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.

How To Read Like A Writer

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

-Ernest Hemingway


In thinking about how I personally learned the craft of writing, it’s hard to minimize the impact of books. For all the classes that I took, and all the seminars I attended, the simple act of reading is responsible for easily 85% of what I’ve learned. At first glance, this might not make much sense – there are lots of prolific readers out there who aren’t remotely good writers – but that’s because not all reading is created equal. The better acquainted you become with the craft, the easier it is to see devices for what they are, to spot the sentences that make a work sing, to notice the strengths and weaknesses of characters… in short, to read like a writer. The following are things you can do to start yourself down one of the most important journeys in any writer’s career, and they are available to you anytime you pick up a book.


Slow Down!

In high school we learn to read things as quickly as we can. Individual sentences don’t matter. A teacher will never ask “What color was Hester Prynne’s dress in The Scarlet Letter?” They ask instead, “What important decision did Governor Bellingham make, and how did it affect the plot?” This trains our minds to look for plot points when we read. It’s great if we can get through a work of fiction and understand what happened, but in reading for events, we lose so much of what brought those events about. Reading isn’t a race! It’s better to understand a single book on a deeper level than finish three books in a row without taking the time to study them.


Guess Where It’s Going

Many writers, myself included, do this subconsciously. If you don’t at first, that’s okay. For now, do it consciously. Put the book down in-between chapters and ask yourself what you think will happen and why. You might find that you’ll not only get better at predicting plots, but you’ll get better at seeing devices such as foreshadowing, that move the story forward from behind the scenes.


When Your Emotions Become Affected, Question Why

If something strikes you, either because it draws you in or is completely unrelatable, take a second to scrutinize it. Is the language bare and direct or filled with a preponderance of vernacular that enthralls you? Is it the characters, the plot, the dialogue or the description that caused you to feel something? Particularly when we become excited, the tendency is to rush through the words. If you’re overtaken in the moment, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t speed through a section – but make note of it and read it again later when your mind can better focus on what it is that makes it so thrilling to read. Can you incorporate their styles in your own writing?


Only Read The Best Fiction

People don’t like this advice. Whenever I tell this to writers, they respond with a list of their guilty pleasure books, telling me how fun they are to read, even though they know they’re terribly written… My advice to anyone considering becoming a writer is this: don’t read any books that you wouldn’t have been proud to write. If you see yourself exclusively as a science fiction writer, what could you hope to get out of a horror? If you want to write like James Joyce, why are you reading Nora Roberts? When you make the choice to become a writer, you should be aware of how your entertainment affects your writing. As writers, we are constantly drawing on the things around us, whether we know it or not. This means that the mere act of reading Twilight could, theoretically, damage your prose!


Don’t Put Writers On A Pedestal

Writers are human. If something bothers you in a book by Dostoevsky or Hemingway, don’t give that writer the benefit of the doubt. It’s quite possible they’ve made a mistake! Millions of readers every day are convincing themselves that when they get confused reading Faulkner, it’s because they read the passage wrong, or because they weren’t alive during the same time period as the author… many of these things may be true, but sometimes, even the best authors make mistakes. I’ve caught misplaced commas in Steinbeck and instances of passive voice in Fitzgerald – these things don’t detract from the excellence of these writers, but it’s important that you see their work, however excellent, without rose-colored glasses. By convincing yourself of their abilities, you risk misleading yourself in your own work. If you think it’s okay for Victor Hugo to go on a twenty page rant about architecture in the middle of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, then maybe it’s okay for you to depart from your own story to talk about the history of the town that your story is set in. If you think Proust’s 150-page-long chapters are okay in his work, why not do the same with yours? Don’t put aside your critical mind. I promise you, even your favorite book has flaws.


Don’t Ignore Grammar

Yes, this is coming from an editor – I’ll give you that. Even so, too many writers ignore things like punctuation and sentence structure when they read. I recommend that instead of skipping over punctuation as if it doesn’t exist, you occasionally study its placement. This might not sound particularly exciting, but at least until you become a master of grammar yourself, it might help you to see how your favorite authors handle it. Do you tend to use more or less semi-colons than your favorite author? How long is his/her average sentence? Given that the best grammar is practically invisible, it’s all the more important to pay attention when it doesn’t seem like there’s much to notice.


