Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

The Craft of Writing: Handling Internal Dialogue.

The whats and whys of internal dialogue in third person.

Dialogue doesn't always occur between characters. A character can have an internal monologue, a running stream of consciousness, that you as a writer show the reader.

Generally speaking, you’ll want to show this internal monologue with italics, , just as you’d set off a characters’s speech in quotation marks. This is really pretty straightforward: “I am going to the store today,” Bob said. I am going to the store today, Bob thought.

This is not difficult. As for why, you’d do this: One of the nicest things about written prose is it allows you access to the inner thoughts of a character, which can be an important part of telling a story.

I actually wrote this initially on Quora because a Quora user suggested that in a third-person narration, you should never use internal monologue. Internal monologue is first person, this Quora user reasoned, and changing from third person to first person is “jarring.”

I don’t buy this argument. Readers don’t find it jarring when a character speaks in first person in a third-person narration. We aren’t jolted out of third person by a sentence like “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Bob said. I don’t see why I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Bob thought, is any different.

But more to the point there’s a subtle narrative element that’s missing from that argument. That other answer says:

So instead of:

I’d warned him a million times not to mess with that Ogren boy, Cynthia thought. But does he listen to me? Hell no.


She’d warned him a million times not to mess with that Ogren boy. But did he listen to her? Hell no.

Stay in the third, stay in the same tense as the rest of the writing.
But here’s the thing:

If you write something like “They’d never make it, not with those machine gun emplacements in the mountain pass,” the reader will accept it as true.

However, “We’d never make it, not with those machine gun emplacements in the mountain pass, Susan thought” makes it clear this is Susan’s impression, not established fact.

In other words, access to a character’s inner stream of consciousness lets you separate the narrative facts of the story from the character’s impressions.

Unless you’re deliberately setting up an unreliable narrator, where the POV character states things as absolute fact that aren’t and you leave the reader to sort it out, a character’s inner dialog is a good way to signal to the reader that you are showing a character’s impressions of the world, not (necessarily) the literal fact of the world.

Eunice and I made extensive use of inner narration in the upcoming fourth Passionate Pantheon novel, because one of the main characters, Royat, spends several weeks immobile in a garden basically hallucinating, in a ritual designed to help him better understand some poor life choices he’d made.

We had a lot of fun with it, because people undergoing the ritual he’s participating in are aware of the outside world, in a manner of speaking, but have a great deal of difficulty distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not, and that let us do some really fun and interesting things with the narration.

For example, we presented the character’s stream of consciousness as ordinary dialog, but put the words of his hallucinations in italics, even though it all takes place in his head:

You like watching what’s happening to me? Alifi said.

“You’re a hallucination.”

Don’t avoid the question.

“Yes,” Royat said. “Yes, I do.”

Do you regret not having sex with me? You could’ve, you know.

Royat turned the question over in his mind. “No,” he said at last. “I think it was the right choice at the time.”

But you did have sex with Arjeniza.

“That’s different!”

How is it different?

“She—” Royat hesitated.


“That was religious sex, not recreational sex. She was acting in her capacity as a Priestess of the Ostiary.”

Nice save. You would’ve enjoyed sex with me.

“Maybe. That’s not the point.”

What is the point? To all of this, I mean. You made the decision to be Sacrifice pretty quickly. That’s not like you.

“Maybe the fact that’s not like me is part of the problem. I make rash decisions for other people without considering myself. Maybe this was a rash decision for myself.”

Royat watched the stranger for a while. After a time, Alifi said, Wow, look at him go. He’s really into that. How many times has he come now? Five?


Five. He’s noisy, too. I wonder if I’m enjoying it?

“You aren’t really her. You’re a figment of my imagination.”

Ah, true. I wonder if she’s enjoying it?

“Impossible to say. Literally.”

Did you like what those two people just did to you?

“I’m not sure it matters. My pleasure isn’t the purpose of all this.”

You’re dodging the question again.

“I don’t have to answer you.”

You kinda do. I mean, what else is there to do in this place, locked inside your own mind? It’s not like you can run away from me. Yourself. Whatever.

“Okay, fine! Yes, I did.”

Do you hope they’ll come back?


Won’t you get attached? Isn’t that why you didn’t want to have sex with m—with Alifi?

“I don’t…that’s different.”


“You’re being annoying.”

You’re being annoying. I’m just a mirror. How is it different?

“I don’t know them. I can’t do anything about it.”

Aha! So you’re saying you can enjoy things for what they are without expecting more.

“That isn’t what I said.”

Royat, I can read your mind.

“Fine. Okay, yes, maybe I can. I’ve just spent so long thinking that I need to do things for the people I have sex with that it’s hard to wrap my mind around anything else, you know?”

Alifi did not reply. “Hello?” Royat said. “Are you still there?”

Yes, I’m still here. I’m just watching what he’s doing to m—to her. What’s he up to now, nine orgasms?


And he’s not even slowing down. Poor fellow. I don’t know if we should feel awed or sorry for him.

“He sounds like he’s having fun.”

Maybe. Alifi’s voice carried doubt. I’m sad Priestess Arjeniza has finished polishing us. We were really enjoying that.

“We were, weren’t we? Alifi? Alifi?”

Hi! Kaytin chirped.

“I wish you’d pick just one person and stick with it,” Royat complained. “It’s bad enough I keep having conversations with myself disguised as other people, but it’s quite unsettling when my hallucinations change all the time.”

I’m back! Kaytin said. Jakalva and I finished what we needed to do.

“Oh,” Royat said, “you’re not a hallucination.”

Kaytin materialized from somewhere behind Royat. She leaned forward and looked earnestly into his eyes. “Are you still in there? Can you see me?” She looked over her shoulder. “Can he see me?”

“Yes.” Priestess Arjeniza appeared from behind Kaytin, outlined in light. The sky behind them swirled with faint, twisting patterns.

“And he can feel what I do to him?”

“Yes. I’ve heard quite a lot about you,” Arjeniza said.


“From Royat. You’re part of the reason he’s here.”

“He came to see me before his Sacrifice. I don’t really understand why.” Kaytin’s eyes didn’t waver from Royat’s. “I want to play with him.”

“Please feel free. If you need anything from me, let me know.” Arjeniza bowed to her. She glanced at Royat with an enigmatic look on her face. “I will leave him in your hands.” With another bow, she disappeared.

A dronelight zipped from the sky to cast a brilliant circle of blinding white light around Royat and Kaytin. The light buzzed on his skin. Ghostly eddies of psychedelic color peeled away from the glow. Blackness swallowed the rest of the world, so absolute that everything beyond the circle of light ceased to exist. Royat floated with Kaytin in a tiny universe of brilliance, a place so small it made no room for anything except the feel of her hands on him and the surges of pleasure that left him empty and aching for more.

She likes you, Jakalva observed.

“Why are you here?”

Why do you keep asking me that? You’re the one who put me here. Are you still beating yourself up over what you did to her in my cage?

“Jakalva’s cage.”

Fine. Now answer the question.

“If you’re me, you already know the answer.”

Maybe I just want to hear you say it. Amusement tinged Jakalva’s voice.

“I don’t like that I hurt her.”

She doesn’t seem too fussed about it. Always so noble, carrying burdens for others even when there’s no burden to carry, eh, Royat?
The character Royat is in a state where he can’t quite tell what’s real and what isn’t, so we wanted to do the same thing to the reader. Which was, to be honest, fantastic fun.