Category Archives: Internal Monologue

Show, Don’t Tell: Beyond The Cliché

pulls_weedsMost writers have heard the adage to show rather than tell when writing fiction. When I taught English to seventh and eighth graders, I even taught the principle. And yet, one of the first things a writing professional who critiqued my work uncovered, was problems with showing.

There are actually several ways that “show, don’t tell” can go wrong. First, not everything a character does can or should be shown. Should readers be subject to long scenes of a character brushing his teeth? toweling off after a shower? weeding the garden? It’s possible in some story that these activities do carry some significance and should be fleshed out in a scene, but the chances are, for most novels these are incidentals that ought not receive equal weight with such things as a character leaving her husband or being fired from his job or meeting her birth mother for the first time. So the first rule of thumb should be, show what’s important.

_CrutchesEven showing the important is a bit of a balancing act. Some writers take the idea of showing too far and create what I refer to as “stage direction.”

    Joe sat up, rubbed his eyes, then stood, his left hand resting on the back of the chair. He reached his right hand toward the crutch propped against the wall. Snugging it under his right arm, he inched his left leg forward, then transferred weight to the crutch and swung his injured right leg ahead.

Again, there may be some story that needs these details, but most don’t. Writers should trust their readers to fill in the specifics when they aren’t essential to the story. The above can be improved by eliminating the stage directions:

    Joe grabbed his crutch and limped toward the door.

Besides knowing what not to show, a writer also needs to know what she ought to show. There are four areas which may appear in a scene that require showing: action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue.

First and foremost a writer needs to show the important action, not after the fact as if it happened off stage and someone is recounting the events. Rather, it should take place in front of the reader, either in story time or as a scene in a flash back.

cigarette_smokeIn conjunction with the action, a writer can show the scene. In so doing, he does not stop the story to set the stage, but rather inserts descriptive detail into the story, along with the action. Notice how Mark Bertrand did this in his novel Nothing To Hide, Book 3 in the Roland March Mystery series.

    He stares at me through a cloud of smoke, pleased with this pronouncement.

    We stand around for a bit, soaking up the UV rays and the secondhand carcinogens; then I thank Bridger for the help and get going.

Bertrand could just as easily have stopped the action and inserted a line of description.

    The air is thick with smoke, so thick the sun’s rays could hardly penetrate it.

If he had wanted to call particular attention to the smoke and the sun, that would have been the way to go. But if they are incidental, they can be included along with the action and they add richness to the setting without slowing the story needlessly.

Third, dialogue shows. Rather than summarizing an interchange between two or more people, the writer gives the exact words. However, in the same way that showing can devolve into stage direction, dialogue that’s trying too hard to be realistic, can devolve into the trivial. In the exchange below, I’ve omitted tags and action to show how the words themselves need to go somewhere rather than simply filling space.


“Hi back. What’s up?”

“Not much. Just hanging out.”

“I see that.”

“So have a seat.”


“You want something to drink?”

“No, I’m good.”

“Want to watch a movie or something?”

“What’s the or something?”

This exchange may be realistic, but in most instances there’s not enough relevance to the story for this entire dialogue to be included. The writer would be well served to move past the non-essentials to show the parts of the conversation that move the story forward.

The final area is internal monologue–what a character is thinking. Too many of us writers, when we’re starting out, tell the character’s emotion rather than showing it.

Here’s an example from an early draft of Hunted, Book 1 in The Lore of Efrathah, with the “telling” lines in boldface type:

    Jim glanced to his left and saw, to his surprise, that the shelf upon which he sat extended on in that direction. He hadn’t been aware before that it was more than a slight accidental overhang. He couldn’t see what became of “his ledge,” as he began to think of it, because it disappeared around an outcrop of rock that jutted from the cliff. But his decision was made.

Compare that to this segment from a later draft (and different scene) which doesn’t tell he’s exasperated or uncertain about what to do, but shows it with action and thought:

    Ignoring the stinging from his scraped and bleeding hands, he reached for his cell phone. Except it wasn’t in his pocket. Of course! He’d lent it to Karen. He thumped his head against the cliff, once, twice, a third time. Now what? With no way of telling anyone where he was, he might be stuck on this ledge for an unhealthy long time, considering all his cuts and bruises and whatever he’d done to his ankle.

One caution about showing internal monologue. It’s tempting to front load backstory by having a character remember past events. By using such a device, the writer might feel as if he is showing the character’s thoughts. In fact, he’s giving a clump of backstory. To be effective, internal monologue needs to be delivered in the character’s voice as a natural part of whatever is happening to him. It should never be included because the author wants to tell the reader something so decides to put it into the character’s thoughts.

I hope that difference is clear because it’s pivotal. In one instance the writer is showing the character’s thoughts and in the other he’s dictating to the reader what he wants her to know. Of course, the thoughts that the writer shows the reader should be the important ones which move the story forward. Not every trivial thought a character has is worth showing.

The key to the “show, don’t tell” guideline, then, is balance. A writer needs to show action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue–but not all of any of those.



Filed under Action, Description, Dialogue, Internal Monologue, Writing Rules

The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 3

Learning to handle backstory correctly is vital. Some agents and editors talk about it as the element that shows an author is either a competent professional or still in the “learning” stage. Consequently, I’d like to take a closer look at how to weave backstory into fiction using dialogue and internal monologue.

By way of review, backstory delivered in dialogue (or via any other technique) must first be necessary to the story at that particular point, and not a moment sooner. Second, it must contribute to present conflict.

While I believe those points to be true, I don’t believe they show a writer exactly how backstory should fit into dialogue, so I’m backtracking a bit today to give a few basics.

