The Complete Guide to Interior Monologue

Nina Bawden: You know people better in a novel than in real life because you know what people think - not just what they say they think.

Interior monologue is the fancy literary term for a character's thoughts in a novel.

In real life, the stream of thoughts we all have running through our heads at any given moment is more often called internal monologue, though the two terms mean precisely the same thing.

While we're dealing with definitions, a couple of closely-related literary terms are...

  • Stream of Consciousness. This is where an entire novel, or at least large chunks of it, takes the form of the central character's thoughts. Such novels tend to be light on plot, so I wouldn't recommend this device. A good example is James Joyce's Ulysses.
  • Soliloquy. This is where a fictional character voices his or her thoughts out loud, as in Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech. Talking aloud to yourself at any length is frankly strange, so always keep any interior monologue unspoken unless you have a good reason not to.

Why Interior Monologue Matters

The ability of readers of fiction to hear a character's thoughts directly is one of the huge advantages that novels have over films. You can't hear what's going on inside a movie character's head.

You can't hear a person's thoughts in real life, either – unless of course they voice them out loud. But even then, you don't know if they're being altogether truthful.

Sure, you can guess what a person (in real life or on the screen) is feeling and thinking by looking at...

  • their body language
  • their facial expressions
  • and so on.

But the only time we get to hear another person's thoughts word for word is when we read interior monologue in fiction.

And guess what?

This ability to experience what life is like inside a fictional character's head – hearing everything they think and feeling everything they feel – is one of the main reasons people read fiction in the first place.

When movies were invented, it was supposed to mark the beginning of the end of novels. The same thing was true when television came along a few decades later. But it never happened.

People continued to read novels, and they probably always will.

Now, I'm not arguing that written fiction is superior to stories on the big and small screens, because films and television clearly hold many advantages over books (not least, visual advantages).

But novels have their advantages, too, including...

  1. Novels are user-friendly. You can't easily watch a movie in the dentist's waiting room. Plus, films are best seen from start to end, whereas novels are easy to dip in and out of.
  2. Novels fire the imagination. In a movie, the fictional world is created for you and projected onto a screen. In a novel, you can create the world in your mind's eye and picture something more in tune with your personal tastes and preferences.

    When we picture a beautiful landscape in a book, for example, we will each have slightly different mental images. When we see a beautiful landscape in a film, we're all stuck with the same image.

  3. Novels contain interior monologue. Like I said, it's only in novels that you can get inside another person's head and experience life from a totally different perspective. And that's kind of cool!

The third of these advantages is, I believe, the fundamental reason why written fiction will never die. Put simply, you can establish a far more intimate relationship with a character in a book than a character on a screen.

Heck, sometimes you even lose your heart to them!

And it's all because you have direct access to what the character is thinking.

Bottom line? A character's thoughts are important in written fiction because it's the only place you can find them. So if you're planning on not making much use of what is going on inside your protagonist's head, and writing in a more distant and cinematic style, think again...

Interior monologue is one of the most powerful tools in your toolbox. And this article tells you everything you need to know to write it like a pro.

The Two Types of Interior Monologue

Okay, let's start with the basics. The two varieties of interior monologue found in a novel are long ones and short ones.

So far, so simple!

A short interior monologue tends to happen in the middle of a scene. Because scenes are generally characterized by talk and action, you don't want to destroy the pace with too many lengthy thoughts from the viewpoint character.

That is why you tend to get just a line of thought here and there – enough to directly connect us to the viewpoint character's mind, but not enough to disrupt the flow of the scene.

All other clues about how the viewpoint character is feeling can be presented indirectly – that is, through their words, actions, facial expressions, and so on.

Here is an example of a short interior monologue from Nick Horny's novel Juliet, Naked. The viewpoint character, a man called Tucker, is having a talk with his son...

Jackson was in his room, bashing the hell out of the buttons on a cheap computer game. He didn't look up when Tucker opened the door.
   'You want to come back downstairs?'
   'No.'
   'It'll be easier if the three of us talk.'
   'I know what you want to talk about.'
   'What?'
   '"Mummy and Daddy are having problems, so we're going to split up from each other. But it doesn't mean we don't love you, blah blah blah." There. Now I don't have to go.'
   Jesus, thought Tucker. Six years old and already these kids can parody the language of marital failure.
   'Where did you get all that from?'
   'Like, five hundred TV shows, plus five hundred kids at school. So that's a thousand, right?'
   'Right. Five hundred plus five hundred makes a thousand.'
   Jackson couldn't prevent a tiny flicker of triumph crossing his face.
   'OK. You don't have to come down. But please be kind to your mother.'

Here, we get one short paragraph of interior monologue ('Jesus, thought Tucker. Six years old and already these kids can parody the language of marital failure.')

