Three Dirty Birds Talk Self-Editing for Fiction Writers–Interior Monologue

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Welcome back to Three Dirty Birds Talk, after our short hiatus. Today we’re taking on Chapter 7 of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Rennie Browne and Dave King.

This is the part about interior monologue, right? I should have reread it last night…

Zoe wonders whether she should have gotten another cup of coffee before jumping into this discussion.

Ana: The chapter starts off talking about the differences between movies and books, which I thought was interesting because I have some writer friends who watch more movies than they read, and their writing tends to reflect that. They rarely get into their characters’ heads. It has that whole looking-through-a-camera feel to it.

Zoe: Now you have me wondering how it affects writing when authors mostly play video games versus watching movies or reading books.

Ana: That’s an interesting question. I guess it would depend a little on what kind of games they like too. I mean you have the plot heavy RPGs and visual novels on one hand, and then you have shooter games on the other….

Zoe: I guess we’ll have to wait and see what kind of stuff Kate puts out after all her Candy Crush hours.

Kate: Food!

Zoe: I found the second example of interior monologue they gave interesting. It comes right after they say, “As you might expect, interior monologue is so powerful and easy to write—though, not write well—that many fiction writers tend to overuse it.” What was interesting about the example is that it read like 94% of the Amazon Look Insides I’ve seen over the past month—from trad. and self-published authors alike.

Ana: What I thought was interesting about that example was that, I thought, the interior monologue wasn’t as much the problem as all the telling and generally bad writing.

Zoe: Yes, that was definitely there too. The interior monologue just led right into it.

Kate: I’ll admit, that section made me paranoid for a while, until I really thought about it. And, to be honest, there’s still a little paranoia hanging around.

Ana: What made you paranoid?

Kate: Worrying that I was doing that in my current WIP and not being able to see it. But if it’s showing up in a lot of books, maybe it’s one of those high-level skills and I don’t need to worry about not having quite mastered it yet? Or am I just telling myself fairy stories again?

Zoe: I think it’s one of those things you smooth out in later drafts (which so many books aren’t getting these days!). In early drafts, you put lots of things in because you haven’t decided how best to get them across yet, and by the end—if you’ve given yourself time to get to a mature draft—you’ve honed them.

Kate: I do worry that I’m not seeing things, though. And that I won’t see them. And her explanation wasn’t one that really connected with me.

Ana: I’m sure Zoe would gladly point them out to you.

Kate: Lol. Zoe does love her comment bubbles. 🙂

Zoe: Some people have Candy Crush, I have comment bubbles. I worry about not seeing things too, but of course that’s what the beta readers are for—being your extra set of eyes (or brain!).

Kate: I need a Substibrain.

Ana: Everyone needs a Substibrain! (Preorder now!)

Kate: Lol. I found that her third example looked like my first drafts. A lot of dialogue and only a few beats to anchor it.

Zoe: That’s me too. The characters are talking, and I have to get it down!

Ana: My first drafts often don’t have the beats.

Zoe: I think with interior monologue, a good thing to remember is that it’s telling, not showing, so when you go back to edit it, ask yourself if there’s a way to show it instead. If you can, and it works, do that. If it turns out it really needs to be interior monologue, then that’s what it needs to be, and as long as it’s important to the story, you can leave it and move on. (Or make it flow better and move on, whatever.)

Kate: I tend to treat the direct thoughts like dialogue, and anything that’s more emotional like narrative/telling, particularly when a scene just shows up and it’s perfect and I have to get it down. So it might come out the first time like a big chunk o’ tell, but then I go back and look for sentences that can be replaced with an action, or eliminated altogether. I’m getting better at not fussing about getting everything right on the first pass, too, which makes it easier to follow these spurts of creativity right to the end, then fix the details after.

Zoe: That’s a good point about direct thoughts being like dialogue. They have voice. They’re more engaging. (But irritating if you have a page full of them, because then you get to the place where you’re listening to someone talk to themselves.)

Kate: You know, talking to yourself is a great way of ensuring you get an intelligent answer…

Ana: As I’m currently editing an older novel I find myself rewriting a lot of instances of ‘he knew’, ‘he thought’ etc. to turn them into something more direct and engaging. So for example “He knew he was screwed.” has more impact when it’s just “He was screwed.”

