mark’s POV if Carla does something he can see and interpret, thus avoiding entering her thoughts.

When the fix is difficult

Fixing multiple POVs can be difficult if the shift to another POV contains some information or emotion important to the overall plot.

Say, for example, that the stranger noting the beauty of the day, is something you really want the reader to know. I dunno, maybe he’s unfairly being suspected by Mark or he’s quite a spiritual guy. You want to hint this.

If it’s important to your story, then don’t throw it in as a bit during Mark’s POV. Slow down. Take the time to establish this characteristic in the stranger. Allow the reader to see his good guy traits. Remember, the aim is not to get the reader to the end of the story as fast as possible but to make it an engaging one. Slow down when you need to.

Situations where it works

I should just mention that, as with all writing ‘rules,’ there are exceptions.

Moving from one character’s consciousness to another’s can be effective if the transitions are clumped in large blocks. Example: Character A speaks in Chapter One; Character B in Chapter B; and then back again to A.

You have to limit the number of characters who own a point of view and they all have a unique perspective which readers would enjoy exploring.

So, you can do it but you need a fair level of adroitness to pull it off. To try it, just make sure that you have a good handle on keeping within one POV before consciously launching into multiples.

Changing Point of View


Changing Point of View

Point of View is the perspective you use to tell the story. First person (‘I’), third person (‘s/he’) or omniscient (‘all knowing, all seeing’).

It is natural to start off with a point of view (POV). In fact, it’s almost impossible not to. Most writers use the first or third person. The omniscient  has rather gone out of style. Its ability to know everything about everyone doesn’t leave the reader much to discover.

So, we start off in a POV but many of us eventually wander into a more god-like stance and start switching into different POVs.

Point of View switches—examples

Let’s do a couple of examples.

Example One

Azarlea patted her hair. “No one has finer tresses in all the kingdom,” she thought with satisfaction. Her maid came in to brush her hair and Azarlea leaned back to enjoy it. “Lazy cow,” the maid thought as she kept the strokes long and even.

Comments on example one

So, we start Azarlea’s POV and then suddenly are in the maid’s head, letting us know what the servant really thinks.

Not the end of the world as writing faux pas go and often seen even in published fiction. I think writers often use this because switching is efficient. If we can jump from Azarlea’s thoughts to the maid, we can establish tension easy peasy.

But you know, the goal of writing is not to get to the end of the story efficiently but effectively. If the maid’s dislike is important to the story, why not spend a little more time showing how her antipathy manifests itself? If it isn’t important, why include it at all?

Example two

Mark was suspicious of the stranger in the dark hat. He ducked into an alley to catch a better look at him. The stranger kept going, gazing neither left nor right, but admiring the beauty of the day.

Across the street, Mark saw Carla. He waved her over. She wondered what he wanted but crossed over nevertheless.

Comments on example two

This is actually a twofer. We start off with Mark and then into the stranger’s POV to admire the day and then into Carla’s to be curious. All in two short paragraphs. Again, we need to ask ourselves, how important are the stranger’s feelings about the day? I would guess not and it would build tension better if that comment were left out.

It might be important to know that Carla wonders why Mark is waving her over but we don’t have to get into her head to do so. She might tilt her head, have a quizzical look on her face, shrug her shoulders, etc.

Why it matters

You may think that this is a mountain/molehill thing or that I’m running out of topics to write about but actually, I think this shifting around of POVs is pretty important if you want an engaging story.

If you do a lot of switching around, as in the second example, over the development of the novel, the reader may get confused about whose story is being told. Of course, since it’s not a reader’s job to know why they feel confused, they just experience a vague sense of unrest or find they’re not connecting to the main character. And never get to the stunning climax you have for them.

So changing POVs within a story may be efficient but often not effective. I know this one is a little tough, so the next post is on how to keep to one POV.