Monday, July 23

Internal Medicine: How Much Internalization is Too Much?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Internalization is the glue that holds a story together. It's where the readers learn why those awesome descriptions matter, who those great characters we create really are, and shows why those cool conflict hurt so badly. But good internalization requires a balance. Too much and the character babbles and slows the story, too little and the reader can't connect to the character enough to care about the story.

So what is internalization? It's what's going on in your point of view (POV) character's head. It's how they see the world and how they choose to tell the reader about it. It's the filtering process that makes everything in the story have meaning, and conveys the opinions and judgment of the POV character.

(More on the basics of internalization here)

Good internalization is more than just flat thoughts or "I saw" type description. Readers learn just as much from how the character says it as from what they say. Take out those opinions and you're left with description that could be from anyone.

For funsies, let's take a page from The Shifter and look at it with and without the internalization. I've analyzed the opening scene to death, so I'll do the second scene this time.

Scene With No Internalization:
“Oh, Nya, how could you?”

Tali stared at me, her chin tucked in, her brown eyes wide, her lips pursed and frowning at the same time.

“Would you rather I’d gone to prison?”

“Of course not.”

“Then sink it. What’s done is done and—”

“—I can’t change it none,” she finished for me.

“Be grateful I got away.” I flopped backward onto green floor pillows. Tali sat on the edge of her bed dressed in her Healer’s apprentice uniform, her white underdress neatly pressed and her short green vest buttoned. A sunbeam from the small window above poured over her, making the braided silver loop on her shoulder sparkle.

The door to Tali’s dorm room was shut. Shuffling feet and excited giggles drifted in as the other apprentices readied for class. Morning rounds were about to start.

“Are you on this morning?” I asked, wiggling my toes in the sunbeam.

Tali nodded, but didn’t look at me.

“Could you?” I lifted my aching hands.

-Yawn-

Do you get any sense of who these girls are or what's going on here? The dialog conveys a little, but you don't know how Nya feels about her sister or what's going on beneath the surface. The descriptions and dialog only show so much, and without knowing how Nya feels about any of this, there's no reason for readers to care about these two girls or their problems.

(More on crafting natural sounding internalization here)

Now, let's look at the same scene with a lot of internalization.

Scene With Internalization:
“Oh, Nya, how could you?”

Tali used Mama’s disappointed face. Chin tucked in, her wide brown eyes all puppylike, lips pursed and frowning at the same time. Mama had done it better. She'd always made us feel guilty if she suspected we'd done something wrong, and that face always made us confess. Tali used it whenever she could, but it just wasn't the same.

“Would you rather I’d gone to prison?” If I did, at least she couldn't use the face on me again.

“Of course not.” She frowned this time, kinda like she was sorry but wasn't going to say it out loud.

I could forgive her if she could forgive me. “Then sink it. What’s done is done and—”

“—I can’t change it none,” she finished for me. Just like when we were little. Before the soldiers came and our parents died.

I had three years on her, which usually gave me implied authority, but since she joined the League she’d been forgetting who the big sister was. Hard to do with only the two of us left, but she managed. Worrying about me all the time, always asking if I was getting enough food, where I was sleeping. Was sweet, but annoying too. I was supposed to take care of her. I'd promised Mama.

“Be grateful I got away.” I flopped backward onto green floor pillows. Tali sat on the edge of her bed dressed in her Healer’s apprentice uniform, her white underdress neatly pressed and her short green vest buttoned. A sunbeam from the small window above poured over her, making the braided silver loop on her shoulder sparkle. She looked so pretty, so innocent.

The door to Tali’s dorm room was shut, but not sound-tight. Shuffling feet and excited giggles drifted in as the other apprentices readied for class. Morning rounds were about to start and I had work to find if I wanted to eat today. Tali sneaked some food out for me when she could, but the League rationed it and they watched the wards and apprentices real careful at mealtimes—especially if they were Gevegian. Hungry or not, I wasn’t about to let her risk her apprenticeship for me any more than I had to, and I needed a bigger favor than breakfast.

“Are you on this morning?” I asked, wiggling my toes in the sunbeam. Asking her what I needed to ask her wasn't fair, but I had no choice. She'd understand that, wouldn't she?

Tali nodded, but didn’t look at me. Maybe she wouldn't understand after all. I think stealing the heals scared her more than stealing food, though getting caught in the dining hall was a lot more likely. The League acted like food was more precious than pynvium, though I guess to some it probably was. Especially these days.

