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.

Supporting Characters & Artistic Integrity

Amateur authors and established authors alike often struggle with creating good supporting characters. The modern novel has reduced them to overlooked, dull and artistically-devoid plot devices.

People ignore the need for authenticity in this area because they forget that everything matters in writing. They should know better. Anyone who has ever spent over an hour on a single paragraph should understand the importance of their building blocks. Ignoring “minor” characters to focus on “what matters” is akin to hiring a world-class construction crew, equipping them with expensive tools, and then giving them rotten wood, rusting metal and crumbling brick to work with.

Too often I see implausible solutions for problems shifted onto the backs of otherwise unimportant individuals:

“Isabella was poisoned! Thank God my cousin is the world’s foremost expert in exotic toxins!”

“I have no idea what to do with my life… I’m sure Madame Chavali, our town’s fortune teller can help!”

et cetera… et cetera...

These, for want of a better word, “characters” swoop in, save the day or cause trouble, and leave. Their sole purpose is to further the story... Lacking in individuality, without a spark of humanity, it would be better if they didn’t exist - and you can tell James Patterson I said so!

To the few who still appreciate all aspects of writing, I offer the following tips:


Understand Your Character’s Goals

View characters like people whenever possible. Don’t try to think about who you need to progress the story - think, instead, about who you HAVE, and figure out how you can use them to reach your story goals. Read that again. It’s important.


Do The Best You Can

Let’s say your story has a sort of fantasy/medieval milieu. For whatever reason, you absolutely need a character inside your hero’s castle to spy on certain private meetings, and report his finding back to the evil warlord hiding in the woods with leagues of soldiers at his disposal. Write this character if there’s no avoiding it, but don’t lose sight of WHY would she do this. This is an exercise in thinking that too many writers avoid entirely.

If this character  lives in the castle, wouldn’t she have family in the castle or the nearby town? If the answer is “No”, why does she resent your hero - a presumably just, upstanding ruler - enough to betray him? Where is she going to live after his betrayal? Even if she does it for a large sum of money (a little bit of a cop out, but a perfectly fine motive), she needs to know that she can settle down somewhere with her earnings.

A lot of this character’s motivational questions might be answered through the broader question: why do the soldiers outside follow the evil warlord in the first place? Please avoid “money” as the chief answer to this question… but even that is better than the greatest cop-out of all: “Because they are evil.”


Introduce A Few Characters Without Story-Related Purposes

Sometimes, in life, you meet people once, and you never meet them again. That’s okay. The convenient character problem, mentioned earlier, is even more apparent when there aren’t enough minor characters without a necessary function. If there are only a few characters in our terrible fantasy novel, and one of them is a fantastic blacksmith, the reader is going to know that he (or she) is there to make weapons and armor. If there are a lot of characters - a baker, a horse trainer, a few farmers AND a blacksmith, that character’s important role may be somewhat masked.


Give Your Main Characters A Few Friends

This one is bound to offend a few people, but it must be said. A lot, if not most, of the main characters in stories have absolutely no family, and no friends whatsoever. Several even feature leading characters with amnesia who have forgotten who they are and who they know. This is because it’s easier to start from scratch and write about a single character in an unfamiliar setting than it is to fill in what a person’s world might actually be like.

There are exceptions. If your character legitimately would not have any friends (like The Underground Man in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, Notes from Underground), that’s perfectly acceptable. If your character is a bubbly teenage girl in high school, this is a serious problem.


Avoid Stereotypes

I already got into this on my post about Seeking Originality, so I won’t say too much here. You know what stereotypes are. Avoid them whenever you can.


Don’t Write Too Much About Supporting Characters

At first, this might seem like a contradiction to what I mentioned earlier. It’s not. Just because you need to know WHY a supporting character acts in the way they do, doesn’t mean you need to go into depth on the various aspects of their lives. It’s sufficient for you as the writer to know that Ricky holds up a liquor store because he can’t afford his medical bills - it’s better if you don’t show the conversation he had with his wife about it two weeks earlier.


Let Your Main Characters Solve Their Own Damn Problems!

Don’t poison a character unless they are either going to die or find the antidote on their own. And if they can’t find it in a realistic way - it’s better they die.

