The Red Pen: Deep Thoughts Edition

Inner speech, interior monologue, musings—a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and there are plenty of names to describe the process of getting inside your character’s head. But what do you do once you’re there?—and how can you bring your reader with you? Read on for thoughts on…well, thoughts.


First, let’s lay down some ground rules:

Rule #1: Unless you can pull it off like a James Joyce or Toni Morrison stream-of-consciousness rock star, you should probably use internal monologue sparingly. Save it for zingers that help define your character’s personality or provide an intimate window into their world rather than ho-hum everyday thoughts. Sure, I could fill a book with everything that flits through my head on an average day—if I’m aiming for a readership that responds well to obscure ‘80s song lyrics, variations on forgotten computer passwords, and suppressed road rage. Penny for my thoughts? No chance.

Rule #2: Reserve musings for your viewpoint character. This is another “unless….” rule, of course, because some of the greats do mingle voices to terrific effect. To spread your viewpoint net wide is a gamble, however, because you may sacrifice clarity at the expense of style.

Rule #3: Check your motivation. Don’t confuse introspection with substance. If delving into your character’s headspace doesn’t propel your plot, build suspense, deepen your character arc, etc., get back to the story. On the other hand, a shallow penetration of your character’s inner workings can result in an underdeveloped hero or heroine. Aim for balance.

Rule #4: Pace yourself. My students—raised more on The Fast and the Furious than philosophy, admittedly—are reading Hamlet, and they’re weighed down by his incessant contemplation. (“When do the bodies hit the floor, Gordon?”) A character’s navel gazing tends to slow a narrative. If such a deceleration is appropriate for your story, great. But don’t be a drag.

Rule #5: There’s no time like the present. Characters’ thoughts exist in real time—so keep them in present tense, which lends immediacy to your writing.

While there are many ways to handle showing your character’s thoughts, a few are more common than others.

Italics with a thought tag:

  • Her throat tightened. He’s here, she thought. I know he’s here.

The thought tag might be redundant, but useful if your scene moves around a bit or you need to establish the shift out of the action and into your character’s inner life.

Italics, no thought tag:

  • Her throat tightened. He’s here. I know he’s here.

While eliminating the thought tag is a clarity risk, jumping right into the character’s mind with italics to cue the reader can keep a scene energetic.

Just a thought tag:

  • Her throat tightened. He’s here, she thought. I know he’s here.

If you’d prefer to not deal with the ins and outs of italicizing, the thought tag alone can be enough to signal mental shifts to your reader.

Indirect inner speech:

  • Her throat tightened. He was here. She knew it.

You’ve still created a closeness between the reader and your character, but you’re paraphrasing his or her thoughts and feelings now.

Bottom line? Don’t overthink it—get back to writing!


Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and college level.


Need some help thinking things through? Click here to learn about Pink Umbrella Editing Services, and follow our blog for writing and editing tips.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: