Monday, April 17, 2023

Living in My Head: Crafting Natural-Sounding Internal Thoughts

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

How to write tight, third-person internalization that feels natural to the character.

Getting inside a character's head is a key element to getting the reader to care about that character—love them, hate them, fear them, whatever the emotion you want to evoke. 

In first person this is easy, because you're already so close to their perspective the thoughts roll naturally into the story. With third person it can be more challenging, because there's an extra layer between the character and the reader. The narrative distance often determines how your internalization will sound.

A close narrative distance will make the internalization feel similar to first person (without the "I" of course). A more distant one will include tags such as he thought. Some will use italics, others will make it part of the narrative. The style is up to you.

((Here's more with Where Do You Want Me? Choosing Narrative Distance in Multiple Third Person).)
Today it's all about a tight third that sounds natural without using "he thought" style tags.

Let's check in with Bob and the Zombies for some examples.
Bob eyed the Quickie Mart, his fingers tight around the shotgun. What a death trap. One entrance, crappy visibility, way too many things to snag your ass. He scoffed and wiped his upper lip. Get dinner or be dinner. Lousy options in a lousy world.
What makes this feel close is that both the action and Bob's thoughts are written the same way. Third person, showing the "action." What Bob does and what Bob thinks. The thoughts are in his voice, and you can easily hear Bob saying this. Compare this to the same paragraph without his voice to show that these are his thoughts.
Bob eyed the Quickie Mart, his fingers tight around the shotgun. The store was a death trap. It had only one entrance, poor visibility, and multiple things to get hung up on. He scoffed and wiped his upper lip. His choice: get dinner or be dinner. Lousy options in a lousy world.
Hear the difference? The internalization doesn't sound like someone thinking anymore, it sounds more like bland description of general thoughts. 

But tight internalization isn't all guesswork. I used a few tricks to make that close third feel that close.

Bob eyed the Quickie Mart, his fingers tight around the shotgun. 
Establish the POV character and show them doing something. This signals to the reader that this is inside Bob's head. 
What a death trap. 
This thought sounds like dialogue, which signals "Bob is thinking this" to the reader. 
One entrance, crappy visibility, way too many things to snag your ass. 
Note the word choice: crappy, way too many, snag your ass. Specific words to convey Bob's character, and it also reinforces the "what a death trap" tone. It's clear this is still Bob thinking. 
He scoffed and wiped his upper lip. 
One way to clue readers in on an internal thought is to bring their attention to the character's head. Bob wipes his lip. Touches his face. This signals "I'm in Bob's head" so the next line feels like his thought. Also notice I had Bob "eye" the store in the first line as well. 
Get dinner or be dinner. Lousy options in a lousy world. 
Thoughts in his voice. Lousy options could go either way, but when paired with clear voice and tight internalization, it sounds like Bob thinking instead of a description or statement.

5 Tips for Writing a Tight Third Internalization

1. Keep it in the character's voice. 

This is key to crafting natural-sounding internal thoughts. Use their words, their opinions, their style. If they'd never in a million years use the word "cacophony," don't have them think about a cacophony of sounds to describe something.

(Here's more with How to Find Your Character's Voice )    

2. Stay in the same tense as the rest of your narrative. 

Internalization isn't like an emphasized internal thought where you italicize it. Those are often in present tense even if the rest is in past tense. Stick to whatever tense you're using so it flows.

(Here's more with Choosing Which Thoughts to Italicize)  

3. Don't be perfect. 

People don't think in full sentences. They drop words, use slang, use sentence fragments, break off in mid-thought. Be true to the character and how they'd think. If they're crass, let them be crass. If they're flowery and deliberate, let them think that way.

(Here's more with Thinking to Myself: Internalization 101)  

4. Mix the physical and the mental.

Just like that touching your head trick, a mix of character action and thought usually feels the most natural. People think and do at the same time. Long passages of action feels detached and impersonal. Long passages of thought often grind the pace to a halt. Mixing the two keeps the pace moving and maintains the personal connection to the reader.

