Monday 13 April 2015

More Pain: Interior Monologue in Atlanta Nights

By Iola Goulton

This post is part of a series illustrating some of the common fiction editing issues I see, using Atlanta Nights by Travis Tea as our example. For those of you who didn’t read my post introducing Travis Tea and his illustrious novel … you might want to go back and read the post so you don’t think I’m ripping apart some poor author who tried their best to write a staggering work of genius. Clue: say “Travis Tea” quickly, and remember his mother’s name was Senilla. Yes, this book is a joke.

Last week we considered whether Atlanta Nights has an interesting opening hook: does the first page engage you enough as a reader that you would turn the page? My answer: yes, I turned the page … out of morbid curiosity. How bad would it get?

This week we are going to use the same passage—the first page—as the basis for a discussion on interior monologue.
Whispering voices.
Pain. Pain. Pain.
Need pee--new pain--what are they sticking in me? . . .
Whispering voices.
“As you know, Nurse Eastman, the government spooks controlling this hospital will not permit me to give this patient the care I think he needs.”
“Yes, doctor.” The voice was breathy, sweet, so sweet and sexy.
It’s not apparent from this excerpt whether Atlanta Nights is written in first person or third person point of view, because it’s actually making good use of interior monologue (which tells us Travis Tea hasn’t actually managed to write the worst book ever). I have previously discussed point of view in a series of posts on my own blog (and I will discuss it later in this series … if we ever get to Chapter Two).

The purpose of point of view is to create intimacy with the characters, to make the reader care about what happens to the character. One of the ways of getting this intimacy is by showing the reader what the viewpoint character is thinking. The thoughts of individual characters can be written in three ways:

  • Quotation marks
  • Direct thought
  • Interior monologue

Quotation Marks

Schoolchildren used to be taught to punctuate character thoughts in single quotation marks (‘x’), and use double quotation marks for direct speech (“x”). This approach is now considered wrong:

Never, ever use quotes with your interior monologue. It is not merely poor style; it is, by today’s standards, ungrammatical. Thoughts are thought, not spoken. 
- Self-editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King

Equally, there is no need to use thinker attributions (e.g. Amy thinks), as readers understand the thoughts are those of the viewpoint characters. Using thinker attributions signals to publishers, editors, and readers that the author doesn’t know (or doesn’t understand) the use of deep perspective point of view. I still see thinker attributions in a lot of the manuscripts I’m asked to assess or edit, and occasionally see thoughts in quotation marks.

Fortunately, Atlanta Nights doesn’t make either of these mistakes. Imagine how awful it could have been …
‘Pain,’ he thought.
He heard whispering voices.
‘Pain,’ he thought again.
‘Pain. Pain. Pain,’ he thought agonisingly.
A new thought came to him ‘I need to pee. And there’s a new pain. What are they sticking in me?’
He slept, and awoke to more pain, more whispering voices.
“As you know, Nurse Eastman, the government spooks controlling this hospital will not permit me to give this patient the care I think he needs.”
“Yes, doctor.” The voice was breathy, and he thought it sounded sweet, so sweet and sexy.

Direct Thought

A more modern convention is to use italics to indicate direct thought.
Whispering voices.
Pain. Pain. Pain.
Need pee--new pain--what are they sticking in me? . . .
Whispering voices.

“As you know, Nurse Eastman, the government spooks controlling this hospital will not permit me to give this patient the care I think he needs.”
“Yes, doctor.” The voice was breathy, sweet, so sweet and sexy.
As you can see, there are disadvantages to this approach as well:

  • Italics are only effective for a few words or a short sentence. Any longer, and it becomes difficult to read. It can slow the pacing of the scene, and overuse of italics will annoy the reader. This is only the first page. Imagine what the whole book would look like …
  • Direct thought in italics changes the point of view of the scene from third person to first person present tense and back again (this would, of course, be more of an issue if there was anything that wasn’t direct thought). This change can be jarring for the reader.
  • Direct thought is telling where the author should be showing. Instead of telling us the character feels pain, show the character feeling the pain (but without using clichés, please) . Describe it viscerally, so the reader can feel the pain as well.

Interior Monologue

This is the recommended approach for expressing thought in modern fiction, whether contemporary or historical. Interior monologue is what your point of view character is thinking, expressed in his or her own voice. There is no need for thoughts to be identified as such, because the rules of first person narration (or third person narration from a specific viewpoint character) imply this is the character whose interior monologue we are reading.

Interior monologue is favoured because:

  • It is showing, not telling.
  • It doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story the way italics do, because it is the same font and tense as the rest of the story.
  • It forces the reader (and author) into the mind of viewpoint character, which helps them know the character better. The better the reader knows the character, the more likely she is to empathise and feel the character’s emotions. It’s stronger writing.
  • It is consistent with the market preference for deep perspective point of view.

However, just as there is a skill in writing good dialogue (another subject we’ll cover later), there is also skill in writing good interior monologue. Here are a few tips:

  • It shouldn’t go on too long. Some authors write so much interior monologue in the middle of scenes that the reader loses track of the action.
  • Interior monologue is reaction, not action: don’t use it where the character should be doing something.
  • But don’t ignore reaction entirely, unless the point is that your character is emotionally repressed.
  • Don’t repeat thoughts. Once is enough.

Keep thoughts succinct, like an internal version of dialogue. Don’t allow your interior monologue to devolve into a random stream of consciousness, an undisciplined mind travelling hither and thither and I wish the people in the motel room next door would be quiet and go to sleep and is that tap ever going to stop dripping? Shall I have a cup of tea, or just go to bed? Some commentators consider interior monologue and stream of consciousness to be synonymous, but I don’t agree. This pillow is soft and I’m going to bang on the wall if that woman doesn’t stop giggling. Interior monologue has a discipline to it that stream of consciousness lacks. Did I set my alarm clock? If you’ve actually managed to read to the end of this awful paragraph, you’ll understand what I mean. Ah. Blessed silence at last.

Yes, it’s important to keep your interior monologue on topic. We might think in stream of consciousness, but our readers don’t want to read it.

Do you have any thoughts to share on interior monologue? Any lessons you’ve learned from books you’ve read (or written)?

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on FacebookTwitterPinterest  or Tsu.

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog. I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2000.


  1. Great post. Thanks Iola. I think stream of consciousness is still popular in some literary novels (Virginia Woolf for instance) but I agree with you, I much prefer interior monologue. It adds depth of character when done well.
    PS Glad your pillow was soft even if your fellow hotel guests were noisy ;)

  2. I've never read Virginia Woolf. I do know she's not exactly contemporary ...

    We can admire good writing from the past, but we have to remember that might not be what contemporary readers are looking for. As an example, I'm currently listening to the audiobook version of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (I'm 6 hours in to a 14-hour narration). It's a classic gothic romance novel, but there's far too much interior monologue for my taste - to the point where I'm finding the unnamed narrator naïve to the point where she's bordering on stupid, and it's making her difficult to empathise with. I'm wondering what Maxim sees in her.

  3. Iola, excellent post! Interior monologue that's done well is a pleasure to read and adds depth to the characterisation and story. It's nearly invisible, unless you're intentionally analysing the scene, because it draws you into rather than out of the story.


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