How to write inner dialogue

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I had a question from a writer, who asked: What is the best way to show internal thinking? Your personal thoughts may differ from the conversation. Do the same rules for spoken dialogue apply to internal dialogue?

As we know, the 'rules' for spoken dialogue are these:

  • The dialogue must be important. (In other words, it must contribute to the overall plot of the story or development of the character.)
  • The dialogue must be authentic.
  • What's around the dialogue is just as important as the dialogue itself.
  • Dialogue needs to be written correctly.

It's pretty easy, then, to say that internal dialogue is going to follow similar rules to spoken dialogue.

Internal dialogue must be important

If the character's internal thoughts are different from what they are verbalizing in the dialogue, you can definitely argue that they are 'important'. The tension between what's said and unsaid contributes a lot to the tension of the plot and the development of the character.

Here's a  lovely example of this. (All the examples I'm using in this article are from Annie, a young writer, who's working on her first full length novel. The excerpts are in first person Point Of View, so it's very applicable to memoir writers who also use the first person POV.)

‘I mean, what was it like in the city?’
    I shrug. ‘Not that much different to here.’ Except for, my thought-voice corrects, the marching in the streets and the headlines on every newspaper declaring something important and the way everyone didn’t know your business.
    ‘I’m moving away first chance I get. Brisbane, maybe even Melbourne. Wouldn’t that be something else?’ She takes a small bite of her patty cake, almost wistfully.
    ‘Yeah.’ 
    We’re silent then, lost in our separate worlds. You don’t know anything important about her. And she knows just as much about you.

The internal voice can also be used to channel other people's voices, or talk to people who aren't actually in the room. Below we hear our character channelling her elder sister being bossy to her, and then apologising to her father. This is a lovely example of character development without the person even having to be in the room.

Instead of my mum’s voice, I hear Elsa’s inside my mind: You’ll be too tired later if you don’t go back to sleep, Alisha. After a while, she started giving the instructions. She didn’t realise I’d already been giving them to myself.
I pull The Encyclopedia of Australian Birdlife off the bedside table, nearly knocking my photo frame. Sorry, Dad, I apologise, setting it upright again.   

Internal dialogue must be authentic

When we think about internal dialogue being authentic, we need to be careful about how the thoughts are expressed. In these excerpts, our thirteen year old character has a very distinct internal voice. It often corrects her, or tells her to do act differently. It's almost a separate character in the story - the tough, misunderstood unhappy girl, who can't be shown to anyone else.  Below, her internal voice scolds her for nearly breaking out in tears, and sounds authentically harsh, as anyone who has ever scolded herself will know.

‘I know you won’t say it, so I will: I’m going to miss you, Alisha,’ she tells me.
    ‘Really?’ I’m sarcasm mingled with hope.
    Elsa nods. ‘And I’m sorry I never said good-bye.’
    For the first time, I truly want to believe her. She’s said what she couldn’t be bothered to yesterday – what she forgot. Why are there tears pricking the backs of your eyes? For heaven’s sake! ‘I … might miss you, too.’

When this character's internal voice is cynical, it can almost sound funny. Again, this is very authentic. We've all had that inner snarky voice say internally what we can't express in public.

‘Want to come over to my place and watch television?’ Mike asks as the bus pulls out of town. ‘It’s Thunderbirds today.’
    I don’t break my staring out the window to answer. ‘Can’t. I have chores and homework.’ 
    ‘Alisha?’
    ‘What?’
    He clears his throat slightly. ‘Um, I heard what Kathryn said about you.’
    Of course he did. 
    ‘It’s stupid. Who the heck would believe it?’

What's around the internal dialogue is as important as the dialogue itself

When we write with a very deep Point of View, so that everything on the page is seen, heard and experienced from the character's viewpoint, we are essentially privy to all the main character's thoughts and inner dialogues anyway. Below we see our character's internal surprise twice - when Elsa is already in the kitchen, and when she hugs her - even though it's not written specifically as internal dialogue. Annie could have written these two emotional responses as her character's thoughts, but if there were too many specific internal thoughts in the paragraph, the strength of all of them would be diluted. Yes, you can include too much internal dialogue!

Instead, Annie has saved the internal dialogue for the last sentence, 'But not to Mum' which is short and sharp and makes a powerful contrast with her spoken words, 'I might write to you.'

Elsa surprises both Grandpa and I by already being in the kitchen, eating breakfast, completely dressed and almost ready to leave, when we come in from the milking shed. When it’s time to say goodbye, when her suitcases and record player are once again packed in her car, I surprise myself by hugging her before she hugs me. ‘I might write to you,’ I whisper. But not to Mum. 

Dialogue needs to be written correctly

First, distinguish between the exact words that are thought, versus the gist of the thought of the character. 

I thought that Elsa might know what I was talking about.
I thought, Elsa might know what I'm talking about.

See the 'that' in the first example? That means it's not internal dialogue anymore, so you don't have to worry about how to format it as such. The only thing that gets formatted as internal dialogue are the exact words that are thought by the character.

A complete phrase or sentence of words which are said internally is often written in italics with no speech marks.

But not to Mum.
Of course he did.

For heaven's sake.

If the words are written with speech tags, they may either be in italics, or using speech marks, but not both. 

It’s as good a time as any for breakfast, I decide, wrapping a blanket around my shoulders as I walk to the kitchen.
'Well, that's a surprise', I think, as I see Elsa in the kitchen

 
 

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