Image from Jackson Pollock.
Interior monologues: post-modern art
As I mentioned in my post on writing allegories, I get people googling how to write an interior monologue as a hit all the time. As I’ve never actually written about how to write an interior monologue, it’s a little baffling to me, but it’s about time I wrote about it, right? So without further ado,
How to write an interior monologue
So. Let’s start with what an interior monologue, or internal monologue, really is. It’s a nice fat chunk of text of thought — that is, a narrative of exactly what is going on in a character’s head. These can be tricky to pull off successfully for two reasons. First, just like it’s a struggle for even great writers to reproduce authentic sounding dialogue, it’s just as hard to create an authentic-sounding interior dialogue. Because when we’re thinking, that’s really what’s going on — we’re talking to ourselves silently. We usually don’t use big words or perfectly grammatically correct sentences in our thoughts. Unless we have the control of a zen master, most of the time thoughts are fragmented, darting, a million places at once. But that brings us to the other challenge of an interior monologue. If we do it too well and accurately capture what thought is usually like, we will probably end up with the literary equivalent of Jackson Pollock painting. It will be incomprehensible and very post-modern. If you’re going for that, for the next Finnegan’s Wake or To the Lighthouse, then by all means forge ahead, but for your normal interior monologue, one that can be very touching or effective, you need balance and discipline.
An interior monologue is all about character and voice. It’s about knowing your character so intimately that you know how he speaks to himself in his head. Even if you don’t use an interior monologue in your story, it’s a good idea to have this level of knowledge anyway, as a kind of baseline that will improve how you write about his actions. So first, let’s begin with character.
Is your character the kind of person who would talk to himself extensively? If not, you’re barking up the wrong tree. If he is, what’s on his mind at this stage in the story? Is he frightened, worried, rapturously in love, paranoid? What are the things haunting his thoughts? A past love, a crime he is about to commit, someone who wants him dead, the traumatic event he witnessed that day? Whatever it is, it should be the centerpiece of your monologue, returning again and again. His thoughts might wander to lighter matters, but always they must come back, circling around and constantly returning to The One Thing dominating the interior monologue.
This is all about character as well. As I mentioned earlier, it will be incoherent if you try to actually reproduce literally everything a character is thinking. Instead, try to isolate his particular voice. It’s probably similar to the way he talks, but more intimate. Perhaps it is only in his thoughts that the character’s insecurities are allowed to come to the surface. Perhaps he denies feelings for another person outwardly, but is inwardly infatuated. The voice must strike a balance between too-tidy narration, which will sound awkward, forced, and artificial, and pure stream-of-consciousness, which will lack continuity. Err on the side of stream-of-consciousness at first; let your pencil go where it will. You can clean it up later.
This is your first lesson in writing an interior monologue. Email me your efforts at email@example.com and I’ll be sure to post them. More lessons on this writing technique and others will always be forthcoming at Creative Writing Corner.
UPDATE: It’s been great seeing all of the enthusiastic responses to this post, and I’m glad I’ve been able to help so many of you with writing your own monologues. A few of you have commented, wondering why I don’t include an example of an interior monologue. I’d like to explain why. First of all, I get many many emails asking for help with school assignments on this topic. While I can give tips like what I’ve written above, I can’t help you do your work for you. Also, many people have emailed me trying to get me to basically write their monologues. If I were to include an example of an interior monologue here, I’m afraid that it might be used for cheating by some people.
So I’m afraid you’ll have to do the work yourself! Good luck writing that monologue, and feel free to ask me questions about the process!