Vocalized or not, we are all just sitting around talking to ourselves. It’s called Inner Dialogue and it’s pretty much how we process…well…everything.
To prove this point, go find your favorite bean-bag chair and spend the next five minutes sitting quietly. Let your mind wander wherever it may, don’t censor yourself or try and corral your thoughts, your job is merely to observe your inner voice.
Most of the time we don’t think of it in these terms, but it’s as if there’s a tiny person living between our ears, engaged in an endless deluge of babble. The thing is, we hardly notice this little voice, which is a good thing, because if we did, we’d probably all go insane. Seriously, I don’t know about you folks, but most of the drivel trickling through my cerebellum is straight up bonkers.
If I acknowledged each and every thought pouring through that gaping mind chasm, well, I don’t suppose that’s a world I’d want to live in.
I hear your little brain-voice over there saying, “So what? Give me waffles. And sex. Ducks are fantastic, purple scream tree birds poop. I love poop and sex–I should get some more toilet paper. The soft stuff this time, like Charmin. I like bears. Garbhglauyduos, I want sex.”
Don’t be freaked out by the fact that I know precisely what you were thinking. I’m a mind reader after-all. Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are a bunch of thought bubbles floating over your head. So…there’s always that.
Seriously, how horrible would that be?
Anyhoo, that’s sort of what storytelling is, right? We get inside the character’s skull and hear the edited version of that little brain-dude’s monologue. Problem is, in our daily lives we hardly ever acknowledge these thoughts. They are there, and we act on them, but we rarely actively reflect on them.
So then why do we see so much damn Inner Dialogue in stories?
Well, there’s actually a lot of reasons for it, but we’re going to focus on these three.
- It gives insight into character motivations that wouldn’t be available from the outside
- It increases or decreases scene tension
- Exposition purposes
Let’s go through a couple examples to see these concepts in action. Then we’ll break them down to figure out when and why you should use them, and when you should run away from them like your underoos are on fire.
This is one of the most widely used aspects of Inner Dialogue. Consequently, that also makes it one of the most abused. What I see occurring most often are authors lacking confidence in their readers ability to put the pieces together. The author says or alludes to something, but then, fearing the reader won’t “get it” they include a thought tag where the character just lays the cards right out on the table.
It’s patronizing and if you do this (and chances are you do, ’cause we all sort of do this at one time or another), you need to stop. Treating the reader like a third grader is not a great way to build trust in the narrative.
Now, I see a couple of you sitting in the back, arms crossed and shaking your head with disapproval. If that weren’t enough, I can see your thought bubbles.
You’re thinking, I would never do this. I wish that were true, but even really good authors are guilty of this trap. At the moment I’m reading a book from a well-known author and he is dropping Inner Dialogue every other paragraph and it’s making me want to throw an old Motorola Razor at his face.
Let’s get meta for a second!
Take a look at the construction of the paragraph above and below the picture. Notice how I used an Inner Dialogue tag to straight-up explain the reason behind the behaviors I ascribed to you?
“You’re standing there with arms crossed and shaking your head with disapproval.”
The fact that I go on to explain why in the next sentence by way of an Inner Dialogue tag means I don’t trust you as the reader to draw the correct conclusions.
Do you feel a little pandered to? Does it feel sort of bad (and not the good kind of bad)?
Great. You should feel bad. You’re an intelligent person, and so is your reader. Show them a little trust!
Here’s an example pulled from the book I’m reading currently:
“Several crossbow bolts cut through the sky in his wake, but none of them came close. He smiled as he swung onward. One hurdle crossed; now for the real threat.”
That Inner Dialogue is clunky and pretty much adds nothing of value to the paragraph. Yes, we know he crossed a hurdle, he’s literally swinging through the air with arrows flying at him. Yes, we also know it wasn’t the real threat by the fact that none of the arrows came even remotely close to him. Pointing all of this out in such a matter-of-fact way only annoys the reader.
It’s like explaining a joke–something I fully admit to being guilty of in my younger-days.
A lot of it stems from lack of self-confidence (or in my case, an over-abundance of self-confidence). I would explain my jokes because they tended to be obscure, products of weird tangential lines of thought that the audience wouldn’t naturally arrive at on their own. So to make sure the audience got the joke, I would explain it.
Surely then they’d see how funny it is, right?
No. If you have to explain a joke, it sucks. End of story.
