Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Avoiding Awkward (or Unnecessary) Internal Questions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Too many internal questions can come across like the author telling the reader what they ought to be wondering about.

Internalization is a powerful tool for showing who a character is, how they feel, and what's motivating them to act. It does a lot of the heavy lifting in both the character arc and the plot, because readers get to see the internal debates that lead to the choices they make in the story.

But it's easy to go too far with internalized questions.

Internal questions shouldn't read like instructions on how a reader should interpret the scene.

When overdone (or done poorly), they can feel like you're whacking readers in the head with what they ought to be thinking or wondering about, instead of dropping clues that make them wonder about it. For example:
She crumpled the note in her hands. "Sorry?" she whispered. He walked out on her and all he could write was sorry? Was it another woman? Did he meet some hussy in the law school she paid for? Slaved for? Had he been using her all these years? That jerk. She'd never been anything but a cash cow to him. She flung the note across the room. How could he do this to her?
While these are all questions someone in this situation would reasonably think, there leaves little here for readers to wonder about on their own. It also feels like the character's assumptions are indeed the case and there's no other possible reason for the situation. The questions lead the reader too much to one conclusion, and ultimately feels too on the nose. Even worse, it gives the story nowhere to go, as the character isn't doing anything to move the story forward, she's just spouting questions as if explaining why she was just dumped. 
But let's "answer" these questions instead and show what the character would think if she'd already considered these questions and decided what they all mean.
She crumpled the note in her hands. "Sorry?" she whispered. He walked out on her and all he could write was sorry? That jerk. She'd never been anything but a cash cow to him--hell, she'd even financed his quest for a "more suitable wife" like an idiot. She flung the note across the room. This wasn't over. Oh no.
Instead of telling readers what they should be thinking, this shows what the character is thinking. It's also easy to figure out what emotions she's feeling. 

Readers will likely wonder if there is another woman, and try to remember if there were any clues to suggest it. They're probably also curious to see what the character does next, as this gives the sense the character is going to act, and odds are it won't be pretty.

(Here's more with Living in My Head: Crafting Natural-Sounding Internal Thoughts)

Reasons to Use Internal Questions

When it's something the character would believably ask in that situation, and also reinforces their emotional state

Sometimes we do ask internal questions, especially if we're angry or upset. "How could he do this to me?" is a good (if clich├ęd) example. "Is he serious?" is another. Thoughts that could be spoken aloud often work just fine as internal questions. 

Pro-tip: It's fun to explore how a scene would change if the character actually did say the thoughts out loud.

When you want to remind readers of the goal of the scene or novel

An internal question can work as a scene goal statement: "Where was the murder weapon?" This shows the character is probably going to look for this item. "What if she was wasn't at the bar?" suggests figuring this out is important. It can also tell readers what the overall story question is, and what the book is trying to resolve: "So what really happened to Mario?"

When it would create more mystery, tension, or a dramatic pause

Questions can work as those "dum-dum-DUM!" cliffhanger moments to raise tension or hook readers. It might be a revelation: "Did that mean John was alive?" Or an internal conflict the character will be struggling with: "Could she trust him?"

When it would show a different attitude or opinion from what the narrator is displaying

Sometimes a character feels one way internally, but is forced (or wants) to show a different attitude or emotion externally. An internal question can be a great way to show this dichotomy. What kind of moron was he? She nodded. "You make a good point."

When a character is debating with themselves

Although you have to be careful here (it's easy to go too far), questions can be a handy way to show a character having an internal debate. This can be especially helpful if you need to show how a character had made a connection or a leap in logic that might feel contrived without the explanation.  

(Here's more with Are You Showing or Telling Your Internalization?)

Reasons Not to Use Internal Questions

When it's there solely to lead readers to the conclusion you want them to make

If the question is there to tell readers what to think, and there's no room for any other option, you might want to cut it. If readers can't get to that question on their own by what they see in the text, and there's no reason (or a weak reason) for the character to ask it, there's a good chance it's going to feel awkward.

When it feels repetitious

Like my first example, a lot of questions in a row can feel like you're badgering the reader, especially if they all basically say the same thing. Try showing internal thoughts or actions that suggest those questions (or answers to those questions) instead.

When it doesn't convey any real information to move the story

Empty internal questions can feel like empty dialogue. It's not necessary to understand anything in the scene, but it feels like it ought to be said. Try cutting it and seeing which version reads better.

When it's redundant

If the internal question is followed up by thoughts, action, or dialogue that implies the same question, there's no need to shine a light on it. For example, if the character is staring at a crime scene and describing it in detail, starting or ending with "what happened here?" isn't really necessary.

(Here's more with Picking the Perfect Thoughts to Italicize)

When in Doubt...

If you're not sure if the question should stay or go, ask yourself:
  • Does it read well without it?
  • Is it shoving the idea/thought/mystery in the reader's face?
  • Would the reader ask the same question from seeing what's in the scene?
  • Does it feel awkward?
If you answer yes to any of these, odds are it's a good question to cut.

Internal questions are a great tool to show what a character is struggling with and what they're trying to do, but it can be overused if we aren't careful. Trust your instincts--if feels awkward or melodramatic, odds are it is and cutting it would strengthen the scene (reading it out loud is a good test for melodrama). 

