Dialogue, by definition, is speech between two or more characters. But there are times when a character needs to express something singularly. That’s when internal dialogue can be used.
Internal dialogue are lines typically in first person that express a character’s thoughts. For instance, a character may give herself a mental pep talk, respond to another character with a joke in her head, or have a snide comment that she doesn’t want to verbalize. All of these are reasons why a writer may want to use internal dialogue.
Industry standard punctuation for internal dialogue is to eliminate quotation marks since the words are not spoken but to set it in italics so that it stands apart from the narration.
Consider this line of narration followed by internal dialogue.
Cristina tapped her foot as an outlet for her nervousness. Hurry up already. I don’t want to prolong this.
Here, the internal dialogue allows readers into the mind of Cristina, showing emotion and advancing the scene even though no direct action is taking place.
Internal dialogue is a stylistic choice. Not all writers use this technique because it does change the tone and, sometimes, the formality of a scene.
Consider this scene:
Cristina sat across the table, ready for her job interview. The supervisor wasted no time in getting started. “Why are you interested in this position?” Cristina felt her hands grow sweaty, and she forced herself to swallow the lump in her throat. She needed to make a good impression.
Now, consider what happens when internal dialogue is used in place of some of the narration:
I can’t believe I’m finally here. I’ve been hoping for this interview. Cristina took a deep breath as the supervisor wasted no time in getting started. “Why are you interested in this position?” Fair question. Cristina felt her hands grow sweaty, and she forced herself to swallow the lump in her throat. She needed to make a good impression.
While each of these scenes is similar, the use of internal dialogue allows readers to hear Cristina’s thoughts. This layer of character development seems personal for the scene, and it also makes the writing voice distinct.
Some writers like this approach because it captures a slightly different mood. Still, it’s important to note that neither of these scenes is necessarily better written than the other; there’s simply a difference in approach. That’s what internal dialogue allows.
If writers choose to use internal dialogue, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t use internal dialogue as filler. It should not express something previously communicated via narration. Let this tool serve its own purpose and not pull double-duty with something that already exists on the page.
- Keep internal dialogue streamlined. Cut out unnecessary words. For instance, instead of the line I knew that I wanted the job, have the character express I wanted the job. Excess words can make the internal dialogue murky.
- Handle dialect uses with care. Consistency is key here so that readers can enjoy a predictable rhythm. So, whether you opt for a colloquial spelling like “wanna” instead of “want to” or whether you pepper your writing with a regionalism like “y’all,” stay consistent line to line.
Not all stories lend themselves to the use of internal dialogue, but writers can experiment with its use to find the exact voice that is right for each character and scene.