Stop All That Thinking
by James Thayer
The novelist and playwright Somerset Maugham said, “There are three
rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they
This might be one of them: don’t have your characters think a lot.
Writers of romance, women’s fiction (also known as chick lit),
and literary novels are particularly prone to letting their
protagonists think on and on, setting out in sentence after sentence
the characters’ precise feelings, sharpening and sharpening the
emotional pencil down to a nub. But for writers of all genres, the
tendency to write down the characters’ thoughts at great length is
Why is it so appealing? Couple of reasons. First, it’s easy.
There’s little need to be logical, or to bother with cause and
effect, which is critical in writing dialogue and action sequences.
Tom Clancy said, “The difference between fiction and reality?
Fiction must make sense.” The rules of physics and logic—which must
apply in the rest of the novel to make the story credible—don’t
apply to a character’s thoughts. In real life, we can think
anything we want with no consequences. So can a character in a
Second, we may be writing too much interior monologue because we
don’t have enough story. We haven’t figured out enough compelling
incidents for the novel, so we pad it with characters’ long
Resist the temptation to load up on the character’s thoughts.
Interior monologue is a fancy way of saying thinking.
Usually, of all the component parts of a novel such as action,
dialogue, and setting description, a character’s interior monologue
is the least interesting. Much of it is navel-gazing.
A novel is a series of scenes. Novelist and writing-teacher Jack
Bickham says a scene is “a segment of story action, written
moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story
‘now.’ It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head;
it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted
out.” Thinking cannot be acted out on a stage. When a character is
thinking, nothing is going on for the reader to watch.
Writers are always advised to show rather than to tell.
He scratched his arm is showing. His arm itched
is telling. It’s a critical distinction because showing
makes a story more vivid and believable for the reader. A problem
with interior monologue is that it is telling rather than
showing. The character who is doing all the thinking is simply
telling the reader what she is thinking, rather than showing the
reader with action and dialogue.
Here’s a short example where Allison is the first-person narrator:
I was attracted to John. This is interior monologue, and it
is telling the reader. Here is how the writer would show
the reader: I slowly leaned toward him, and I put my mouth
on his, with my lips slightly parted. That’s action, and it
tells the reader what she is thinking.
Another short example: She knew she would be hungry, and wanted
to take a sack lunch is interior monologue, and it is telling
the reader. “Mom, I’m going to be gone all day. Can you
make me a sandwich?” This is dialogue, and it is showing
One more example. The reader is hearing Carolyn think:
Carolyn worried about her son’s safety. Tommy was so impetuous.
Sometimes he did dangerous things. And he was small for his age.
The boy had been angry ever since his dad
left for the gold fields. Tommy didn’t obey her, and sometimes she
would catch him scowling and staring at her. She wished Tommy had
friends nearby but town was six miles away, and his closest friend,
Jake, lived a mile away, on the other side of the river.
These are important
thoughts—a mother concerned about her son—but they just aren’t
interesting when presented inside the character’s mind. Here’s the
way to show the same worries in action and dialogue:
She leaned out the open window. “Tommy, get away from that fire.
That stump is going to burn all day and night, and don’t you get too
Her son stared at her, then stepped closer to the bonfire.
“Didn’t you hear me?” She crossed the parlor, lifting her apron so
it wouldn’t trip her, and ran into the yard. “You get away from
there.” She grabbed him by his suspenders and yanked him back.
“Dad would let me tend this fire.” He tried to swat her hand away.
“He taught me how to burn these stumps and clear this field.”
“Your dad isn’t here.”
He was wearing hand-me-down wool pants. She had taken the hem up
six inches. His gingham shirt was patched at the elbows.
His voice was piping. “Dad should have taken me with him. I want
to dig for gold with him. I don’t want to go to school any more.”
“Your dad will send us train money soon, and we’ll go out to
California. Then you can dig all the gold you want.” She led him
away from the burning stump. “I’ll walk you over to John’s. You
and he can ride his pony.”
We learn about her worries
without entering her mind for dull interior monologue, and it’s much
more interesting for the reader because it is a scene, with
action--the fire, her running out into the yard, Tommy trying to
swat away her hand—and tense dialogue. We have shown the
reader her worries.
monologue is unavoidable. What if you can’t find a situation in
which to show these thoughts, to show via action and dialogue what
the character is thinking?
First, make sure the
thinking is important. The character wondering whether to add
mayonnaise to her sandwich isn’t worth forcing the reader to listen
to her think about it. If the thoughts aren’t important, leave them
out. In particular, avoid excessive introspection.
Second, make it short.
Readers are smart, and they will intuit much of what the character
is thinking with just a clue or two, without the writer setting it
out in long paragraphs of interior monologue.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet;
Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in
March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of
Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service