Inner monologue examples: Writing characters’ secret lives
Internal or inner monologue is a useful literary device. Dialogue reveals character relationships, their converging or competing goals. Inner monologue gives readers an x-ray view of characters’ more private feelings and dilemmas. Read examples of inner monologue that illustrate how to use it well, along with tips:
First, what is ‘inner monologue’?
A ‘monologue’ literally means ‘speaking alone’, if we go back to the word’s roots. In a play, especially in Shakespeare, a monologue (such as when the villain Iago in Othello expresses his wicked plans to the audience) is often used to reveal a character’s secret thoughts or intentions. In prose fiction, inner monologue is used more typically to reveal a character’s private impressions, desires, frustrations or dilemmas.
How and why might you use internal monologue?
1. Use inner monologue to show characters’ unspoken thoughts
In many cases, your protagonist, if they’re also the narrator, might simply state how they feel in narration. For example, ‘I was apprehensive when I approached the derelict building.’ Or, if you’re using third person limited point of view, ‘Luisa was apprehensive when she approached the building.’ These approaches to show characters’ feelings are fine. Yet you can also create immediacy, an engaging sense of a character’s state, by making characters’ actual thoughts intrude on the scene.
Here’s an example from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The character Luisa Rey, an investigative journalist, has found out about a dangerous environmental coverup. This example occurs when her boss is berating her for missing a meeting:
Grelsch glares at her.
‘I got a lead, Dom.’
‘You got a lead.’
I can’t batter you, I can’t fool you, I can only hook your curiosity. ‘I phoned the precinct where Sixsmith’s case was processed.’
Here, we read Luisa’s thoughts about her boss while she’s in trouble. The monologue reveals:
- The power Grelsch has over Luisa as his employee – it shows Luisa’s awareness of the balance of power in this conversation
- Luisa’s knack for using stories to get herself out of trouble
Inner monologue here, by revealing Luisa’s unspoken thoughts mid-dialogue, adds to her character as well as illustrating her relationship with her boss.
2: Describe others from a character’s POV using internal monologue
When your protagonist is the first-person narrator in your story, they can describe other characters simply in narration. For example, your character might see a frail looking man and narrate ‘he looked like he had a week to live.’ But in third person limited, a little internal monologue can be a useful filtering device for slipping into a character’s private consciousness and describing their impressions.
Take this example, also from Cloud Atlas:
The elevator doors close just as Luisa Rey reaches them, but the unseen occupant jams them with his cane. ‘Thank you,’ says Luisa to the old man. ‘Glad the age of chivalry isn’t totally dead.’
He gives a grave nod of acknowledgment.
Hell, Luisa thinks, he looks like he’s been given a week to live.
Why is this internal monologue effective? Firstly, it gives us a keen sense of Luisa’s voice (her use of the curse word ‘hell’ indicating her ‘tough cookie’ persona). Secondly, it succinctly reveals a key detail about the other character’s appearance.
When you’re writing in third person narration, you can use italics like this to take us deeper into a character’s mind. This will reveal their impressions in the moment. [To get constructive help with POV and narration in your story, join Now Novel.]
3: Show characters’ private dilemmas
Inner monologue is useful for showing characters’ private dilemmas, their internal conflicts. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is full of good examples, because the protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov commits a crime, murdering a pawnbroker. Throughout the novel, we witness Raskolnikov’s anxious, paranoid state of mind. Dostoevsky uses internal monologue expertly to show his character’s complex fears and choices.
In this scene, Raskolnikov is about to make his getaway after committing the crime. Note how even though the author narrates the passage in third person, the wording makes it feel as though we are in the character’s mind:
But at the same instant several men talking loudly and fast began noisily mounting the stairs […] Filled with despair he went straight to meet them, feeling ‘come what must!’ If they stopped him – all was lost; if they let him pass – all was lost too; they would remember him […] they were only a flight from him – and suddenly deliverance! A few steps from him, on the right, there was an empty flat with the door wide open, the flat on the second floor where the painters had been at work, and which, as though for his benefit, they had just left.
The internal monologue shows the character weighing different outcomes – meeting the men on the stairs or not. This gives the scene tension and immediacy (a sense of engaging involvement in the action).
Use internal monologue similarly, when needed, to show your characters at important decision-making crossroads.
4: Reveal characters’ self perceptions
As thinking, questioning beings, we often engage in self-talk, reflecting on our actions. For example, if you were to knock over and break a glass, you might say to yourself ‘why are you so clumsy?’
Inner monologue in a story may be used to reveal a character’s self-speak and preoccupations. For example, in a story where a character’s primary or secondary struggle is accepting their body, there may be a scene where they’re looking in a mirror:
He turned and stood at an angle, sucking in his belly. God, how did I get to this?
Or, imagine a character preparing for a job interview:
He lifted his chin, pulling the knot in his tie a little tighter. You’ve got this. He winked. Stop, definitely don’t wink at them. He pulled a stern face. No, you look like you’re interviewing to be someone’s damn body guard.
These lines convey that the character is nervous about the interview and self-conscious about how he will come across visually.
5: Use to show a character’s personal associations
People often use ‘inner monologue’ to mean ‘stream of consciousness’. Yet stream of consciousness is a specific literary technique. We associate it with Modernist authors such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.
Take, for example, this passage of internal monologue in Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse:
But what have I done with my life? Thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it. ‘William, sit by me,’ she said. ‘Lily,’ she said, wearily, ‘over there.’ They had that – Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle – she, only this – an infinitely long table and plates and knives […] And meanwhile she waited, passively, for someone to answer her, for something to happen. But this is not a thing, she thought, ladling out soup, that one says.
It’s clear from Ramsay’s inner monologue that she has mixed feelings about the confinement of her life to serving dinners and entertaining guests. This piece of monologue suggests Ramsay associates domestic life with lack (‘she, only this – an infinitely long table’).
Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness – and by extension, inner monologue – is effective because we see characters’ complex psychology. Note, too, how Woolf:
- Blends inner monologue with dialogue and descriptive detail: We see the ‘white circles’ the plates make; the people seated around the table
- Anchors internal monologue in three-dimensional action: We read Ramsay’s thoughts as she takes her place at the head of the table and serves everyone.
If you use stream of consciousness to reveal a character’s private desires or frustrations, remember to blend it with action and setting too. This ensures a balance between characters’ hidden inner lives and the material world around them, along with the cause and effect of their words and deeds.