“Could you?” I lifted my aching hands. The pain from the night guard’s knuckleburn made me useless for all but hauling, and I couldn’t carry enough on my back to be worth the money. I needed to be strong and healthy and find something to carry ne through another day. I'd worry about tomorrow, well, tomorrow.

-Oh come on!-

Are you ready for me to get the heck on with the story already? There's too much internalization now and it's mucking up the scene. Notice how a lot of those extra thoughts repeated what was already said and bogged down the pacing. On their own, each bit might be fine, but one after the other is just too much.

The key to balanced internalization is giving just enough opinion to let the reader know why the things the POV is thinking and seeing matter, and how it affects the story, without banging them over the head with it. If you find yourself explaining that internal thought just to make sure the reader gets it, odds are you're doing too much.

(More on using stimulus and response to craft good reactions)

Now, let's look at the original scene, with notes as to why I chose to elaborate there.

Original Scene With Internalization:

“Oh, Nya, how could you?”
Tali used Mama’s disappointed face. Chin tucked in, her wide brown eyes all puppylike, lips pursed and frowning at the same time. Mama had done it better. [This is a good spot to elaborate because it gave me the opportunity to slip in some backstory, as well as make this pout mean more than just a girl making a face]
“Would you rather I’d gone to prison?”
“Of course not.”
“Then sink it. What’s done is done and—”
“—I can’t change it none,” she finished for me.
I had three years on her, which usually gave me implied authority, but since she joined the League she’d been forgetting who the big sister was. Hard to do with only the two of us left, but she managed. [Tali has already tried acting like Mama (with the face and the scolding) which sets up a natural trigger for Nya to think about those annoying details we need to slip in. This shows that Nya is older, Tali works at the League, and that it's just the two of them now. A lot of backstory and information in a few words]
“Be grateful I got away.” I flopped backward onto green floor pillows. Tali sat on the edge of her bed dressed in her Healer’s apprentice uniform, her white underdress neatly pressed and her short green vest buttoned. A sunbeam from the small window above poured over her, making the braided silver loop on her shoulder sparkle.
The door to Tali’s dorm room was shut, but not sound-tight. Shuffling feet and excited giggles drifted in as the other apprentices readied for class. Morning rounds were about to start and I had work to find if I wanted to eat today. Tali sneaked some food out for me when she could, but the League rationed it and they watched the wards and apprentices real careful at mealtimes—especially if they were Gevegian. Hungry or not, I wasn’t about to let her risk her apprenticeship for me any more than I had to, and I needed a bigger favor than breakfast. [If you're going to describe something, odds are it matters to the story in some way. This paragraph again shows the relationship between the sisters and what they're risking. You get a glimpse that the League might not be the nicest place to live, and that there's some racial strife. It also transitions nicely into Nya's goal and why she's there, and shows a bit of the stakes]
“Are you on this morning?” I asked, wiggling my toes in the sunbeam.
Tali nodded, but didn’t look at me. I think stealing the heals scared her more than stealing food, though getting caught in the dining hall was a lot more likely. [Nya's opinion on why Tali looks away shows what these girls are doing and hints at the dangers. Tali's scared to do this.]
“Could you?” I lifted my aching hands. The pain from the night guard’s knuckleburn made me useless for all but hauling, and I couldn’t carry enough on my back to be worth the money. [A little explanation about why Nya needs the pain taken from her, which covers the world/magic mechanics, but does so in a way that feels natural for the scene. Conveying information without dumping it]

    Do you care more now? Probably, because you understand where Nya is coming from and what she has at stake here. You can see the relationship between these two girls, and get an idea about their past. You also get a much better sense of the world because you know what Nya being there means. A little internalization can go a long way.

    Ask yourself:
    • Will adding an internal thought clarify the dialog or action?
    • Does the internal thought show the POV's opinion on the situation?
    • Can an internal thought provide necessary information without having to infodump?
    • Does the internal thought break up a list-like or stagnant paragraph?
    • Does it convey background information?

    Be concerned if:
    • You start adding internal thoughts to every line of dialog
    • Internal thoughts are always paragraphs long and happen every time the POV thinks
    • You sum up a scene or idea at the end (or describe it at the start before you show it)
    • You repeat the same idea in multiple ways

    Internalization is the window to your POV's soul. A little goes a long way, and it can help you craft a smooth narrative flow that hooks the reader and makes them care about the characters.

    How do you feel about internalization? Does it come naturally? Do you struggle with it?