(Here's more with Bob and Weave: How to Mix Character Actions and Internal Thoughts)    

5. Remember stimulus/response. 

People react to things. These are usually the right spots to add in internalization. Something jumps out at you, you get startled. Something hurts you, you cry out. If something happens to cause your character to react, consider what they'd think, say, and do, not just one of those. Pick the aspects that will best show the character and the story. A line of dialog and an action might work best, or a thought and dialog, or even just the action. Sometimes all three. Don't be afraid to play and see which sounds best.

((Here's more with Two Words That Lead to a Stronger Novel).)

Good internalization brings life to your characters and your story. It helps show that all-important voice and lets readers see the soul behind the words.

EXCERXISE FOR YOU: Pick a scene in your novel and look at your internalization. Does it fit the POV style of the story? Could it work better if it was more in the character's head? Play with the internal thoughts and test options to see which one works best.  

How do you feel about internalization? Which type do you prefer? Tight? Distant? Tagged or untagged? 

*Originally published June 2012. Last updated April 2023.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thank you so much for this Janice. I don't usually bookmark posts but I'm bookmarking this one. I love third person limited but know I needed to tighten my internal thoughts and want to do it without "she thought". Thanks so much for explaining so well how to do it and showing the examples with the explanation in it. You made my day!

  2. Excellent post, Janice!

    I'm bookmarking this one, too. I write in third person and I'm currently developing the characters for my new WIP. This is such a helpful post and like Natalie, you made my day, too!

  3. I NEED this post! Thank you, thank you! The WIP I finished last month (3rd person) needs a pass with THIS in mind. Perfect! Thanks again!

    P.S. I really am not into zombie stories...but Bob always makes me smile! :)

  4. Natalie, most welcome. Thanks for asking about it. It made a good post :)

    Suzie, thanks! I actually keep notes of certain words and phrases a character might use. Like one might use the more informal "maybe" while another would use "perhaps." Small stuff, but it helps keep voices sounding different.

    Amelia, oh good, glad it found you at the right time. And thanks re: Bob. Zombies can be fun. They don't have to be all brains and gore.

  5. Oh, this is perfect for where I am in my re-writes. Thank you.

  6. LD, awesome. Looks like a lot of folks are working on this right now.

  7. My entire novel, I've been struggling with this. I've used italics for my MC's internal thoughts in present tense. I am in first person and past tense.

    I keep asking myself if they should be italics or not. Your point is that not all internalization must be in italics. I am going to check out some of the other links too. Thanks!

    I've been considering getting rid of italics altogether. I know some readers/agents hate them. I am waffling.

  8. Glacier, I love italics for thoughts, but they can easily be overdone. What I do, is use them when I want to emphasize the thought. They're a bit like hook lines that way. I also like them if my POV is arguing with themselves. (easy to overdo here as well, so you'd want to be careful)

  9. Will it not work if you don't call attention to the person's head?

    I think I struggle most with this sort of thing. Lately, I can't even grab myself with my characters, never mind the reader!

  10. Khanada, sure, especially if the voice is strong. It's just a trick, not a rule ;) But if the internalization feels off, that could be a way to fix it.

  11. Great article! I can do some of this, but my natural reluctance to create grammatically bad sentences (fragments and whatnot), keeps me from doing it as much as you had in your example.

    I've had editors tell me that voice shouldn't be an excuse for sentence fragments everywhere, so I really struggle with finding the right line. It seems like too many can hurt us for being too ungrammatical and not enough can hurt us for not being deep enough. How do you find the line? Does the line change depending on genre? What about YA vs. adult?

  12. Jami, voice, genre, and style will play a role for sure. If you're not a fragment kinda gal, don't feel you have to. Do what sounds right for the character. If they'd use fragments, use fragments. If they'd speak in flowing sentences, use those. Trust your ear. Also, read it out loud. Dialog (whether internal or external) has a certain sound to it that stands out when spoken aloud. If it doesn't sound like a thought, that's a good indication it might need some tweaking.

  13. You're so right! :)

    It should come down to the character's voice--even if that goes against the author's voice. I'll keep that in mind. Thanks! :)

  14. Jami, glad I could help! POV fixes everything, lol. Nail that and the rest falls into place.

    Juolie, thanks!

