Editing Hangups: Internal Monologues

I have a lot of hangups when I'm reading and editing fiction. This series is meant to explore my editing thought process and how can we can improve or, quite possibly, that I've lost my mind and that I'm worried too much about stuff like this. Let me know what you think in the comments.


The Issue

This is probably going to be pretty contentious. I've had first-hand experience with multiple writers/editors that do not agree with the lengths I go to with this topic, so keep that in mind while you're reading this.

Internal monologues are those type of things that writers have relied upon for decades, centuries even. And, properly applied, they are effective. Most of the time, however, they are used as a stand-in for action or actual conversation. Recently, I've read novels where one character is talking, the other is only thinking about their woes and their reactions to the other person in the room, but the conversation progresses like they are actually having a discussion.

I think my biggest issue with these sort of scenes is that they're more of a crutch rather than establishing the world. Instead of having characters react to their environments, they have the character blatantly spell out their relationships. And, in the same vein, a lot of writers use them as a "Mary Sue" for their own neurosis. I've read way too many stories where the entire foundation of a conversation is the POV character thinking, "Why is this person talking to me?" or some other self-deprecating information.

What Can You Do?

Now this one I've had specific experience with people not necessarily agreeing with me on this. I tend to think of things in overly cinematic terms. One bit of writing advice I was given early on was "What would this look like on screen?" And, if you read the stuff verbatim, it would be like one person ranting at another person and the person who should be responding just staring off into space (possibly what is happening right now).

First of all, try stripping out the internal monologue, see where you're at. Another bit of advice I've heard is to build the conversation, then add the flourishing details as needed. There's totally a time and a place for description, and, yes, thoughts that directly contradict what the person saying them is feeling, but a lot of what your character is going through can be seen in the way they react both physically and with the response. Rather than going into protracted, intricate detail about how character A doesn't like B, instead show it through a terse reply.

For example, the original opening to Of Gods and Madness: The Faithful started with Raine standing in an alleyway, waiting for someone to show up. Here's the original exchange:

Grasping his watch chain, Raine checked the time, shoved the piece back into his vest pocket with a sigh.

“Mr. Morgan,” a soft, earnest voice said. The man fumbled with a sheet of paper. It crinkled as he flipped it over.

Raine leaned into the brick. “Where to?”

“The Deserted Temple.”

“The target?”

“Manal Ratula.”

Raine flicked his cigarette into a mound of trash and sauntered forward.
— The Faithful

Many people said they wanted more out of this encounter. That they wondered who the man was, what his relationship to Raine was. I think this is quite evident through this small exchange.

For me, this tells a whole story about how Raine feels the situation. He's tired, exasperated that his contact hasn't shown up. When the man shows up, Raine doesn't care who it is, just that he needs information. Once he's got what he needs, he leaves without looking back once. Raine doesn't believe he's in danger, but he's also off schedule and wants to get his work done. His contact is inconsequential to him and he shows that by walking away without looking.

So, it's a matter of how far you want to go with this. I changed the whole chapter when M. Weisberg let me know it wasn't a good representation of Raine's abilities, instead opting to excise huge parts of the novel to give Raine more of a challenge. That being said, I am still quite partial to the encounter and what it reveals about my protagonist, for those willing to look.

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Justin D. Herd

Justin D. Herd is a purveyor of the weird and strange. He occasionally squawks at friends and family, but does so only under the cover of night. Okay, that's not true. He squawks in full daylight. Drinking games have been built around his peculiarities, but the truth of it is this: he is a loving husband, with two wonderful dem--children. One growls at things he likes, including pretty women. The other has started to learn hand-eye coordination. Neither had made it to the tender age of three. From there, things will only get more interesting. He spends most of his writing time either at a coffee shop or sitting at one of his many desks around his house. Any other place makes it nearly impossible for him to write. He uses horror movies and rock music to help get the juices flowing. His favorite authors are Jeremy Robert Johnson, Alan Campbell, Terry Pratchett, Justin Cronin, and Patrick Rothfuss. He consumes most of his books through audiobooks, but still loves his personal library and getting lost in the printed word.