On Interior Monologue

in·te·ri·or mon·o·logue


  1. a piece of writing expressing a character's inner thoughts.


Interior monologue is tricky. It can strengthen a story significantly, but it can also make a story virtually unreadable… and, unfortunately, it more often does the latter. Here’s a nifty trick to use when writing anything that isn’t directly present in the action of the story: when in doubt, leave it out. Editors will love you, trust me. And it rhymes, so it must be true!

Apart from this glorious piece of advice, I offer a few guidelines that you should implement when writing interior monologue--


1) Don’t Feel Compelled To Show What Characters Are Thinking

Sometimes I get the feeling that writers feel obligated to reveal their characters inner thoughts. For those that feel so inclined, let me ask you this: if a character running away from an armed clown-zombie, do you really need to say, “Dom had never been so scared in his life.” How about, “Dom remembered the first Thanksgiving he’d had with his cousins - the one where he was trapped in a closet for hours.” How about, “I’ll never get out of here! My God!” The answer: NO. It’s better to describe the pain of running with a rock in your shoe, and being unable to stop because death itself is on your heels. It’s better to show Dom falling over in terror, and barely escaping the grasp of pulsing, bloody fingers. This brings us to guideline #2.


2) Don’t EVER Interrupt Action With Thought

When is the last time you were in the middle of an interior monologue as you were being slapped in the face? As you were rear-ended? As you were in the middle of screaming at your significant other? Chances are, it’s a fairly rare occurrence. I don’t care how important it is for the reader to know about Marybeth’s secret desires. If it doesn’t occur naturally, it does not belong in the scene. Period.


3) Don’t Have More Than A Paragraph Of Interior Monologue At A Time

This one is more of a generality. Sometimes, it’s perfectly okay to have pages of haphazard thoughts. Ulysses is an entire book of interior monologue, and it turned out just fine! Still, James Joyce is the exception. I hate to say it (not really), but interior monologue is often very boring. This rule should be broken rarely, and always with good purpose.


4) Don’t Write It The Easy Way

I’ve given this advice before, but it’s still just as relevant. It’s easier for the character to tell you how he or she feels, but it’s far less artistic. “He hated her” is a lot easier than “She had been the cause of so many visits to the orthodontist, he was forced to consciously avoid grinding his teeth whenever she was expected to drop by.”


Don’t force-feed a hungry reader. Interior monologue serves one purpose alone: to provide us with character-enhancing information that cannot be communicated in another way. Description and dialogue should be used instead, whenever possible. The rule of thumb is, if a character is feeling or thinking something that the reader might not expect - like, if she is playing in the park with her children as she is plotting a murder, by all means, break out the monologue! If, instead, she is feeling exactly, down-to-a-tee, what the average person would be feeling in her shoes, print out the monologue, throw it in your desk drawer, and never speak of it again.