Don’t Worry About Books Losing Their Allure

Does following the above advice ruin the time you spend reading? Absolutely not. Knowing where something is going means you’ll be surprised less often, but it will make you all the more appreciative when an author does surprise you! When you’re reading as a writer, you’re “chasing the dragon” of literary fiction. Instead of just reading and accepting the world an author tries to paint, you look beyond their portrait and at the colors themselves, and the act of truly understanding a work of fiction makes it all the more beautiful.


Writing Prompt

The following is the opening to Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. What do you like about it? How is it different from your own writing? Is there anything you can learn from it?


A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.
Inside the carriage, which is built on several levels, he sits in velveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and farther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones, second sheep, all out of luck and time: drunks, old veterans still in shock from ordnance 20 years obsolete, hustlers in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation. Only the nearer faces are visible at all, and at that only as half-silvered images in a view finder, green-stained VIP faces remembered behind bulletproof windows speeding through the city. . .


Look for positive things. Did you notice the powerful opening sentence? Did you notice how Pynchon alternated the standard order of things as in “Above him lift girders old as…” instead of “Old girders lift above him, old as…”? Did you notice that Pynchon is describing a character as “he” without giving his name in order to increase tension? Did you note the interesting way “soon” was separated by dashes? When you read “Only the nearer faces are visible at all”, did you notice how everything in this Third Person Present never leaves the eyes of our character? How about negative things? Did you notice the considerable use of the word “But” in the first paragraph? Whatever your stance, did you notice how Pynchon occasionally strings on sentence fragments, such as the following: “But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.” It’s okay if you didn’t immediately take these things in. Reading as a writer takes a lot of practice at first.

All About Flashbacks

We all know that in the last fifty years or so, flashbacks have run rampant. Sometimes they are used well, but most of the time they break the flow of a story. Books like How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Fray recommend using flashbacks “only when you have to,” but they rarely go into specifics on why flashbacks can be so irritating for readers. On that note, this article has a dual purpose. The first is to explain the problems inherent in using flashbacks, and the second is to give you a few ways to minimize them in your writing. Let’s begin.

The problem with flashbacks isn’t as clear cut as some writers may believe. I personally avoid them entirely in my writing, but it’s not the concept of the flashback so much as the way they are often executed that causes the trouble. Here are a few EXTREMELY common tendencies that, if you are going to come across as a professional, need to be avoided entirely.

1) Having Your Character Enter Flashbacks Too Often

This is just unrealistic. While the best plots are character based and not action based, there should always be some kind of action in the lives of your characters – they are better, smarter or just different than the average people (or else why are we reading about them?!) So, in the hectic life of these other-beings, how do they have time to allow the smell of a flower to transport them back to a time when they were bouncing on their father’s knee? If it happens once, okay, fine… but I have read and edited books where it happens hundreds of times! This brings us directly into the next point.

2) Unrealistic Memory Sequences

“Being punched in the face brought me back to the time when…” Sound ridiculous? This kind of stuff happens all the time. Author’s first novels especially are filled with people running away from serial killers who, simply because of the color of the street, are transported to a business meeting they had two years ago. THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN. Your writing should mimic reality, and in reality, when you are fighting for your life, you simply don’t care about anything except the knife in your assailant’s hand and whether or not you are going to die.

3) Breaking Action Scenes

Flashbacks at their best, serve to show back-story. When you are in the middle of an action sequence, whether it be physical action or emotional action, that’s the only story you should be focusing on. Simply put, your reader doesn’t care why your character is in that position – at least not until much later. What they want is to see how it turns out. They want you to make them feel something: fear, shock, anger, sadness… When you set up a sequence with resonance, and then pull away to explain why your character is there, it’s the equivalent of handing and ice cream cone to a child and then quickly taking it away and saying, “Don’t worry. You’ll get this back later.” As you can probably imagine, it doesn’t create any positive emotions.

But what about movies? Lots of movies begin with a crazy action sequence. A man in a cashier’s uniform is driving a car. Suddenly, a black van cuts him off and he slams on the breaks! Five or Six men jump out and grab him, abducting him in front of 100+ eyewitnesses. The police try to pursue, but the van does some kind of daring maneuver and they’ve abducted the man. THEN, we begin the movie with a close-up of our seemingly-average-Joe cashier as he helps somebody buy a pair of pants at the local clothing store. All in all, this is a fairly strong sequence, but the action scene itself is still ruined. Think about it. Either a) We find out that Joe is actually an ex-marine who was placed on a secret mission to kill a foreign political leader (Not Kim Jong-un guys, nobody freak out.) In this scenario, the sequence was all smoke. We used a reverse flashback to give a scene that wouldn’t have been shocking the element of surprise and by the time we get to its actual place in film, that game has been played already; or b) It would have been surprising, but instead of having a shocking turn of events, the viewers of this imaginary movie are now actively trying to find out why Joe was in this situation. Either way, by the time we get to that sequence, it’s been played out. Flashbacks destroy the tension of action sequences. That’s just the way it is.