    17 comments:

    1. I think it comes too naturally to me, as I've been told by some I overuse it :) Trying to learn the right balance, though also keeping in mind I can't please everyone. I had one Beta a year ago who doesn't like any at all...

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    2. Sometimes it add too much, sometimes too little. Multiple rewrites is the answer for me.

      I also notice if I'm reading more flowery stuff in my own down time, it comes through in my writing. If I let some time go by, I can recognize it on a second (or third ) run-through and trim.

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    3. I struggle with it big time… it never feels quite right to me. Maybe it’s because I am not in tone with my characters as I thought I was—or I need a lot more practice at it.

      Thx for the help.


      BTW, I just finished Shifter… very nice; I’ll be reading the next one shortly.

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    4. Wow, this was very educational ... I think I'm guilty of over-internalization. Thanks, this is going to give something to really look for in my next round of revisions of my WIP.

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    5. My CP points out that I don't have enough internalization, so I'm trying to add more.

      One question though. The scene you covered was in first person, which makes it easier for the reader to understand it's an internal thought. When writing in third person, it can be hard to write internal thoughts without sounding as though it's telling.

      How would you rewrite the sentence beginning with "I had three years on her... in third person and not make it sound like telling?

      Thanks for the informative post.

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    6. Internalization is still a rather new concept for me, so I really appreciate all of your articles dealing with it!

      I think I tend toward less rather than more...

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    7. I struggle with that balance of how much internalization to use and getting the voice right. Thanks for the tips on how much internalization is right.

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    8. Angela, none at all? -shudder-. That would read flat to me. Reading it out loud helps with the balance. Or have someone read it to you. When you start to drift off you now it's time to cut :)

      Amelia, interesting. I can see that happening, and now I wonder if it affects me (and others) as well.

      Jeff, it's not an easy thing to do, especially if you're not sure of the character's voices or personalities yet. I figure out who my characters are over the course of the story, so their internalization usually evolves with the story. It's flat at first, then I figure out who they are and how they think.

      Thanks! Glad you liked it :)

      Emily, it's easy to overdo. One trick I learned is to look for large blocks of text on the page. They typically indicate too much description or internalization. If you've got a good mix of line and paragraph sizes, (dialog mixed in with narrative) you're probably okay.

      Chemist Ken, great question. It's all about voice and word choice there. I did a post on this not long ago:

      http://blog.janicehardy.com/2012/06/living-in-my-head-crafting-natural.html

      I'd still say "she had three years on her..." but mix it up with other voice words that made it clear it was the protagonist thinking. I'd probably also open with something that draws focus to her head to show her thinking, then go into the line. Like a, "She rolled her eyes" type.

      That other posts goes into a lot more detail on this.

      Rachel6, hope it helps! I think less is pretty common when you're starting out. You're not always looking out from your character's eye in the early stages.

      Natalie, most welcome! It can be a hard balance to find. It can be well written, and still throw off the pacing if there's too much or too little.

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    9. Thanks for the examples, I had a giggle with them.

      I've been told my internalisations sometimes read like info-dumps. So I've got some work to do on making them sound read as if they are a more natural interal dialogue.

      I guess the key is to use them like salt in cooking - not enough is bland and too much is off-putting.

      Trouble is - some of us like salt more than others!

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    10. Janice, I SO appreciate how you break down writing points so well for us. I do write internalization this well naturally. I seem to add to little or too much, and thankfully my critique partners catch it.

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    11. I enjoy reading your blog.You have got a really useful blog I have been here reading for about an hour. I am a newbie and your success is very much an inspiration for me.
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    12. Thank you for this post. It helped me with my internalization!

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    13. This is an older post but my favorite thing about your blog is that I can say "hmm having this issue," search it on your blog and find a wealth of useful information with awesome examples! This is going to help me immensely because internalization is something I've had a hard time balancing naturally.

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      Replies
      1. Aw, thanks so much! That was a goal I wanted for the site from the beginning, so I'm thrilled it helped you out this way. I wanted it to be a reference site a writer could always go to for help or ideas.

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    14. This is a big problem for me because of my acting background. In a script, you get a line and add the internalization yourself. You do that by showing actions. So when I write, I tend to use less internalization and if I do, I do it by having the character perform actions that demonstrate their boredom, etc. I need to get better at this -- thanks for your post!

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      Replies
      1. On the upside, you're probably very good at showing and not telling :)

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      2. Well, hopefully. :) I got a bit better doing NaNoWriMo last year, where I needed more words...

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