One of the things I really struggled with in Mirrorpass was how to create tension and to characterize without dialogue. A good writer knows the value of dialogue. It keeps the story moving, it shows what characters are thinking, and it’s basically a great way to subtly reveal hidden conflicts and tension. Dialogue can often be a big turning point in the plot.
According to Angela over at The Bookshelf Muse, dialogue makes up 40-50% of a novel. Try to write a story without dialogue, and you’ll see how difficult it is to show those subtleties that make a story great.
This was my problem. Mirrorpass is a science fiction novel that starts with the main character being stranded in a new place where everyone speaks a different language. Not only did I want to avoid the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” cliche, I also had to find another means beside dialogue for my main character to project her inner conflicts.
Outside of dialogue, there aren’t many ways to show what a character is thinking. You can try to show it through actions. You can use flashbacks. Or you can try introspection. Otherwise called “internal dialogue,” introspection is when a character’s thoughts become the narrative, imitating dialogue as the character mentally tells a story, debates a problem, worries about a conflict, etc.
When I began writing, I thought introspection was great. What a pure way to say what was going on inside my character! The problem with introspection is that A) it tells rather than shows, B) it requires a strong voice, and C) it’s stagnant—nothing is actually happening. Those are all obstacles intrinsic to internal dialogue. But also, it’s hard to write without falling into these extra traps:
1) Wallowing in a thought and killing story momentum
2) Becoming too self involved, angsty, analytical, biased, or otherwise annoying
3) Writing in circles as the character debates a problem, using the same arguments over and over again.
So instead of getting a deep, complex look into a character, the end result often comes across as shallow and cheesy. I didn’t want this at all.
But somehow—and I don’t know why, maybe I read it on a blog somewhere—I got the idea that hey, maybe I could make internal dialogue interesting. Could I use introspection and make it as tense as an action scene, and as revealing as dialogue? Could I move the plot forward through thought alone?
When I began writing, I realized many principles that apply to other aspects of fiction can also be used to intensify internal dialogue.
Raise the character’s stakes. Normally, to raise the stakes, we would introduce a new threat or have a character consider how much the stakes mean to them. With internal dialogue, raising the stakes usually involves the character coming to a new understanding of their situation, or evaluating recent events.
Use backstory. In real life, when we have fears or desires, these emotions are usually linked to past experiences. With introspection, don’t be afraid to relive the experience in real-time. Don’t treat it like a flashback. Integrate the memory into the scene; this provides a sense of action, which is important for pacing.
Give them a physical activity. Break up bouts of introspection with some physical, time-consuming task. In dialogue, this is called a beat. The action and the thoughts reflect on each other for greater depth overall. The action can be simple. Just make sure it has an arc that correlates with the introspection—as the character comes to a decision, let them come to the end of a walk, etc. This helps frame the internal dialogue and makes it more digestible.
Give the internal dialogue an arc. Just like action, the character’s thoughts need to show some kind of progression and resolution. Otherwise you build up to nothing, and it becomes a mentally exhausting cycle of false conflict. Start with the problem or conflict. Let the character dig around for possible solutions. AVOID re-hashing the possibilities, and build up to a solution, if you can. Be careful about altering your character too much with these decisions. I found it was very easy to let Aria argue herself into a brand new mindset each scene. She started to feel like a yo-yo. So let the argument stretch out for a few scenes. Each shift in understanding builds up to the next argument for a longer, more evenly-paced arc.
Use alternating POV to break up the pacing. This doesn’t work for every story, but a few well-placed point-of-view switches can help give the reader a mental break from the repetitive cycles of internal dialogue. Pick the characters who will look at the situation from a new angle and add depth. This imitates dialogue, because it allows you to show the main character’s actions through someone else’s eyes.
I think internal dialogue is a great way to dig deeper into your characters and add layers to the story. I found that it made my story much more realistic, intensifying the action as well as the down moments. I wouldn’t recommend substituting it for dialogue. Rather, I think it compliments audible dialogue and develops things in a very subtle way. In Mirrorpass, I was excited about the impact it had on my character.
What are your thoughts on introspection?
Truly and always,