July 16, 2019

Keeping a Character’s Internal Narrative Congruent with Reality

Livia Blackburne has posted “7 Reasons Agents Stop Reading Your First Chapter” on Writer’s Digest website. Read the other six reasons. I want to comment on item 7, because I have encountered this more than a few times:

7. Unrealistic internal narrative: Make sure a character’s internal narrative—what the character is thinking or feeling—matches up with reality.  For example, you wouldn’t want a long eloquent narration of what getting strangled feels like—the character would be too busy gasping for breath and passing out. Also, avoid having the character think about things just for the sake of letting the reader know about them.

To my mind this reason actually includes some of the other reasons, such as TMI (too much information) and trying too hard. For example, when I shave each morning, I am not contemplating the roundness of my face or how my nose has a pleasing placement. I might think about how useless the exercise seems, given that I will be back at my sink tomorrow.

Often setting up lengthy internal dialogue is another way of importing back story. “He held the shaver in his hand, recalling how this was the only memento he had received at age 10 when his grandfather died suddenly.”

So what is an author to do?

  1. Start your story with two characters instead of one stuck in his or her thoughts and recollections.
  2. Break up the back story into pieces and search for places in your manuscript where these would emerge more naturally.
  3. Review internal dialogue and ask whether it is congruent with reality–is this something people say to themselves?
  4. Consider pushing the internal dialogue out into the action; if your character is being strangled, then focusing on the gasping and choking can intensify the drama (without become melodramatic).

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