Using Internal Dialogue to Achieve Multiple Effects

Internal dialogue is the inner voice of character. Which is, frankly, a very metaphysical subject. In most modern cultures—and, consequently, most modern literature—there’s a dichotomy within the self: there’s an I and a Me.

I like my eyebrows.

I have to be strict with myself when it comes to pecan pie.

Internal dialogue is the manifestation of this in fiction. And because it presents the most intimate thoughts and realities of your characters, it is beyond elemental: Internal dialogue is the marrow of your story. In the following post, from Elizabeth Sims’ “Understand Internal Dialogue” in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue, you’ll discover the various ways writers use internal dialogue to achieve a specific effect.


dialogue, internal dialogue, charactersExceptional dialogue isn’t just important when writing fiction–it’s essential. In order to impress an agent or editor and keep readers turning pages, you need to deliver truly standout dialogue in every scene. Crafting Dynamic Dialogue will give you the techniques and examples you need to impress your readers.

This book is a comprehensive guide to writing compelling dialogue that rings true. Each section is packed with advice and instruction from best-selling authors and instructors like Nancy Kress, Elizabeth Sims, Steven James, Deborah Halverson, James Scott Bell, Donald Maass, Cheryl St. John, and many others. They’ll show you how to bend the rules to create a special effect, understand the role of dialogue in reader engagement, use dialect and jargon effectively, give every character a believable voice, set the pace and tone, reveal specific character background details, generate tension and suspense, utilize internal dialogue, and more. Whether you’re writing flash fiction, a short story, or a novel-length manuscript, Crafting Dynamic Dialogue will help you develop, write, and refine dialogue to keep your readers hooked.


Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back. I would dine there again some time and he would be glad to see me, and would want me at his table. It would be a sincere liking because it would have a sound basis. I was back in France.

This passage gives us the protagonist Jake’s flat, ironic inner voice. He narrates a fact—he tipped the waiter well—and then meditates cynically on friendship. Jake has just left his friends after an eventful, unsettling few days at a fiesta in Spain. Now we’re invited to conclude that his friends weren’t true friends. Jake’s ruminative time in France also slackens the pace of the story, which had been driving pretty hard up to now.

Hilary Mantel’s Beyond the Black

The encounter, though, had bruised her. Gavin was the first person, she thought, that I was ever really frank and honest with; at home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen.

Mantel plays with internal dialogue free and easy here, switching from third person to first and back again. The reflective passage gives us a sense of the character Colette’s loneliness and inner pain. We also get the hint that Colette is somewhat limited, not resourceful, not very strong, and thus motivated to subsume herself by becoming an assistant to a more prominent—and dominant—person.

Nelson DeMille’s Up Country

“… Where do you think you’ll be for Tet?”

I thought, Probably in jail. I said, “I’m not sure about my itinerary.”

This bit of inner speech establishes the character, Paul’s, biting wit and devil-may-care attitude. With extreme economy, DeMille also clues us in that Paul, a Vietnam vet posing as a returning visitor, intends to do something dangerous, foolish, or both.

Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho

… On my way into the Chinese cleaners I brush past a crying bum, an old man, forty or fifty, fat and grizzled, and just as I’m opening the door I notice, to top it off, that he’s also blind and I step on his foot, which is actually a stump, causing him to drop his cup, scattering change all over the sidewalk. Did I do this on purpose? What do you think? Or did I do this accidentally?

The main character, the psychopathic Patrick, is presented here in all his shockingly casual cruelty. We see that he is contemptuous and selfish. We get his sarcastic inner voice in the direct question to the reader—What do you think? Patrick’s personal style is brusque and immediate, and we don’t need a crystal ball to perceive that this morsel of brutality is but a taste of what’s to come. The reader lives in suspense to the end.

George Saunders’ “Victory Lap”

Also she loved her house. Across the creek was the Russian church. So ethnic! That onion dome had loomed in her window since her Pooh footie days. Also loved Gladsong Drive. Every house on Gladsong was a Corona del Mar. That was amazing! If you had a friend on Gladsong, you already knew where everything was in his or her home.

Jeté, jeté, rond de jambe.

This young girl’s stream of consciousness as she bops around the house, alone, is rich in information. We see Alison’s exuberant spirit as she describes her environment and executes ballet moves; we understand that she lives in a bland subdivision; with the mention of the creek we literally get the lay of the land; we’re aware of an unusual neighboring structure. In this short story, Saunders portrays Alison’s voice with precision, and as we ingest her unspoiled happiness, we also know that we’re reading a story—and in stories, things happen and things change. This inherent suspense suffuses all of Saunders’s tales.

Elizabeth Sims’ Damn Straight

Me: I’m so freaked out and pissed at Coco Nash I could spit.
Me: Easy now.
Me: I have to confront her.
Me: Why? When?
Me: Now, goddamn it, today! What can I gain by waiting? I’ve got evidence, solid empirical evidence that she means harm to the greatest creature ever to tread ground. That’s why, for Christ’s sake. I almost caught her twice. Three times.
Me: Wait. I really think Genie should know. Let her decide what to do.
Me: What, are you crazy?

I like to play with fiction forms and norms, and it’s funny to portray a character’s on-one-hand-then-the-other thoughts with the bluntness of a TV script. This excerpt provides a dash of comic relief, as well as reflection, inner conflict, and exposure of information.

Using Internal Dialogue

A good way to develop your feel for internal dialogue is to get in touch with your own internal dialogue—the stream of consciousness that flows through your head, sometimes annoyingly, sometimes quietly and productively.

Take fifteen minutes and simply write what you’re thinking. If you stall out, remember some recent problem or bit of family drama, and write your internal dialogue on that.

Strive to render your thoughts as realistically as you speak.

Write it. How did it feel? Read it over. What’s it like? What do you see?

When you turn to your fictional characters, remember what it felt like to write “out of your head.”


About the Author:

elizabeth-simsElizabeth Sims is the author of eight successful novels in two series, the Rita Farmer Mysteries and the Lambda and Goldie Award-winning Lillian Byrd Crime Novels. She’s been published by a major house (Macmillan) as well as several smaller presses. Elizabeth writes frequently for Writer’s Digest magazine, where she is a contributing editor. Her book You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams (Writer’s Digest Books) received special recognition by NaNoWriMo and hundreds of other websites and bloggers.

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