Inner dialog & reflection

Does your character talk to themself?

Does the narrator inject main character POV ruminations and observations?

For me it’s a constant debate. I’ve historically tried to write detached, relating what happens and what people say—only. But, that ends up feeling distanced, cold and reporter-like. So, I now try to inject the occasional inner dialog to help personalize the main character. Knowing what they think, feel or silently observe tends to draw a reader closer, they become a confidant.

But, how much is too much? Can you dictate a lengthy internal diatribe and get a way with it? There are certainly story lines that you can leak through such exposure without having to laboriously “show” them.

But is that it? Internal dialog or nothing?

Jan, over at Tinhats, got me reading Rider of the Purple Sage, and I came across a passage where narrator/author Zane Grey reached in from the heavens and colored the scene with mood and prophesy:

She pressed his hand in response. He helped her to a seat beside him on the bench. And he respected a silence that he divined was full of woman’s deep emotion beyond his understanding.

It was the moment when the last ruddy rays of the sunset brightened momentarily before yielding to twilight. And for Venters the outlook before him was in some sense similar to a feeling of his future, and with searching eyes he studied the beautiful purple, barren waste of sage. Here was the unknown and the perilous. The whole scene impressed Venters as a wild, austere, and mighty manifestation of nature. And as it somehow reminded him of his prospect in life, so it suddenly resembled the woman near him, only in her there were greater beauty and peril, a mystery more unsolvable, and something nameless that numbed his heart and dimmed his eye.

What was the purpose of that? (Love the alliteration “ruddy rays”) Nobody thinks like that:

“Here was the unknown and the perilous”

… what?

But as I read that and more and reflected back on many other examples of errant pontifications I’ve read, Doerr, Atwood, Gaiman, etc. I had to think that it’s not just story line that needs communicating.

Perhaps the purpose of such musings is to evoke an emotion, a molded atmosphere from which the author wants the character to be seen and understood. In this case, the character shouldn’t try and think or speak those words. But a particular ambiance needs to be evoked, so the narrator steps in and decorates the scene.

Perhaps, though, an inner dialog annotation by the main character can also serve to help set the mood or spirit of the scene. Some characters could surely wax on about their own plight, doing so to communicate the mood.

And maybe that’s a factor that needs further examination. When and where should such left-field thoughts drop onto the page?


29 thoughts on “Inner dialog & reflection

  1. I’m in zero position to give advice to anyone, so all I’ll say is to think about how it sounds when those whom Phil characterizes as “empty nesters” write what their characters think, and then try really hard to do the opposite.

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  2. Humans have been trying hallucinatory drugs from ancient times. It is natural to want to escape the everyday reality which just won’t cut it. Animal may well benefit from a similar behavior. Don’t know but brains are brains and hallucinatory drugs cause hallucinations. Of course you don’t want to jump off a bridge into ragging rapids because you thought you saw something that wasn’t really there. So be careful out there and don’t try flying off of cliffs as the end could well be very unpleasant.

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  3. All of them. Some are more products of their era. Like what was the psycho babble fad at the time. Some are simply fleshing out the story with postcards. Read one of those the other day. Lots of descriptions. What kills me is how few authors these days seem to know how to embed that junk instead of pasting it in.

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  4. Well, Gray was the daddy of the silent noble cowboy figure. Of course his characters would have noble thoughts! On a recent long road trip, we listened to the audio tape of The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway was famous for avoiding inner dialogue, which may work in the novel but definitely falls flat in an audio rendering. Ugh! One of the most fascinating uses of the inner dialogue is Mr. H. in The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin. Mr. H. lives in an inner world of honor and dignity which he thinks is how the world sees him. The world creeps in.