It helps us to experience what it feels like to be standing there in the father's shoes, but it doesn't affect the pace of the scene significantly. If you re-read the passage but leave out the monologue, the effect is cooler and more distant.

A long interior monologue tends to happen during the slower bits in between action scenes. Here, a breakneck pace isn't necessary, and so having direct access to the character's every thought for a few sentences or paragraphs, or even a few pages, is not a problem.

Also, it's natural for a character to do the bulk of their thinking in between scenes...

  • During the scene, they're too busy doing things and saying things, and reacting to things being done and said to them, to have the time for a lengthy internal monologue.
  • Once the scene is over and they can pause to draw breath, they have plenty of time for a good long think. Plus, of course, they will have plenty to think about, given that the scene just ended will probably not have gone according to plan, and they must now decide what to do next.

I'm not saying that all "interludes" (the quiet moments in between scenes) consist of characters thinking. Sometimes an interlude can be a simple "Two days later..." But where you do have lengthy interior monologues in a novel, it's generally better to have them in the calm period between scenes.

Here is an example of a long interior monologue (or the very beginning of one), again from Nick Hornby's novel Juliet, Naked...

On the way to the airport, Jackson chatted about school, baseball and death until he fell asleep, and Tucker listened to an old R&B mix-tape that he'd found in the trunk. He only had a handful of cassettes left now, and when they were gone, he'd have to find the money for a new truck. He couldn't contemplate a driving life without music. He sung along to the Chi-Lites softly, so as not to wake Jackson, and found himself thinking about the question that woman had asked him in her email: 'It isn't you really, is it?' Well, it was him, he was almost positive, but for some reason...

And off the character goes on a lengthy interior monologue...

Novel writers can keep these longer internal monologues going for several pages if necessary. You are not disrupting the flow of the narrative because not much is happening anyway (in this case, the character is simply driving and listening to music while his son sleeps beside him).

And that is all there is to it.

Any internal monologues in the middle of a scene will generally take the form of one-liners, while the internal monologues in the interludes can run on for pages.

Long monologues are easy to handle...

  • You start with some narration, just to show the reader what the character is doing (in the case of the example above, the character is driving and listening to music).
  • Then you launch into the monologue itself, perhaps introducing it with a phrase like "he thought about..." or "she wondered if..." (Hornby wrote that the character "found himself thinking about...")

Short, one-liner interior monologues in the middle of a scene are trickier, simply because you need to make it clear to the reader that this particular sentence, in the middle of all the talk and action, is indeed the viewpoint character thinking.

To do that successfully – like a professional novelist – you need to understand...

Interior Monologue Mechanics

Everything I've said about internal monologue so far has been useful (I hope!) but still kind of vague. What many novel writing students want to know is precisely how to portray a character's thoughts on the printed page – should they use italics, for example, or a "he thought" tag?

So what is the best way to indicate that a sentence or two of interior monologue in the middle of a scene is the viewpoint character's thoughts (and not the narrator narrating)?

Here are the possibilities open to you...

  1. Writing the thought in first person, present tense (which is the way we actually think them) vs. writing it in third person, past tense (so that they blend in with the rest of the text).
  2. Using italics vs. using normal text.
  3. Using a "he thought" tag vs. not using one.
  4. Wrapping the thought in quotation marks (either single or double) vs. not using quotation marks.

We can dispense with the final option straight away: Never use quotation marks around a character's thoughts. Why?

Because the reader will assume the words are being said out loud, and will then have to make an awkward mental shift when they see a "he thought" interior monologue tag, rather than a "he said" dialogue tag, at the end.

We can also dispense with using italicized text when the thought is translated into third person past tense.

The only point of italics is to make a different voice and tense stand out from the regular voice and tense being used. When both the thought and the text surrounding it are in the same voice and tense there is no need for italics.

What we are left with, then, are six possibilities...

1. Thought written in first person present, italicized, tagged

Mary closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun. This summer has been so perfect, she thought. I don't want it ever to end.

2. Thought written in first person present, italicized, not tagged

Mary closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun. This summer has been so perfect. I don't want it ever to end.

3. Thought written in first person present, not italicized, tagged

Mary closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun. This summer has been so perfect, she thought. I don't want it ever to end.

4. Thought written in first person present, not italicized, not tagged

Mary closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun. This summer has been so perfect. I don't want it ever to end.

5. Thought written in third person past, not italicized, tagged

Mary closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun. This summer had been so perfect, she thought. She didn't want it ever to end.

6. Thought written in third person past, not italicized, not tagged

Mary closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun. This summer had been so perfect. She didn't want it ever to end.

Which of these possibilities is best?

