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Hypothetical dialogue vs. inner monologue

There’s a style of first-person writing that reads as though you’re riding shotgun in the narrator’s mental car, listening to the narrator explain his life as he goes along. It’s a style that fluidly intermixes narrated actions and events with inner monologue, philosophizing, and reflection:

I was never what you’d call a happy child. I’m not looking for pity or anything, it’s just a fact. Something that was true. It’s not like I felt bad about it when I was a kid. Kids don’t know shit. They assume that whatever happens is normal. I took it that way, anyhow.

Maybe other kids were happy, maybe they were just as miserable as me. I have no idea. Kids are also really self-centered that way, you know? Except, I wasn’t exactly miserable. That’s the wrong word. If you asked me how I really was, I guess I’d say “I just floated along, tried to keep an even keel.” That about sums it up. I survived, anyhow.

Notice, in that brief bit, a quote. It’s not dialogue because the narrator isn’t actually saying anything to anyone. It’s a form of hypothetical dialogue, what-I-would-say-if-asked, intended to convey something about the narrator. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. There will be times when it is entirely appropriate to use this device. The questions you must ask as you write are: what is the alternative, and what does each option convey about the character?

The alternative is to re-write so the ideas in the quote are conveyed in the same inner-monologue fashion as the rest:

Except, I wasn’t exactly miserable. That’s the wrong word. It’s more like I just floated along all the time. Tried to keep an even keel. That about sums it up. I survived, anyhow.

It’s almost exactly the same words, but notice the shift. If your story is almost entirely made up of inner monologue (as this style tends to be), introducing a piece of hypothetical dialogue as in the first example is a minor POV break. As a narrative issue, you are taking the story out of the narrator’s head to step briefly into the narrator’s mouth.

It may seem like a minor difference, but consider the implications: people lie with their mouths. What people choose to say is not always the whole, unvarnished truth. Speech—and thus, dialogue of any form—is always filtered through a person’s desire to control how others perceive them.

Dialogue places the reader at a greater emotional distance from the narrator. It admits the possibility that the narrator is keeping something back, not telling the whole truth. But if you stay in the realm of inner monologue, stay inside the narrator’s head, that distance is eliminated. You keep the reader as close to the narrator as possible.

If your goal is not, in fact, to keep something back from the reader then in my opinion this is the stronger choice. For first-person monologue stories, showing character is all about giving the reader the sense of what it’s like to be that character. What it’s like to have those thoughts, opinions, and attitudes. In my opinion, staying in the narrator’s head and out of the narrator’s mouth better enables you to do this.

June 30, 2009 18:26 UTC

Tags: dialogue, monologue, POV, first-person, lies

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What's this blog about, anyway?

My name is Jason Black, and I’m a freelance book editor. I’ll edit anything, or even help you write it, but I specialize in editing book-length fiction. That is, novels. There’s a particular excitement that comes from getting a sneak-peek at an unpublished manuscript, and a quiet joy that comes from helping the author turn that manuscript into something more likely to become a published novel.

You’ve probably heard that cynical old adage “those who can’t do, teach.” I’m not a believer in that, so I write novels, too. The best way to understand how fiction works, frankly, is to create some. My novels tend to be more character-driven than plot-driven. Someday I may try to write a Clancy-esque spy thriller, but for the most part I’m interested in creating characters the reader can root for.

In writing, I’ve come to learn that practically everything in a novel—nearly every single word—either contributes to or detracts from the portrayal of the characters in it. In editing, I’ve found that many if not most aspiring authors haven’t learned this lesson. They are writing from a perspective of plot, without stopping to consider how their choices affect the portrayal of their characters.

It can lead to some amazing blunders.

Now, there are roughly a zillion writing blogs out there already. Those other bloggers will help you with active vs. passive voice, or deciding on whether first-person or third-person is best for your story, or arguing over whether “said” is the only truly useful dialogue tag.

I’m not particularly interested in covering that same ground, which leads me to answering the question posed in the title of this post: what’s this blog about? What I have to contribute that you won’t find elsewhere is my perspective on character development. Read the other blogs for general advice on improving your writing. Read this blog for insight into creating and sustaining characters that people will want to read about in the first place.

Thus, I will be blogging about all things character. My goal is to write at least one article per week on the dos and the don’ts of portraying believable, multi-dimensional, sympathetic characters (and unsympathetic antagonists) in fiction. I will probably wander from time to time into the real-life world of what it’s like to work as a freelance editor, but the bulk of this blog should be about helping writers better “Show Some Character” in their writing.

I hope you’ll stay tuned!

June 30, 2009 05:32 UTC

Tags: meta

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