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.
    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.’ 
    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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How to take care of yourself as you write an emotional or difficult memoir


A question from one of our memoir writers came in the other day. She's writing about a particularly difficult and emotional time in her life and was feeling totally spent after she'd written a crucial scene.

"Is it always going to be this way?" she asked. "I have to relive the emotion of it all to be able to express it well, but I'm entirely exhausted. Do you have a strategy for how to make this easier?"

Going back into old emotions and recounting former crisis situations is possibly one of the most challenging things we humans can do.  And writing a memoir about those times is definitely going to be hard.

As the only answer I could come up with was 'have copious cups of tea and perhaps cry on the couch' I put the question out to our other memoir writers in our delightfully supportive Facebook group. Back came some wonderful wisdom from two particularly smart ladies, Sarah and Bethany, which I have summarised below:

Tips for staying sane and calm as you write an emotional memoir

1. Manage your expectations

Allow plenty of time and space for writing, expecting it will be emotional. Only do small steps, one at at time.

2. Plan carefully

Plan when you will write about one thing, go through the writing process. It might help to make a list of everything you know you want to write about. When you sit down to write, if there's nothing burning in your brain to put down that day, choose something from the list. If it's a hard day, choose something easier from the list. If you're coping well that day, choose something more difficult to write about.

3. De-brief with someone else

If you have a writing buddy, have a chat with them about what you've done and how you feel. Or you may want to choose a trusted friend, or a professional who knows your story.

4. Affirm yourself

Did you write something hard? Give yourself a pat on the back and tell yourself how well you are doing. Make a list of your achievements that day and give yourself points and positive self talk. Be nice to yourself - it's important.

5. Work it out in your body

When things get really stirred up, it can help to do something physical to dissipate the adrenaline and physiological stress that creates: exercise that involves your whole body is great. Dance, go for a walk, swim, jog, do a hard workout at the gym or dig something in the garden. Fixing or cleaning something around the house can work too, as long as it takes physical energy. When you've used up some energy, then do something soothing and calming like colouring in (it's not just for kids!), listening to music, or watching a favourite movie or TV show... whatever you do that is safe and healthy to calm yourself. 

6. Step away if needed

Most of all, give yourself permission to walk away from the writing until you are feeling settled enough to come back, even if that is days or weeks. Your story matters, but your health and well being are really important too. You will not be able to tell your story if you're not taking care of yourself in the writing. Pay attention to how the writing is affecting you, and make wise choices about continuing or taking a break. 


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Writing review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper

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A book-loving friend caught me after school a few weeks ago with this beautiful tome in her hand.

I snagged it quickly and brought it home anticipating an excellent read over the Easter weekend. I love a good who-dun-it thriller, and the cover of this book is just exceptional - wouldn't you agree? When I glanced through the first page I was even more excited: the writing was fabulous. Aaahhh, I sighed to myself. A well-written thriller that's also set in Australia (bonus!) and written by a woman (double bonus). The anticipation was high.

Spoiler alert: I was disappointed.

First, the things that didn't disappoint. The writing continued to be superb. The tension built beautifully. The way Harper switched between characters and scenes, from the events of the hike to the events afterwards, were seamless and smooth. I liked the characters - they were well-drawn and realistic for the most part. The action was terrific, and the surroundings of the hike was beautifully done. You could feel the temperature and atmosphere in that forest. 


Sadly, though, even with all these great things going for this book, I felt let down at the end. I also feel terrible for saying it because I know writers google for reviews of their books (okay, so I google for reviews of my books), and one day Jane Harper may even read this. Jane, if you're reading, I really did think it was great. It's just, well... let me explain.

My issue was with the story.

It started out with the disappearance and presumed death of highflying, middle-aged Alice, out hiking on a teamwork bonding expedition for her work. She is presented to us first up as a whistleblower, exposing organised crime and money laundering done by her very upright financial firm. Later, we see that she's also not a very nice person, and unpopular at work.

The immediate question is: who got rid of Alice? Did the organised crime people find out she was about to expose them and do her in? Did her boss, who had a lot to lose, orchestrate the whole expedition so that it would be easier to knock her off? Did her long-suffering assistant, finally reach her tipping point and teach Alice a lesson? Or was it the assistant's twin sister, with a drug-affected past, trying to get her revenge on the world? Perhaps it was the mysterious son of the serial killer who used to roam the national park twenty years ago? All of these people have motive and opportunity to make Alice disappear, but who was it?

There are hints, allegations and mysteries presented to us all the way through, and the tension built so effectively that I was on the edge of my seat (well, okay, my very comfortable bed) trying to figure it out before the two fictional cops did. 

Finally, it turns out that Alice's death was really just an accident. The whistle blowing had nothing to do with it. The boss wasn't suspicious of her. The assistant didn't get overwhelmed by frustration. Even the mysterious son of the serial killer is found, long dead, in the forest. So it wasn't him either

Basically - and sorry if you haven't read the end yet - the women get lost in the woods, get pretty annoyed with each other, and have a bit of a biff. Alice goes down, and never really gets up again. 

And that's all. Bummer.

So I was disappointed. With all that build up, and all those expectations, I wanted more plot from that story. More conflict, more drama, more secrets. More organised crime and serial killing, basically, is what I wanted.

Students of our memoir course learn that the crisis point of the story is the most important thing. It occurs at about the three-quarter mark, and comes after a good set up and effective build up of tension. The crisis point of a story is made up of a gathering of strength and resources, and a showdown. The questions that have been set up must be answered. 

Technically, I suppose Harper did this. But it was disappointing because with all those options in the set up, and all that build up, we readers expected more than the death simply being an accident. 

The take-home lessons for writers are these: don't promise more than you're going to deliver. And, deliver what you promise. Make your crisis work for you, and give the readers what they've been anticipating.


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