Zoe: That’s a good point too! It’s brings the reader deeper into the POV when you can get rid of some of those filters between the character and his thoughts.

Ana: Yeah, you’re not placing a pesky narrator between the reader and the character.

Kate: The discussion about narrative distance and interior monologue was interesting. It made sense, though I wonder how many people do it intentionally, and how many do it by instinct alone. I know I notice my narrative distance changes a lot depending on what’s happening in the story, and the emotional tone of the part I’m writing, and it’s not something I do on purpose.

Ana: I can’t think of a lot of times that I have given my narrative more distance on purpose.

Kate: I’ve used it during parts of stories where the subject matter was upsetting. It can show where a character is kind of dissociating too. But I usually use it to give the reader a bit of a break on the emotion.

Zoe: I haven’t actually given narrative distance much thought. (Now I’m going to obsess over it. Thanks!) I wonder if it’s one of those things you do largely by feel, and your sense of “feel” for it tends to be developed by reading a lot. You get the rhythm for it.

Kate: I think the best way to get a sense for it is by reading a lot of books. It’s definitely something where you have to feel your way through it, an almost physical relationship with the story. When the story starts to feel too overwhelming, you automatically want to withdraw. And if you’ve seen other writers do that, you at least have a blueprint for how to do it in your own work. Kind of like kids practicing for hockey–they practice making the shots, but they also watch other kids, and professional players taking shots. It all comes together to help them feel their way into a more instinctive setup for making the goal.

Zoe: (Go Bruins.)

Ana: I once zoomed out on a death scene. One beta complained that it wasn’t as bloody as it could have been, but it just wasn’t that kind of story. So I guess you have to keep in mind who your audience is, what they expect and what kind of story you want to tell.

Zoe: Absolutely! Kind of story matters. The narrative decisions you make for a kinkfest noncon smut story are going to be extremely different from a romance depicting a rape.

Ana: At least you would hope so.

Zoe: Even within a story, of course, it depends on what you’re conveying. In my horror novel, when bad things are happening to the main character, the narrative is close in, but when there’s something horrible happening to someone who had, until that point, been in the periphery, and the characters are forced to stand by, the narrative pulls back—because it’s really hard for the characters to handle having to stand by.

Ana: Isn’t that like the narrative pulling back because the characters are trying to pull back too? Since it’s too much to handle?

Zoe: Yes!

Kate: I did something the opposite in Knight, where I push farther inside Ross’s head during the worst parts, closing the narrative distance until all you can see and hear and feel is what Ross can. Using that closeness to up the terror factor in those scenes, even the ones where no violence actually occurs, just the horror of having to deal with a certain character.

Ana: I love to get up close when my characters are close to emotional break-down. Sometimes reality as they perceive it doesn’t make sense anymore, but I don’t care, I describe that too. Of course, I don’t do that for pages and pages, but I do like to take the reader down with the character.

Kate: Ana, the Evil Despot. 🙂 I really like to use it with unreliable narrators. Those are fun. That section on page 131, where she quotes the part about the drug-addled researcher going into the boardroom? And you start to wonder where reality really starts and ends, and whether he’s just now beginning to tell himself the truth about these people? That was a hoot. I like how her sentences got longer and longer as you read, not just dragging you along in his hallucination, but showing you how he was reeling out of control, faster and faster. You just know something crazy’s going to happen. And you feel it yourself, too.

Ana: The example was nicely done, but it does make you happy the writer doesn’t stay in that character’s head for a long time!

Kate: No. I think the crazy probably broke right after that passage. But it was a good example of how you don’t have to show, not tell everything to keep your reader’s interest up.

The last thing she says in this chapter is not to take their advice to ‘show, don’t tell’ too seriously. She says that they’ve been seeing a lot of stripped-down manuscripts, where everything is shown, and there’s very little interior narrative, and the stories are losing a lot of their depth and magic. (Like having a Porsche, without all the leather seats and expensive stereo system.)

(Ana: Noooo, not the leather seats!)

Kate: Haven’t we just been complaining about that in a couple of DNF’s? There was plot, and action, but it all felt shallow, like we were eating cardboard instead of piping-hot, fresh pizza.

Don’t serve cardboard pizza in your stories. Give us the emotion, the thoughts, and the depths. Fill our hungry minds with action and feelings.

Like a really good deep-dish pizza.  🙂

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