Having just adapted one of my novels to a stage play, I’m acutely aware of how important a character’s unspoken thoughts and feelings are to the story. In a play we cannot know a character’s direct thoughts unless he speaks them out loud in a sort of soliloquy. (Suddenly I’m imagining a performance in which the actors turn their heads with hand raised to the side of the mouth to voice their true, unspoken thoughts before delivering their scripted lines. It could be interesting!) Novels and stage plays both tell stories, but in different ways. Actors express their emotions physically, and thoughts are implied or communicated indirectly. In prose, we can have a direct view into our character’s mind, and heart. We can become the character.
Why is showing a character’s thoughts a powerful tool for the fiction writer? So often what we think and what we say out loud are at odds. This in itself can raise the tension of your prose. Characters think one thing, say another, and then DO something completely different. By showing the thoughts, the spoken dialogue, and the action, we have three ways to develop character, create tension, and move the story along.
Interior dialogue doesn’t have to be a full paragraph of mind-chat. Unless you’re writing a stream-of-consciousness novel along the lines of Joyce’s Ulysses or Wallace’s Infinite Jest, you’ll want to filter your character’s thoughts and emotions to suit your purpose.
Picking up a novel I recently reviewed (Britannia’s Reach by Antoine Vanner) I’m opening to a random page to look for examples of interior dialogue, or other glimpses inside the protagonist’s mind.
Dawlish ducked under the hitching bar and cupped the mare’s nose in his hands for an instant. She was quivering, her eyes straining, yet she seemed to calm slightly at his touch. An image of morning canters in Shropshire flashed for an incongruous instant through his mind as his nostrils caught the whiff of her scent... (pg 101)
Here’s another example, from the same book:
“I am a British Officer, Sir,” Dawlish said, feeling a little sententious, but unsure of how otherwise to answer… “ (pg. 120)
While this isn’t an extended interior monologue, it gives us an inside view of our protagonist without slowing the story down with full-fledged, developed thoughts. It’s concise and effective.
Patrick O’Brian’s interior dialogue is more oblique and tends to be a longer narration. Take this example:
Jack did not reply at once: his mind was dealing with the advantages and disadvantages of touching at a Brazilian port – the loss of the trade-wind inshore, the way the south-easter would often hang in the east for weeks on end just under the tropic, so that a ship might have to beat into it, tack upon tack, for very little gain, or else run far south for the westerlies; a whole mass of considerations. His face was already sad; now it grew stern and cold; and when he did speak it was not to tell Stephen what he intended to do but to ask whether Pullings and the people in the sickbay might be allowed wine yet. (Desolation Island, pp.156-157)
These almost stream-of-consciousness thoughts of Jack’s, in the middle of a conversation, make him very life-like and complex. When he does speak, it is altogether unexpected and has nothing to do with what he was thinking. This fleshes out Jack’s character, gives it depth and complexity.
Pick up the nearest novel to you and look for examples on any given page.
Now take a page or two of your prose, a story you’ve been working on. Try enriching this scene by adding thought-bites and unspoken feelings. Try adding a sentence or two of interior dialogue that only the character and the reader are privy to.
What is your character REALLY thinking or feeling before he speaks? How does he feel AFTER he says it? Does his mind wander when the other person is speaking? That happens in real life all the time. How much you let us see inside your protag’s head is up to you.
To bring your characters to life on the page, let us hear what they’re thinking. Let us slip inside their skin and feel it tingle.