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  5. Take the travelogue and put it in the cowboy’s mouth. No way. So you have author hooptedoodle. Which is a personal call. But someone opened the style door. A lot of your stuff comes off borderline stilted and detached. It’s the little things that are missing in your work, so in your case whipping up a bunch of flowery head time or rumination better fit or it will stick out like balls on a tall dog. Remember the edits on the kids in the primordial mud? The simple addition or subtraction of a flower basket, how they talk to each other… that’s tone. That’s all you’re looking for with author baggage. Like learning to re-write “Jim felt….” Even in Westerns. Zane Grey talked. Louis L’Amour put you in the gulch, in the snow, in the freezing river. Tony Hillerman – jeez. All that big country full of big men and angry weather bullshit is exactly that. Like Michelangelo pulling David out of the marble. Talk doesn’t do it. However. I’m not averse to dropping some backstory on a bit player with narrative. Sheriff Baldry looked across the desk at a mid-size pear shaped sandy haired man spinning his hat slowly between his hands. Ben Gershon. Known to look the other way on occasion, conveniently vacated Cisco county’s JP chair just before the audit that shut down the county’s offices for two weeks. “What can I do ya for, Judge?”
    Sorry that got long – Bottom line? No emotion in the author, no emotion in the reader. Unless you’re Atwood or PD James, leave the endless hills and vales and he meaning of a chipped coffee cup growing a science experiment leave it out unless you need it. Don’t go looking for it.

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  6. It seems like the viewpoint character’s inner narration and experience should be interlaced into the narrative, coloring all the descriptions. But this is definitely a style thing. A lot of older stuff is in third person omniscient, which largely gives the author the flexibility on how close in they want to be in the character’s viewpoint, both overall and at particular points in the story.

    I don’t know anything about the character in that Zane Grey snippet, but I think if I did a passage like that, it would reflect the character’s background and worldview. It probably wouldn’t be nearly as poetic sounding, at least unless we’re dealing with a character who has the right background for articulating things like that.

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  7. Well … I think a story told in first person is significantly internal dialogue. But stories told in third person … I don’t think I use much internal dialogue when I’m writing in third person. It’s one of the reasons I write some stories in first person … to include the internal dialogue, the thoughts and feelings of the lead character(s).

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  8. There’s no magic formula. I try to put myself in their shoes, simple as that. Would I bitch, wonder, question? Often…all the time…Absolutely. So my characters talk to themselves A LOT. Probably because others don’t or won’t hear them out.

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  9. The excerpt from Riders of the Purple Sage isn’t really inner dialogue or even the character’s direct thoughts. It’s the voice of the narrator telling the reader what the character is thinking/feeling. Maybe you should look into “deep third person pov,” in which the narrator’s voice merges with the character’s thoughts. It’s almost like first person, but not quite; more like the 3rd person narrator gets inside the character.

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    1. My conclusion as well. I called out that passage as evidence of narrator intentionally injecting vibe. It’s the need for vibe that I found instructive. As Duke said, it’s the word feel, the rhythm imbuing style that the readers consumes, unwittingly, yet transformed.

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          1. Limericks are tricky. If the rhythm is off, it doesn’t work. And haiku seem too easy; although what do I know, as I don’t write them. What I was getting at was that moments of that near-poetic intensity in fiction have to be short. Zap rather than pummel.

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  10. They should drop when you feel they help or if you like them or better still, if you’ve got something unique, brilliant in the way the words combine. The sound of the words is important. A story is much improved if there is a reason to turn the page, even if it is not exactly in line with the narrative you first conceived. Writing is a lot like a therapy session. Style is more important than content. Content is great, but style is what sets it apart from all the rest. This came to me recently. “A used-up man, lacking a pill.” It only related insofar as his general condition, which was fucked up, but might be considered “used-up” and if so, he certainly lacked a pill to help. Again, the line works only in relationship to what came before, but there was certainly no setup to indicate this line was coming. Surprise is a good thing in writing. Here is a tip: read a few song lyrics. Not poetry, but song lyrics. Infinite monkeys at the typewriter. Duke

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    1. Yes, Duke, but what’s the formula for knowing when?
      (Kidding, mostly) This is one of those next-level things I’ll be trying to impart onto my style. Such things may not come to me unless I get used to considering their use. And prompting myself, during a passage that feels dry or stilted — might be the clues I need.

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