How to Conquer Post-Manuscript Depression

Not all writing is carefree, unabridged creativity. Some of it is hard. Some of it is REALLY hard. When I was writing Tiny Instruments, I certainly had days where I didn’t want to write - but even so, barring the occasional emergency, I managed to write 800-1200 words every day. I had a lot of pressure on me back then to prove myself as a writer, so I never took any breaks… at least until my first draft was completed.

When I edited my novel, it was a different story. I spent whole days staring at my bookshelf, organizing my desktop icons and making damn sure I saw every single Facebook post in my newsfeed. People rarely mention that working with a first draft is an indescribably painful experience. After spending months planning, writing and dreaming about my project every day and night, it was only when I read my first draft that I realized it was less than perfect.

Yes, getting to the first draft is easily the lion’s share of the work involved in writing a novel, but unfortunately, too many people never move past that - a lot more than you might think. I've known a many writers who managed to write three or four books, and never mustered up the strength to polish any of them. I've even edited books for people that were so wiped out by the idea of change that, after paying thousands of dollars, left their heavily marked-up manuscripts in a drawer for years before they felt comfortable enough to review the changes.

Post-manuscript depression is a real thing, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a myriad of things you can do to make that time a little easier. Below, is a short list of things that you should consider doing as you work on turning your first draft into a final draft.

Take a Two-Week Vacation

I took ZERO time off before I began editing. The day after I typed the final words of my book, I was going through a freshly printed manuscript with a fine-tooth comb. I was in a hurry to get my novel into the hands of my readers - but looking back, I probably would have finished a lot quicker if I had taken a two-week vacation. Unless you’re in danger of losing a multi-million dollar contract, why not take a little time off and reward yourself for your hard work? Going over what you’ve written is going to be stressful already; it’s best to allow yourself a deep breath before you take the plunge.

Do Things in the Easiest Order

The easiest order varies depending on the project, but I recommend, in general, that you make four passes through your manuscript. For the first, you change the minor things - the grammar or the clunky lines of dialogue - while taking careful notes of the major things that are too painful to deal with on the first pass. On the second pass, you go back and deal with the painful things at a slower rate, taking a fair amount of breaks in-between notes. For the third, you’ll want to work with a draft that has been carefully edited by your first readers, ideally non-professionals: your friends and family. The fourth draft should be completed by your editor, and should be by far the easiest of the four; any decent editor will give you two copies of your edited document: a copy with the changes shown as suggestions, and a finalized copy. Your job here is to read through the “suggestion copy”, and look for instances where you DO NOT agree with the editor. Once you’ve found them, you change them in the finalized copy, and send it off for print. Done.

Note: This is an odd section for me because it’s something I don’t actually do. Glutton for punishment that I am, I always go chronologically, and I often edit my own manuscripts without going through a third party. I give this piece of advice based on what I know I should be doing, not on what I actually do.

Create a Document of Important Changes

Okay, nobody is going to shed any tears when they turn a “your” into a “you’re” - but there are always changes that writers are downright terrified to make. What if you’ve realized that there’s no room for your character to have two brothers, and you decide to combine the characters into one “super brother” that takes on the actions and dialogue of both… Well, put bluntly, that’s going to suck. Inevitably, you’ll have to cut lines and scenes that don’t make any sense anymore. A big mistake that people make when dealing with these kinds of changes is to keep only two documents - the first draft, and the edited draft. They believe that they will have more than enough strength to go over everything side-by-side and decide which version is better… but hardly anyone can actually bring themselves to do that. I recommend creating a third document in which you paste both versions of significantly altered scenes - especially if you’re not sure about the changes made. In doing this, you’ll not only save yourself a lot of heartache - you’ll make it easier to make necessary changes without feeling bound to any version in particular.


The ability to let go is one of the most important traits a writer can possess. Often credited to William Faulkner or Anton Chekov, the advice “Kill Your Darlings”, goes a long way toward summing up the kind of fortitude it takes to make the changes necessary. It’s hard, but to be a great writer, you have to put your work above your feelings. Do what you need to do, but make it easier for yourself. Use a gun, not a rock.