Backstory must fit the story situation

Backstory must be a fitting topic of conversation for the characters in their present circumstances. In the middle of a battle, for example, asking a buddy if he’s ever been horseback riding wouldn’t fit.

Now if two bandits were looking for a way to escape a police sweep and spotted a couple horses in a pasture up ahead, one asking the other about his past experience with horses would be natural.

Second, backstory must add information that the characters don’t already know. It’s tempting to use the “gentle reminder” as a way of conveying backstory, but experienced novelists resist. Here’s an example of “reminder speech.”

“You remember, Jack. We were just kids when Uncle Sal moved in with us for a summer, and that’s when the trouble started.”

Such a reminder nudge happens in real life, but in fiction it almost always comes across as the author talking to the reader rather than the speaker talking to Jack.

Third, the dialogue needs to be worded in the characters’ voices, delivered with the emotion appropriate for the moment. If a character speaks in short sentences or fragments, then the backstory needs to be delivered in the same way.

If the character uses particular jargon, whether regional or job oriented, those words should come into play when appropriate. The main thing is, the characters should sound like individuals. They shouldn’t all sound like the author. And when they deliver lines of backstory, the same must be true.

Fourth, the backstory should be part of a give-and-take conversation, not one lengthy speech. In real life, people rarely string together substantial chunks of information. We tend to interrupt each other, to ask questions, even to move to tangential topics rather than steering a straight course. In other words, the conversation needs to develop organically.

Lastly, appropriate internal monologue — character thoughts — can be interspersed throughout the conversation to give added snippets of backstory.

Below is an example of backstory delivered through dialogue and some internal monologue, taken from HUNTED, the first book in the fantasy The Lore of Efrathah (a story I know well enough to navigate quickly to backstory. 😉 )

Here’s the set up for this scene: Jim has fallen into a parallel world. Among the exiles who found him in a system of tunnels is a young woman he’s attracted to. However, he anticipates returning to his world as soon as possible, so is trying to resist the attraction. Nevertheless, after a meeting, he stays behind to apologize to Elisá (pronounced l-e-SA) for what transpired in an earlier encounter.

Elisá stared up into his eyes as if searching for something she couldn’t find. “Of course. Friends forgive each other such things. You are my friend, are you not?”

“Yes, absolutely! It’s just that, in my world, friends aren’t always that … sure of each other.”

As she stepped toward the exit, Jim took her elbow to guide her into the maze of tunnels.

“Your world sounds complicated.” She pointed the way, and together they sauntered toward the central cavern.

“It’s probably just me. I wish I had friends that I felt sure of, but most of the people I spend time with just want a piece of me.”

Elisá glanced up at him from the corner of her large chocolaty eyes. “A piece of you!”

He chuckled softly. “Doesn’t make much sense, I guess. Back home athletes are looked up to. So lots of people want to get our autograph, have their picture taken with us, that sort of thing. And we’re paid well, so people we know have ‘suggestions’ for how we should spend our money. It’s hard to tell if any of them are really friends.”

She shook her head the same way Jim’s sister had in high school when she didn’t approve of someone he was hooking up with.

His sister. He needed to remember to treat Elisá like his sister.

“But your family must be different,” she said.

“I have great parents. I just don’t spend a lot of time with them, though I want that to change.”

“Anyone else you can be sure of?”

“Kyle — he’s my oldest brother. My sister Karen. I used to think I could count on my other brother Eddie, too.”

He rubbed the back of his neck, uncertain how the conversation had stalled on him. “What about you? Are you close to your family?”

The scene continues, then, with some of Elisá’s backstory.

How well do you think this segment succeeded, based on the tips outlined above? Can you see places in your story where you can deliver backstory through dialogue? Were these tips helpful in showing you ways to make that dialogue natural and organic?


Filed under Backstory, Dialogue, Internal Monologue

Redundancy: The Path To Boredom

As an editor and a critique partner, I’ve been know to be a repetition hunter. For some reason, I have an ear for words that crop up more than once in a paragraph. Unless it’s intentional, used for emphasis, it grates.

However, until recently I didn’t realize I’m also affected by redundancy. Not in the same way, but affected, and negatively so. Imagine my horror when I discovered that I was guilty of using a good dose of redundancy in my own fiction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let me build a case against redundancy from my own experience.

I began to think about the subject when I realized a couple blogs I follow were … well, not very interesting. I like the person behind the writing and appreciate their point of view, but after reading the first sentence of most paragraphs, I didn’t want to read the rest. Why?

I concluded it was because the author wasn’t offering anything new. What followed the topic sentence was an example, perhaps, piled on top of an example. Or a restatement of the central point. But I didn’t need those because that which went before was already clear. Consequently, to read the entire post was tedious, at best.

When this realization crystallized, I began to see redundancy in other works—not in ones I found to be compelling, intriguing, or good to the last word. Inevitably, I concluded redundancy is an interest killer, not something any writer wants.

Including novelists. But how does redundancy appear in fiction? One way is in the internal monologue of the point-of-view character. If those thoughts are nothing more than musings about what the reader already knows, they are redundant and therefore boring.

I was good at lots of rehash internal monologue. My character needed to understand what was going on. He needed to analyze and come up with a motive that would explain his next decision. The latter is true, except in many cases his thoughts stated the already stated.

But there was a second method of redundancy in my fiction, closer to repetition. In this instance I was writing dialogue in which I wanted to reflect surprise or disbelief, so I had character number two repeat some part of what character number one had just said.

Such interaction may be true to life, but restatements (“You can’t go.” ¶ “I can’t go? What do you mean, I can’t go?”) don’t tell the reader anything new, becoming … you guessed it, boring.

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Filed under Dialogue, Internal Monologue, Writing Style