Internal dialogue is cousin to the soliloquy, or in other words it is the point of view character speaking to himself or herself. Getting into the head of a character gives the reader a richer view of the character and of his story world, and gives the reader a chance to live vicariously through the character. With that said, internal dialogue should be used with caution.
A little bit of internal dialogue goes a long way.
As the writer, you may need to write a lot of internal dialogue to work out who your character is and what they’re experiencing, but the reader doesn’t need to read long rambling paragraphs of your character’s thoughts. They’ll find it wordy and get bored. So take out your red pencil and start deleting anything that isn’t critical to moving the story forward.
The strongest portrayal of character and story are through action and speech.
Readers want to see characters doing things and getting into conversations with other characters. Real soliloquies must be absolutely fascinating to hold your reader’s attention. In general, trust you reader to pick up on most of what is going on from what happens outside of the character’s head.
Use internal dialogue to build tension, not to kill it.
Too much internal dialogue gives away what the character is about to do, which steals the thunder from their actions. If a character is about to do something surprising or a pivotal moment is coming up, lose the preamble and let the character’s action take the reader’s breath away.
Now that we’ve discussed the ways internal dialogue can go wrong, let’s talk about what makes internal dialogue work.
Internal dialogue is the place to make a character’s voice shine.
A character’s voice can make the story and have the reader come back for a second read. Whether the voice is punchy, lyrical or mysterious, writing internal dialogue with a strong voice can seduce a reader into a story and keep them enchanted all the way through.
Internal dialogue is a gold mine of reactions.
What are the non POV characters doing? How does this make your POV character feel? Rather than giving long expositions, intersperse bursts of how your character is responding to what is directly in front of her. See the following scene from Still Missing:
I wanted to get up and walk out the door, but the firmness in his voice had me nailed to my chair.
“So why couldn’t you leave?” “I was looking for something.” Bile rose in my throat.
My body grew even colder, and Gary’s edges blurred in front of my eyes.
Notice how Annie punctuates the dialogue with her reactions to the conversation and to Gary. This adds emotion, but the core of the scene is what is being said.
Internal dialogue lets the reader in on the sensory world of the story.
This is more than narration. It is the poetry of the story that brings the reader out of their world into the book. Even if you’re writing a fast paced suspense with little room for poetry, the character’s voice can bring alive their jangling nerves and the gritty murder scene by the firsthand sensory experience of the character.
Internal dialogue brings out the themes of the story.
As the character reflects on their story and the world around them, the reader delves deeper into the themes and nuances that make the story what it is. While best used sparingly, it’s likely that these reflections are what the reader will remember most about your novel.
See the internal dialogue from Hannah Coulter:
It is hard to say what it means to be at work and thinking of a person who you loved and love still who did that same work before you and who taught you to do it. It is a comfort ever and always, like hearing the rhyme come when you are singing a song.
Hannah's internal dialogue brings the experience alive of growing up in a community where each generation expected to follow in the past generation's footsteps. Notice it also carries a strong voice and includes sensory information. It is this voice and the themes it carried that I remember a few years after having read the book.
Ultimately, the test for internal dialogue is this: Does it add something essential to the story that can't be found in dialogue or action? Then your story needs it.