Elements of an Internal Monologue in a Fiction Story
Updated: Mar 21
Have you ever considered writing out a character's inner thoughts before you plan the whole story?
One of the best parts about reading a novel is when a character shares their thoughts. It’s fun to be inside another person’s head to get the inside scoop.
I use the focused backstory method as explained in my book Focused Backstory: The Key to Writing Deep Character Journeys. After I know the character’s deep and painful past, I’m finding it can be powerful to further dive into my character’s psyche before I write the whole story.
Once I’ve selected the right backstory, I like to write out as much of a character’s internal monologue as possible. If I write down a character’s progression of thoughts before I begin writing the larger story, I can form what happens to a character around these thoughts, feelings, lies, and understandings.
To get at what your character might be thinking and feeling throughout the story, start from the beginning. Either your character feels the pain or avoids it. Once you know the character’s awareness of pain you can make choices about the character’s inner monologue. Do they start out happy or sad? Are they already struggling with something, or will the struggle unfold as the story progresses?
Four phases of a character's thoughts
Phase one: Life as usual
1. All is good (as can be expected): In the beginning, the character is doing life the best way they can. They use defense mechanisms and coping skills and might be ignoring or running from the pain.
Phase two: Realizations
2. The inner conflict begins: Something happens early on in the story to crack the glossy veneer that makes it all seem okay.
3. Realization: At some point the character has a realization things aren’t great.
Phase three: New approach
4. New goal: After seeing things in a new way, they make a choice to be better or try something new.
5. Processing what’s different from before: As they have new experiences, they will process how things are different from the start of the story. They probably notice all that’s better than before.
Phase four: New understandings
6. Final lesson: Something happens to teach the character a lesson.
7. Reflection on learning and new hope: At the end of the story the character will have internalized the lesson they needed to learn. They’ll reflect on their experiences in a way that can give the reader hope.
Here's an example
Here’s an example of a character who starts out unaware of their pain. This is an unwritten story about a girl (who has a painful backstory of never fitting in) who reflects on how she feels around a guy named Sam. At first, she thinks she’s happy. But then she begins to realize there’s a problem with their relationship. This story would be about how she becomes empowered to pursue the good life she deserves rather than always catering to Sam’s selfish needs and opinions. I’ve listed her internal monologue for all seven steps listed earlier in this post.
Sample Internal Monologue
Focused backstory: Girls made fun of May when she was in elementary and middle school because she was socially awkward.
Big lie May believes: I can fit in if I’m Sam’s friend. I can be happy if Sam is happy.
When I make Sam laugh, he sees me and I feel whole. Before the joke, he doesn't even see me although I’m standing so close our Vans touch the same floor tile. But when I find the right zinger and he looks up from his phone and our eyes meet, all is right with the world.
“You’re funny, May.”
I love his voice when he says those three words. When Sam tells me I’m funny, I forget the bad morning I had with Gina. I forget Katie and her honey-colored river of hair that touches my desk in math class. For a moment I’m funny, and that’s all that matters.
Sometimes I wonder why I try so hard to make Sam laugh. Is the short-lived joy worth everything I go through to get that split second of happiness out of him?
I’m not happy.
I thought I was happy being Sam’s friend, but I’m beginning to wonder if he’d care if I didn’t show up outside room 302 at exactly 11:55 so we could walk together to lunch holding hands pretending to be dating so Katie would take notice.
I deserve more—don’t I? What is the absence of conflict, anyway? It’s nothing. It’s like not upsetting the apple cart, whatever that means. It’s like showing up for work and doing your job because you can, not because of the meaning behind the work, or because it makes a difference in the world. It’s empty.
I’m empty and I have to find a way to not be empty. I guess I need to be full. But full of what? Probably not chocolate lava snack cakes. No more of those.
I’ve decided I need to be full rather than empty, but there’s nothing good to fill myself with. Even Sam squeezing my hand when Katie rounds the corner and rolls her eyes when she sees us, or Sam nudging me with his shoulder seems pointless. It never leads to more. I pass him in the hallway, my eyes scanning for something more than emptiness. A group of guys jostles me against the wall. My shoulder mashes into the frigid white. I’m a hollow shell, easily pushed around. Easily broken. Whatever I fill myself up with, it’s going to have to be sturdier than whatever it is I’m made of right now.
It feels good to be free from the constant desire to make Sam laugh. I fight the urge to consider what he’s doing right now. Driving his sister to gymnastics? Eating two oranges? Stalking Katie on Instagram? No, don’t think about him. You’re better off now.
It’s finally clear to me. I don’t need Sam. He can laugh at Katie’s stupid jokes, and I’m fine with that. I have my new audience, my new friends, and they don’t care if I come to class prepared to entertain them.
Sometimes I guess you have to lose a fake friend to gain the real ones who’ve been there the whole time.
Now that the inner monologue is written for this story, story events can be created to fit what's going on inside this character. I guess you could say it's an inside-out approach. Give it a try, and let me know if it works for you. If you liked this post, check out Focused Backstory: The Key to Writing Deep Character Journeys. You can find it on Amazon or BookBaby. I recently released the Focused Backstory Workbook, too
Happy writing, my friend!