In simple terms, interior monologue is the device used by authors to place the reader inside the character’s head. Modern writing methods have tended to emulate screenplay styles in recent decades – and this has led to more immediate portrayal, but, although screenplay may have certain advantages over narrative, interior monologue is the ace card of the author.
There are many ways to convey such inner thoughts: we are going to dive straight into the deep end and examine how William Golding did this – per proxy – in a passage from his classic, Lord of the Flies, in which Simon encounters the pig’s head on the stick (as the movie picture above illustrates). In the 1963 movie, the director limited this scene to having no dialogue – just a sombre drum roll and the buzzing of flies around the pig’s head while Simon peered at it intently – but here is a portion of the novel’s scene of the encounter between Simon and the grisly head, which takes us inside the character’s mind in an unusual yet revealing manner:
“. . . You are a silly little boy,” said the Lord of the Flies, “just an ignorant, silly little boy.”
Simon moved his swollen tongue but said nothing.
“Don’t you agree?” said the Lord of the Flies. “Aren’t you just a silly little boy?”
Simon answered him in the same silent voice.
“Well then,” said the Lord of the Flies, “you’d better run off and play with the others. They think you’re batty. You don’t want Ralph to think you’re batty, do you? You like Ralph a lot, don’t you? And Piggy, and Jack?”
Simon’s head was tilted slightly up. His eyes could not break away and the Lord of the Flies hung in space before him.
“What are you doing out here all alone? Aren’t you afraid of me?”
“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast.”
Simon’s mouth laboured, brought forth audible words.
“Pig’s head on a stick.”
“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!” said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”
The laughter shivered again.
“Come now,” said the Lord of the Flies. “Get back to the others and we’ll forget the whole thing.”
Simon’s head wobbled. His eyes were half closed as though he were imitating the obscene thing on the stick. He knew that one of his times was coming on. The Lord of the Flies was expanding like a balloon. . .
Of course, most interior monologues do not portray the hallucinations of the characters – but they are flavoured by their particular slant on the world in one way or another, and it is useful to remember this when constructing (and editing) them.
Interior monologue is not difficult to write, a sure fire way to let your readers in on what is going on in a character’s head – but this can lead to overuse – so, as with all the components of a good story, proportion is the key. Don’t abandon dialogue and action where it is more suitable – you will find that a light seasoning of interior monologue can blend invisibly into the narrative and your reader will switch without effort between the distinctions:
“. . . The prison officer led Liam up the green cast-iron spiral staircase that led to C wing. They walked along the green-walled landing with the green metal handrail to their right. Liam looked down at the chip-net – there to catch loose screws – that wasn’t green. Maybe they ran out of paint. The guard opened the door and Liam backed inside . . .”
Sometimes we need to devote the best part of a paragraph or scene to interior monologue because without this technique it would become bare narrative telling:
“. . . Stef grabbed a magazine from the array spread over the waiting room table. He sat down alongside all the other patients and began to leaf through the uninspiring pages. He expected that, just like himself, all of the other cancer patients were doing exactly the same as he was: going through the motions as they stared blankly at random glossy pages a million miles from where their heads were really at. But what better option was there for he and them? Talk about their hopes and fears? Well, probably – in a perfect world. . .”
Don’t have characters mutter to themselves and such like – this is a hackneyed device – better to place their thoughts in interior monologue.
Get rid of redundant thought attributions (she thought / reasoned / wondered / etc.):
Did he really want to sleep with this woman? Not really, he thought.
Did he really want to sleep with this woman? Not really.
I always end up sleeping with a guy on a first date, she thought.
She always seemed to wind up sleeping with guys on their first date.
Why did she always end up sleeping with guys on their first date?
Avoid using italics to set interior monologue apart – not only are they heavy on the eyes, overuse weakens their presence in a novel. In the main, trust the reader to make the transition without this device. Of course, sometimes it just seems natural to use italics, especially if a character’s interior monologue is punctuated by an inner conclusion or an intervention of their thought process:
" . . . Dr Kaur caught Vic on his way out. “Mr Williams, the bereavement office is next to the outpatients’ entrance. They can help you with counselling, funeral arrangements and obtain the death certificate for you. They’re open office hours.”
That’s it. She’s gone. My fault for leaving her. Bloody fool.
“Are you okay, Mr Williams?” . . ."
". . . Now what was she going to do? Scott had made it clear that he intended to tell Dave about their one night stand – meaningless and forgettable though it was. What had gotten into him? Guilt? A new found sense of decency? Or perhaps he was just—stop it! The last thing you need is to upset yourself if you want to keep the baby . . ."
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