Same with your fiction. If you have to explain a behavior, you’ve failed somewhere earlier along the way.
Adding Inner Dialogue is the quick and dirty fix to this problem. Think of it like duct-tape. It’ll hold the narrative together and do its job just fine, but if the whole thing is spackled with duct-tape, it becomes an unsightly monster that nobody wants to look at because it makes them want to cry.
Don’t make us read your duct-taped story. Don’t make us cry.
Insight into character thought is a powerful, specialized tool. As is the case with all specialized tools, there is a time and a place. You don’t use your expensive kitchen knives to open letters and chop firewood, do you?
You do? Oh. Well, nevermind.
When is the right time to use Inner Dialogue for Insight? Honestly, I don’t know. I’m sure there is a good time, but the problem is the moment you transition into Inner Dialogue you’re telling, not showing.
That’s not to say you should avoid it outright, but damned if I have a good answer for you. If you figure it out, stop back in and let me know.
I pretty much only use Inner Dialogue to either increase or decrease tension in a scene, so I’m sort of partial to it. It’s one of my favorite tricks. When used well, it’s a fantastic way to subvert reader expectations and give the old razzle-dazzle.
“Rhonda stood there, hands balled at her side, knuckles white and trembling. Rain mixed tears streamed down her cheek, flowing through tributaries of grief worn wrinkles.
“Don’t you love me?” she asked.
Not anymore. But those words were too heavy for 10:30 on a Wednesday night. He had work in the morning and just wanted to be out of the rain, in bed. “Of course I do.”
This is by no means a great example, but it highlights the value of having a character thinking one thing, but saying another. Learning this trick will add a texture filled layer of depth and reality to your work.
On the other hand, you can decrease tension in a scene with Inner Dialogue.
Another Horrible Example:
“Father O’Malley stood in the foyer shaking hands as the parishioners hurried back out into the world. They’d received their weekly inoculation from sin, no point in lingering.
“Father!” Mike Briarton shouted into O’Malley’s ear. “Great sermon. One of your best, if you ask me.”
Does he not realize I saw him playing angry birds? “That’s very kind of you to say.”
“Say, if it’s not too much trouble,” Mike said. “Could you put in a good word with the man upstairs. The Bears are playing this afternoon and they could really use a win.”
“Of course, Mike. I’ll see what I can do.” Dear Lord, please smite the Bears.
Oof, that was rough, but you get the point. Use Inner Dialogue to juxtapose what a character thinks versus what they do. Play around with this one, but, as with all things in life, don’t overdo it.
This is, without a doubt, my least favorite use of Inner Dialogue. Unfortunately, it appears so damn much in fiction. I mentioned earlier why this is bad, but it bears repeating: Inner Dialogue by it’s very nature is telling, not showing. Doesn’t matter if you throw exposition in italics, it’s still exposition. We’ve talked frequently about exposition and infodumping in the past, so I refuse to go any deeper into it.
Follow these links if you’re rusty and need brush up on exposition and infodumping.
We don’t need to beat this one over the head, but here’s a real quick example (again from the book I’m reading).
“She reached around to the stem and pulled, tearing it off at the head. Sounds just like the one serving of vegetables we got back in Omez’s pens. We only had to be healthy enough for labor, not healthy enough to keep our teeth.”
This is the sort of painful infodumping that stops a reader cold because it comes off so incredibly unnatural. People simply don’t talk to themselves like this. That last sentence especially bothers me because it is the type of thing a person might say to another person in conversation. In that context, it would be fine ’cause they are explaining an experience they had.
But people don’t explain experiences to themselves like that, mostly on account of the fact that we already know what is going to be said. Which means the only reason to say it is to pander to the audience. When you do that, you might as well donkey kick the fourth wall and talk to us directly.
We never say: Boy, it’s windy up here, just like that time I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon. That was hard, dear reader, because I’m so afraid of heights. That is until Sarah came into my life and helped me conquer that fear.
If you don’t see how these examples are stilted and confusing, message me and I’ll try and explain. If you get the gist, then go ahead and knock it off. Stop inserting these types of misuses of Inner Dialogue into your story.
Ah, see… now wasn’t that fun? Admit it, you had a hoot. No? Really? You didn’t? Well, your thought bubble says otherwise.
Before you leave, stop over to the comments and tell me what aspects of writing craft and science fiction you’d like to talk about in the future. I love suggestions!