Mainly for Writers — Dialogue And Internal Dialogue

I’m currently listening to an audiobook, “ABCD.” The true title and author are not relevant to this piece, but I’m reminded of a statement I’ve made to other writers. Reading poorly-written literature may be more instructive than reading well-written prose.

I’ve suggested to writing classes that one of the most helpful ways to self-edit is to read your work aloud—to another person, if they’ll be so patient. To yourself, if not. I’m lucky, my wife will normally humor me (for a while), as I read my literary gems to her. Errors in syntax, punctuation, and clumsy sentence structure become obvious.

Currently, I have several active audiobooks I’ve written. I mention this because, after listening to a narrator as he reads the current book, I’m reminded of the self-editing advice I’ve given. If the author of the book I’ve almost (thankfully) completed had read his work aloud his story would be much more effective.

Problems: 1. Dialogue tags—here, I’ll include internal dialogue; 2. Redundancy; 3. Unnecessary, distracting detail. Let’s look at these, using ABCD.

More than once, I’ve told classes that dialogue tags other than “said” and “asked,” are usually unnecessary—they become invisible. When a writer adds an “ly” adverb to a tag he/she begins to violate the famous show, don’t tell rule. In ABCD, the author frequently says “grimly,” or “sadly,” and even, “determinedly.” The writer should have been taken the time to show readers that the character speaking was grim, or sad, or determined.

What about internal dialogue? Authors who are writing books that they expect to eventually become audiobooks must take special care. Dialogue tags, when spoken, seem to be more obvious. The words, “said” and “asked” are still mostly invisible, but can, if used unnecessarily, be as annoyingly obvious as pimples on smooth skin. When the dialogue tags are applied to internal dialogue—the silent thoughts of a character—great care must be taken.

In ABCD, at one point, the protagonist is alone, and laments the painful isolation. The author inserts, “…he thought…” and more than once “…he thought to himself…” These are unnecessary to the point of being ridiculous. The narrator, seeing the words on his copy of the manuscript, shifts his tones to indicate internal dialogue but faithfully says the words the author wrote. When a listener hears this, then he/she may be distracted by the annoying structure and miss the ongoing story.

How does a writer indicate to a reader, in written form, that the character is silently thinking? I tend to use italics. Some prefer to use, “he/she thought.” In the latter case, if the character is in the company of others, it may be useful. In my opinion, whatever a writer does to signal unspoken thoughts must not be intrusive. Let the story flow.

Redundancy takes several forms in fiction. One form, so obvious in ABCD, is the protagonist’s repeated thoughts about the dilemma he faces. A member of his family has, for unknown reasons, been kidnapped. As he moves from scene to scene his remembrance of why he’s moving about is expressed in the same words. Paraphrasing: “I’ve got to find out what’s going on.” After hearing the confused lament several times, it loses emotional power.

The author of ABCD is obviously a world traveler because of the detail with which places and history are handled in settings as diverse as Ukraine and San Francisco, to name only two of many. Knowledge of a city; its history, landmarks and populace are useful to give readers a sense of accompanying the character into new and unfamiliar settings as he/she meets people from varying cultures.

My favorite writers can put the reader into a place so skillfully that the literary surroundings virtually have readers mentally walking through the world described. One of the techniques these authors use, is appealing to more than one sense. If a reader can feel the blinding desert heat or be shaken by bone-numbing cold while hearing the moans of dying camels unable to reach the oasis while the crack of ice in a frozen river drowns out yells from drowning victims—then readers will have been transported to a world that is the time and place created by the careful, inspired writer.

In ABCD, the protagonist moves from setting to setting, encountering the same antagonist and wondering, “…How I’m going to find out what’s going on…” again and again, yes, redundant. No matter the disasters that lie behind him, the protagonist gives readers/listeners details about the city; the populace; the history of the city/country or even buildings. Sorry, but this breaks the flow of the story. It makes me want to turn the page to get away from information unnecessary to the tale.

The author of ABCD has a good story to tell. Unfortunately the narrative is damaged, to me, for the reasons I’ve mentioned. I will finish the book. I have a little more than hour remaining,thank goodness, but I’ve learned, as an author, several do nots from the experience.


4 thoughts on “Mainly for Writers — Dialogue And Internal Dialogue

  1. I, too, agree that reading your work aloud is a very helpful editing technique. I always do this with dialogue. I feel it’s the easiest way to determine whether your characters’ spoken words sound realistic or stilted. Very good advice.


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