4) Using Flashbacks Too Early

I recently read For Whom The Bell Tolls by Earnest Hemmingway, and while it was a wonderfully written novel in many ways, the opening felt very weak. In the very first chapter, about three pages in, we flashback a week earlier to the events that brought our main character, Robert Jordan, to the heart of the Spanish Civil War. Most readers, myself included, probably wouldn’t have learned the character’s first name three pages in, so the question is: Why should we care? Flashbacks exist to bring out character traits and show vital information that may have been left out along the way. In essence, a flashback serves to answer questions. Why is a character acting a certain way? Where did Ned get that bazooka from? If you start flashing back in your first two or three chapters, there simply aren’t enough questions that readers need answered. What’s more, if there are, you are almost always answering them too quickly! You want your readers dying to know something before you reveal it to them. If you answer their questions before they’ve even thought of them, you aren’t leaving very many places of tension!

5) Throwing Flashbacks at Your Character

In many first time novels, flashbacks can come across like a character obstacle. Oftentimes, this is not what the writer intended. A common fallacy concerning flashbacks is that characters have to be in the experience themselves. Back to the first example, if the smell of a flower transports your character back in time, and he is living the memory over again, this can make your character appear to have mental problems! It is as if they are incapable of living in the present moment. If you are going to use flashbacks, it’s best to use them casually. Here is an example.

“The last time John ate an orange he was back in Napa with his family. He wasn’t yet eight years old and his sister…”

In this example, even though the action has shifted to the past, the reader isn’t jarred by the sudden explosion of prose born from something as simple as an orange.


So how do you avoid flashbacks?

1) Work the Back-Story in Using Dialogue

It might be harder, but it’s far more elegant. Of course, I’m not suggesting you do exposition:

“Ted, how’d you get that scar?”

“This? Well, I got this when I was fighting in Vietnam. Yes, I may look like a normal guy, but I have some hidden demons...”

If this is the best you can do, I recommend sticking with flashbacks! That said, if you just keep your character’s past in mind, you’ll be surprised how many times it comes out in your writing. Maybe one of his military buddies visits the town? Maybe his alcoholic grandfather gives him a tough time about how he only served 15 years in the army when his other sons are both Generals by now. There are many ways to bring out these kinds of revelations without resorting to flashbacks, and your readers will be thankful for it!

2) Work the Back-Story in Using Description

If your novel is written in the First Person, this is incredibly easy. First person is already in the head of the character, so it actually takes less effort to do it this way than to use a flashback!

“The store clerk looked at me with more spite that a Viet-cong soldier. If I’d had my M16 with me, there’d have been clean up on three isles.”

In third person, it’s a lot easier to use action.

3) Action

Let’s imagine a mugger jumps our Vet in the street. This is a great opportunity for dramatic, exceedingly interesting character development. What if, when the mugger attacks, he immediately disarms him, takes him to the ground and snaps his arm in three places? Maybe we didn’t specifically say that this guy has military training, but I guarantee you that your readers will realize that there’s something out of the norm going on!

4) Simply Don’t Explain!

Your readers don’t need to know everything. If there are things they don’t know about your character, FANTASTIC! Think about your best friend. You probably know him or her very well. Do you know everything about them? Of course not! People are complex. Why would you want your characters to be any different? I personally love it when authors entice their readers and then don’t ever go back to fill in the blanks.

“You know, this reminds me of that one time at Lake Powell…”

“Yeah, I know what you mean…”

Then go off and talk about something else entirely! Wonderful. Never force your dialogue to reveal things to the readers. If both Jack and Peggy know exactly what happened at Lake Powell, don’t explain it. This is a fantastic trick to add realism, but keep in mind it should only be used for fairly minor plot points such as the one above. If you spend half a novel talking about something, you’ve effectively made a promise to wrap it up. If after that, it just kind of drops off and we never hear about it again, you’ve broken the trust of your readers.


Writing Prompt

Whatever your choices regarding flashbacks, you might as well learn to write them correctly! Write 200 words on a character in a normal setting, then ELEGANTLY flashback for another 500-800 words. As always, if send it to me via the contact tab, I'll edit it for free!