You'll find examples of all of the above in published fiction, so in a sense it's a matter of personal choice. The only hard and fast rule that exists is to be consistent throughout...

Whatever method of presenting monologue you use in the first chapter – first person present and italicized text, for example – you should still be using it in the final chapter.

Readers quickly grow accustomed to whatever conventions you use, and not sticking to those conventions throughout will only confuse your audience.

So is it simply a question of choosing a way to present interior monologue, and then sticking with it?

Not exactly, no. And it's not a question of one method being "better" than the others, either.

So I'll now run through the advantages and disadvantages of all the ways of presenting interior monologue, then leave it up to you to decide which way is best for your own novel. I'll start by answering this question...

Should a Character's Thoughts Be Italicized?

Italics, as I have said, are used to represent a character's thoughts as they actually think them in their head (i.e. the precise words they use). For that reason, italicized thoughts are always written in...

  • First Person – because we don't think about ourselves in the third person.
  • Present Tense – because we don't think about what is happening now in past tense.

(Obviously, we sometimes think in the third person past tense, when we think about what somebody else did yesterday, for example: "John made such a fool of himself last night.")

The advantage of using italics for a line or two of interior monologue is that they make the thought stand out.

It will be perfectly obvious to the reader that these words are the character thinking, and not the author narrating. And the thought itself, as well as not becoming confused with the rest of the text, gains an extra emphasis, like in this example from Clare Morrall's The Man Who Disappeared.

Felix, a man whose world has just fallen apart, is standing out in the street watching his family eat their evening meal without him...

He wants to believe in this cosiness, this world of families, this labyrinth of deeply entwined love.
   That's the key, of course: love. He has been told this for as long as he can remember. 'We love you, Felix,' one of his aunts used to say, 'and that's all that matters.'
   What have I done, Kate?
   Frost glints on the road, nearby car windscreens are clouded with ice. Felix blows on his hands and shuffles his feet around, trying to bring some feeling back to his toes.

The trouble with using italics for character thoughts is that they can be tedious to read. If you use italics for every single thought in the novel, not just the one-liners but the longer ones that run for several paragraphs or pages, the reader won't thank you for it.

Also, because italicizing interior monologue gives the words much greater weight and emphasis, the effect you create could turn out to be unintentionally comic.

The italicized thought in the example above – "What have I done, Kate?" – is worthy of emphasis. It has even been given a paragraph all to itself (which is another way of making interior monologue stand out). But this device would be totally inappropriate for more mundane character thoughts...

  • What a beautiful morning
  • I wonder what's for lunch
  • I left my wallet at home

The solution, if you want to use italicized thoughts in the first person present, is to use them very sparingly. Only write a character's most important and moving thoughts in this way. For the rest, use a more subtle method of presenting internal monologue, like non-italicized third person thoughts.

Clare Morrall did precisely that in the example above...

  • The first two paragraphs are pure interior monologue, but they are written in the third person. (The only reason they are written in the present tense is that the entire novel is; otherwise, they would be in the past tense.)
  • In the third paragraph, she uses first person present tense and italics.
  • The fourth paragraph is regular narration.

The entire extract could have been written like this (with all three paragraphs of interior monologue italicized)...

I want to believe in this cosiness, this world of families, this labyrinth of deeply entwined love.
   That's the key, of course: love. I have been told this for as long as I can remember. 'We love you, Felix,' one of my aunts used to say, 'and that's all that matters.'
   What have I done, Kate?

   Frost glints on the road, nearby car windscreens are clouded with ice. Felix blows on his hands and shuffles his feet around, trying to bring some feeling back to his toes.

... but in my opinion, the passage would not have been half as effective.

Doesn't using first person italicized thoughts for some of the time, and third person non-italicized thoughts for the remainder, contradict my earlier advice about remaining consistent?

Nope. The "convention" you would have decided on would be to use...

  • Third person non-italicized thoughts for the bulk of the interior monologue, and
  • First person italicized thoughts in just a handful of places, when the power of the character's words demand extra emphasis.

The reader will quickly pick up on this convention if you use it consistently. What they would find confusing would be if you used, for example, an illogical mixture of italics and non-italics for those occasional emphatic thoughts.

One last thing before moving on...

  • If you do use this device of writing the occasional powerful thought in the first person present, you really should use italics if you don't want to confuse the reader, and ideally a separate paragraph too. This makes the first person thought stand out clearly from the surrounding third person text.
  • Next best, if you don't use italics, is to add a "he thought" tag to the words.
  • And the least emphatic of all is to use neither italics nor thought tags.

Just to be clear on that, here are those three options:

What have I done, Kate?

What have I done, Kate?, he thought.

What have I done, Kate?