  15. This is so useful. Thanks!
    I'm struggling with getting a particular third person's thoughts and feelings onto the page at the moment.
    I know exactly how he feels, but at the moment this reads too much as description and I know I will lose the reader (Hell. Im losing my attention!). so this couldn't have come at a better time.
    Thanks again. :)

  16. Allana, most welcome, glad it could help. You might try an internal rant for emotions instead of just the physical stuff. For example, if he's angry, he might think about what an idiot someone is, or how unfair. If he's sad, he might think about wanting to pull the covers over his head and hide. Things that signal the emotion.

  17. Whenever I read a scene in a novel that directly quotes a character's thoughts in italics, I sigh and put the book aside. It always comes across as lazy writing, it's rarely done well.

    However, since taking up the challenge of writing a ms myself, I have given in to the temptation of... italicising thoughts (gasp!). Only when I could not think of how to internalisie it otherwise.

    Thanks for providing some beautiful examples of internalisations using third person narrator. I'll go back and work harder on those particular examples.

  18. Jo-Ann, you wouldn't like my books then :) I prefer italics, but I only use them when I want to emphasize the thought. (all the thoughts would be too much). There are times when they work well and times when they don't. Its really just about finding the right way to express what you want to write.

  19. I eyed my timeline with a restless eye, my fingers itching over the log out button. What a boring waste. Same topics, crappy tweets, way too few things to snag my interest. Then I spotted this tweet with an unfamiliar link enclosed and licked my upper lip. What the heck, am bored and can only be more bored. Lousy options in a virtual world. But hey, I hit the jackpot! Pure serendipity brought be to this treasure chest. Proves twitter can be useful.

    Thank you and I learnt something here.

  20. Soulberry, hehe, that has to be the most original comment I've had :)

  21. I am oh so glad a friend sent me this link. I am struggling with this in-the-character's-mind problem.

    As a rule, I like to avoid italics. And I've written paragraphs where the character is thinking and these paragraphs seem to work (although the truth will be in the publication, so to speak).

    But I have a question. I want to write what a character is thinking--and she is remembering bits of what someone in her past said to her. If the conversation is in her head, not in the current action--because something in the current action is triggering the memory (they parallel each other somewhat) quotation marks feel confusing. I don't want readers to think someone is saying those things in the current events. But using no quotes or the same font may lead readers to think she thinking these as her own thoughts instead of remembering someone else saying them.

    Does that make sense? Any words of wisdom or article you could point me to? Thank you. Excellent, useful article.

  22. Marta, I'd use italics if it were me, but since you don't like them, I'd suggest just quoting it. Like this:

    It was just like she said. "If you can't let go you'll never move forward." But how could I let go of Bob?

    If it's a larger conversation, you could format it like a normal conversation and then make it clear at the start and the end that this is her memory.

  23. Actually, that's a good topic for a ports now that I think about it. Thanks for the idea!

  24. Thank you for the reply. In fact, I like italics fine, and I had originally used italics for a few key parts, but an editor told me never to use italics, and so now I'm worried about using them.

    Although really, I don't know why I'm getting so worked up over italics.

  25. Marta, italics are subjective. I used them and my editor had no problem. Other editors might have different preferences. I'd say do what you feel works best for the story, and if the editor who buys it has a different style for quoting dialog in thoughts, she can have you change it :)

  26. This is a great article! I've written in first person in the past and I'm now switching to a close third. I've been worrying about making my characters feel too distanced from the reader. These are terrific tips to help. Thanks!

  27. great stuff here, Janice. thanks!

  28. loved this - great way to really explain the point. Just bought your new book - thanks for being out there for us writers!

  29. Been meaning to say a huge - thank you Janice - for a while.I bought your book about conflict - one of the best writing purchases made, writing craft gold.

    This is another super helpful post - really gets down to the nuance of tight 3rd in the characters own voice. I've read plenty of first person stories where because of the way it is done the character still feels distant. Done well I think tight 3rd can actually be closer than first.

    I've been looking to buy some of your other books and finding it hard to find them in physical form - are they due for a reprint or do you have a new writing craft book coming out soonish? I know you are busy juggling many projects - so no pressure on that one. I'm amazed at how many brilliant blog posts you get out in a week - and super grateful.

    1. You're most welcome! And apologies for not relying sooner. You should be able to find them online--Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc. Bookstore don't often carry them, sadly.

      Fingers crossed, I should have one, and perhaps two new craft books by the end of the year. Part of why I've been so busy!