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the internal questions in one of your scenes. Are there any you can get rid of or combine to strengthen the scene? Would the scene be better if you showed action that implied that question instead?  

How do you feel about internal questions? Love them? Hate them? Never gave them a second thought?

*Originally published January 2015. Last updated January 2024.

Find out more about characters, internalization, 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 ShifterBlue 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. Excellent post, Janice! I've always told my clients this (I'm a freelance editor), but I could never find a good source for examples. Now, I'll definitely point them here!

  2. Nice review of this topic.

    How might the reliability of the narator play into this? You already went one way with it ("What kind of moron was he? She nodded. "You make a good point.” “) but I’m wondering if it could be used to advantage for the narrator fooling or flat lying to her/himself? Thoughts?

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. It absolutely could. I can see doing that with questions such as "it's not like anyone would care, right?" or "sure, like he'd never done that before?" Some questions might be subtle if you didn't want to make it obvious, while others might be pretty clear that the narrator wasn't being honest with themselves.

  3. This is something I need to work on. Thanks for the lesson. It did sink in.

  4. I love internal questions, but I have to be careful not to over use them. I'm in revisions right now, so this is a great reminder for me. Thanks

    1. Me too, and I always have to delete a bunch.

  5. I sometimes struggle with knowing how else to word these, so these examples might help. Wendy Sparrow once pointed out to me that if we use too many of them, our characters can sound like contestants on Jeopardy. :)

    1. LOL great description. Sometimes it's good to let them run a little though (in a first draft that is). I've noticed I can drill down to the real question or problem if I'm not sure what it is in that moment by letting the character ramble on.

    2. Ha, love the Jeopardy comparison. Another thing this post made me realise is how I fall back on character's debating with themselves as a main method of upping tension/mystery. I didn't even realise I was doing it but on an online course, the teacher pointed out my MC had to question herself about *EVERYTHING* before she made a move. Such a bad habit!

    3. Yes, in drafts I tend to bunch 3-4 of them together with that debate/ramble issue. Then in revisions I try to at least get them down to 1 or 2. LOL!

  6. This is a great post. This isn't even something I had really thought about until now, but I love your breakdown about when to use them or not. My current piece is in 1st person so I think I have a fair few internal questions. Come second draft, I am going to analyze them all closely through this lens! Thanks :)

    1. Most welcome :) They're not always as awkward in first person. I think it sounds more natural as an I vs a he or she.

  7. I write in deep third-person POV and find that I use internal questions a lot, particularly in early drafts, and probably way more than I should. It is indeed a habit that is at best, a shortcut to be developed further by "showing" in a later draft, and at worst, a lazy attempt at expedience. Thanks for the pointers on how to get rid of them!

    1. They have their uses like everything else, and they can certainly point out opportunities to strengthen a passage in our writing.

  8. This post!! I needed to read this, thank you for sharing it and giving such detailed examples! I can always rely on your insight to help me see how to climb out of the bad habits I've fallen into.

    It might just me but it seems like the difference between telling the reader what to think, and showing what the character is thinking, can be subtle. But it makes a *massive* difference.

    1. Subtle practically defines writing :) I've found the smallest subtlety can make a world of difference.

  9. Nicely finessed, Janice :) The problem with leading the reader too much is that they are less invested in the character. Whereas by giving them clues and pointers enough through interiority to make them think, the very fact of working and reaching insights without the author spelling it all out makes them both feel smart *and* at the same time more personally involved with the character.

  10. Thanks for answering this question Janice! Your examples were spot on. I am hard copying the list of questions. It makes so much sense, and I feel silly for not seeing it sooner. With some internalization, I couldn't decide whether to keep it or not. The list of questions will really help me hone in on what to leave and when to hit the delete key.

    1. Bah, no need to feel silly. We're so close to our writing we often miss what someone else picks up on at first glance. (This is why beta readers are so valuable!) It also helps to let it sit for a while, then read it again. I notice I cut out a lot of questions when I revise a novel that's been in a drawer for a few months. They really jump out at me.

  11. This is great - I'm terrible for overdoing internal monologues, and the advice about when to cut is spot on!

  12. Janice, I think I've read every article you've written. You've helped me so much with your tips! I have a question that perhaps you could answer. In a four to five sentence inner narrative written in deep third pov, can the MC refer to themselves as 'you'? For example: "What the heck were you thinking? You should know better."
    Thanks, Janice.

    1. Aw, thanks! Glad they've been helpful.

      Yes, you can do that. Styles vary, but I tend to make those types of statements in italics to show it's an immediate thought by the POV to themselves vs general narrative. For example, italic "What were you thinking?" vs non-italic "what was she thinking?"

  13. struggling with this very thing and found this article helpful. Thanks.

  14. Michelle Gregory1/24/2024 3:02 PM

    Great post! I'm glad you shared this.

    1. Thanks! I'm glad it found you when you needed it :)

  15. This is great advice! I often wonder if I'm overdoing the internal dialogue. This gives me something to think about.

    1. Glad you found it helpful. To test that, I'll think about how long it takes to think the internalization, and if it makes sense to take that big a pause in the scene. I'll also look at how much of it I have in that scene. If it's a lot, and it's not a major emotional or plot turning point, then I know I might need to trim back some.