If you want to emphasize the character's thought, use the first option. If, for whatever reason, you want to take a more subtle approach, use the second or third.

Now for a closer look at...

Interior Monologue Tags

"Thought" tags are exactly like the ones you use in dialogue – their only real purpose is to make it clear to the reader who is speaking or, in the case of thought tags, that these are the character's thoughts and not the narrator's words.

If everything is crystal clear without using a tag – either in monologue or dialogue – don't use one.

For example, in the case of those italicized, first person thoughts I discussed above, using a tag (What have I done, Kate? he thought) is totally unnecessary. It's obvious that these words are coming straight from the character's head.

If a thought is written in the third person, it may or may not be advisable to use a tag. It all depends on where the "camera" is positioned...

I talked about cameras in the article on Writing In the Third Person. Here is the theory in a nutshell...

  • At the start of a scene in a third person novel, the camera describes the scene from above or from afar using neutral and non-opinionated language. This is the part where the narrator describes the rain pouring down on the town, for example.
  • Next, the camera moves in closer and focuses on the characters at the center of the scene, and on the viewpoint character in particular. At this point, the viewpoint character is still being seen from the outside and the language remains neutral and non-opinionated.
  • Finally, the camera moves behind the viewpoint character's eyes and remains there. The language begins to sound more and more like the viewpoint character's own first person speaking voice, except it remains in the third person.

At the beginning of a scene, the narration is often called "distant." That's because we are not standing in the viewpoint character's shoes yet. Once we are, the narration becomes "close" – and the longer we spend with the viewpoint character, the closer and more intimate the narration becomes.

What does this have to do with interior monologue tags?

When the narration is more distant than close – or when the scene hasn't "warmed up" yet – you'll probably want to use a "she thought" tag.

When the narration is close and intimate, and the language is beginning to approximate the viewpoint character's own speaking voice, tags won't be necessary.

In other words, whether or not to use a tag is really a judgment call on your part.

If you believe that using one will help comprehension, use one. If not, don't.

Just remember that, generally speaking, interior monologue tags will appear during the cooler beginnings of scenes and not after they have warmed up.

The final thing to talk about is how closely interior monologue should match...

The Character's Natural Speaking Voice

In a first person novel, you hear the leading character's natural speaking voice directly. In third person, you only hear it directly in dialogue or monologue rendered in the first person (as discussed above).

For the rest of the time, you hear the narrator's voice, which is less subjective, less colorful, less colloquial than the character's direct voice.

Like I've said, though, the third person narrator's neutral voice begins to approximate the character's natural speaking voice when the camera moves behind their eyes, so to speak, and the scene "warms up."

During the "cooler" opening section of a scene, any lines of monologue are best written neutrally and factually (and should probably be "tagged," too). Like here...

Sometimes men could be so insensitive, she thought. And Frank was in a league of his own.

Later, once the scene has warmed up, the monologue, while remaining in the third person, can begin to take on the characteristics of the character's natural first person voice. And you can safely drop the tag, too...

Jesus! She knew a lot of men opened their mouths without remembering to think first, but Frank had turned insensitivity into a damn art form!

What About Monologue In a First Person Novel?

Pretty much everything I've said about interior monologue applies to third person novels written in the past tense. (This is by far the most common form of voice and tense used by writers.)

In a third person, present tense novel, it is literally just a case of changing the past tense to present. So instead of writing this...

Mary closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun. The summer had been so perfect, she thought. She didn't want it ever to end.

You write this...

Mary closes her eyes and lifts her face to the sun. The summer has been so perfect, she thinks. She doesn't want it ever to end.

Simple. In a first person novel, whether written in the past tense or present tense, interior monologue is easier still. Why? Because it happens naturally, all by itself.

Let me explain that...

The biggest challenge you face in a third person novel is making it clear that the words are indeed the character's thoughts, and not the narrator's words.

That is why, when the viewpoint character is being viewed from a distance, you might use a "thought" tag to make it clear that these words are indeed the character thinking, and only drop using tags once the camera has moved behind the character's eyes, so to speak.

But in a first person novel, the camera is always behind the character's eyes, and so it's obvious when we hear their direct thoughts. Like here...

I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the sun. The summer had been so perfect. I didn't want it ever to end.

There's nothing to stop you using a tag if you want ("The summer had been so perfect, I thought..."), but it isn't necessary. It's obvious that the character is thinking these thoughts in the here and now of the story.

And that's it – interior monologue in a nutshell (okay, quite a big nutshell!)

If you're feeling confused right now, don't worry about it...

As with all the other theories of fiction, handling interior monologue will become second nature once you've taken the "rules" on board, relaxed, and started to apply them to your own fiction without over-thinking them.