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Internal Character Dialogue: Formatting and Making Good Choices

Updated on January 15, 2017

Don't ditch the internal character dialogue!

Anyone who has written or even read might notice conversations set off by quotes. While conversations between characters can add to the story, internal dialogue may be equally important. Rather than ditch the dialogue, embrace it and include it. Good internal dialogue can help elevate any story from good to fabulous.

While including internal dialogue can add a certain je ne sais quoi (a certain something), consideration should be given to choosing wisely and formatting appropriately.

Embrace the internal dialogue

Internal dialogue can elevate a story higher.
Internal dialogue can elevate a story higher. | Source

Italics, quotes, or nothing?

During my early years of writing and on up until I began teaching English, I might ask myself, Am I formatting my internal dialogue correctly? Or perhaps, I asked, "Am I formatting my internal dialogue correctly?" Or maybe, I just simply asked myself if I was formatting my internal dialogue correctly. The point is that there are conflicting views on this very issue. Depending on the preferences of a magazine, a publisher, and perhaps a blog reader, one might italicize, quote, or provide plain text for internal dialogue in a story. The point of view (POV) may be relevant in determining the correct way to format as well. It depends on who you ask.

Exploring point of view (POV)

A character in a book called Flight of the Cicadas uses internal dialogue: Take a bath, I thought, staring at the oncoming parade decorated in too many green and red lights. The mentioned dialogue is quite short: Take a bath. The "I thought" in the sentence makes it clear that the character did not say the line out loud.

In another part of the book, the following is used: I wonder why he was attacked? What did the report say? In this case, one can hear the internal dialogue of a character; thus it is no longer using the third person. It is common practice to either italicize or use plain text without italics or quotes in this case. It is equally common to do the same for omniscient POV. To err on the most popular way of handling omniscient POV, use italics. When using third person, italics, quotes, and plain text may be used depending on the preferences of the reader (a.k.a. publisher).

I will allow you a few moments to ponder this information. You may have already come to the conclusion that there is no clear indication of the best way to handle internal dialogue. Your internal thoughts on the matter may be correct. While I have read many grammar books (it helps me sleep at night), the information that is out there is sketchy at best.

Now that formatting has been cleared up...

What about producing and using internal dialogue in an effective way? This can, indeed, be a complicated issue. However, I want to provide you with a few helpful tips to encourage you to use internal dialogue to enrich your stories.

  1. Create internal dialogue that sounds like regular 'ole spoken language. Doing so accomplishes several things. It provides believable internal dialogues and allows a writer to maintain the integrity of a character. To test your created dialogue, do something that I recommend to all of my students - read it out loud. If it sounds unnatural, editing is in order. Don't forget that in everyday language, we may or may not speak in full sentences. So, experiment with the use of fragmented language, using contractions, and even leaving out implied words. All of these techniques can add a natural sound to the internal dialogue.
  2. Be mindful of sticking to the character. In other words, it is easy to use your inner voice when you are in the midst of writing your next great creation. Internal dialogue is especially at risk for using your (the author's) voice rather than that of your character. Simply be mindful of this phenomenon and all will be well.
  3. Organize the internal dialogue logically. In other words, be mindful that you are trying to draw a reader into the world you have created. Using too much internal dialogue may in some ways detract from this goal. So, by all means, use internal dialogue, but use it in a balanced way.
  4. Don't repeat. I don't know how many stories I have read where the internal dialogue reflects what has already been said verbally or what will be said later verbally. Refrain from repeats. It can be detrimental to the success of your story.
  5. My last and most important advice in the area of using internal dialogue is to save it for the most important parts of the story. Perhaps there is an especially emotionally charged scene or an event where internal dialogue adds something to the story that cannot be said out loud at the time.

How often do you use internal dialogue?

Tell us how often you use internal dialogue in your writing.

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What's the point?

Here are a few points to remember:

  • Formatting internal dialogue can vary. Find out the preferences of the publisher, website, magazine, and so on before submitting your written work. The best way to figure this out is to read other articles and books from a publisher or other entity that you plan on submitting work to.
  • Embrace the use of internal dialogue to help make characters and stories more vibrant.
  • Keep writing!

Why I chose the following books

The following books that you can find on Amazon are ones that I have used and know the value of. Writers should always have a handy dandy grammar-related book at their fingertips. I sincerely hope that you find these helpful.

Novel Writing - Planning and Plotting - an excellent source!


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