Saturday, March 21

Day Twenty-One: Streamline the Internalization

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Twenty-One of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. Up until now, we’ve been adding and tweaking our stories, focusing more on getting the missing information in, and cutting the unnecessary information out. Odds are we’ve gotten some scenes a little messy, but the overall novel is working from a plot, character, and scene to scene standpoint. Now is the time to tighten things back up.

Yesterday we worked on streamlining our dialog, and our characters’ conversations should now be tight, entertaining, and informative. Next we’ll shift to our interior conversations.

Today, the focus is on internalization.

1. Check for Judgment and Reactions

Internalization is where the character does her thinking, which usually means she’s reacting to something that happened in the story, judging or considering it in some way (or reacting without thinking), and then acting on that information and assumptions made from that information. While it’s unrealistic to go through every line of internalization (unless you’re doing a very serious deep edit), there are some common red flags you can look for to spot potential problems:

An abundance of questions: A litany of internal questions could indicate that the character is telling readers what they ought to be thinking about instead of showing the character reacting. Often, these questions are unnecessary, and too many of them distance readers from the character. A lot of internal questions could also indicate an opportunity to flesh out a character’s emotional state so those questions are implied, not stated.

(Here’s more on questions in internalization)

An abundance of pronouns: Excessive pronouns can indicate filtering, especially when combined with common filtering red flag words, such as she felt, I realized, he knew.

2. Check for Unnecessary Filtering

Internalization is common area for filtering to occur. Depending on your narrative distance, different degrees of filtering are acceptable and even expected. Sometimes this filter is invisible and readers don't feel any distance between them and the POV character. Other times the filters are obvious and readers feel the wall between them and the characters. One looks through the eyes of the POV, the other looks at the POV. General rule of thumb: the tighter the POV, the less filtering you usually see.

Filter words distance readers from the POV character, remind them they're reading, explain things that are obvious, and often lead a writer into telling or crafting passive sentences.

Common red flag filter words: Saw, heard, felt, knew, watched, decided, noticed, realized, wondered, thought, looked.

Common filter words found with passive, telling cousins: to see, to hear, could tell, to watch, to decide, to notice, to realize, to wonder, to think, to look.

A POV character by definition is relaying everything she sees, hears, feels, touches, smells, thinks. If it's described, we know she experienced it in some way.

However, sometimes you want that filter word if it's important to draw attention to that act (the feeling, hearing, watching), or it just sounds more dramatic with that filter. (This works well for chapter or scene enders) You might also want more filters if you're doing a far narrative distance or a omniscient narrator.

You don't have to cut every instance of these words, but they are good spots to double check to make sure you're writing the strongest sentence you can. Filter words typically show up in told prose, passive prose, or just weak writing. You also find them in unintentionally distant POVs.

(Here’s more on filtering)

3. Examine Italicized Text

Immediate thoughts are often italicized, so a search on italic text could help us spot any internal dialog that isn’t working, or could be strong as internalization. Often, a simple tense change can turn an italic thought into internalization, such as is he asking me out? vs Was he asking her out?

Revision red flag: Italic thoughts should be used sparingly (some advise not doing it at all, but this is a personal taste issue). If you find a high percentage of italic thoughts, or most of the internalization is in italics, odds are there’s a problem or a misuse of internal dialog. Look for ways to shift those thoughts into the narrative and eliminate all but the most critical italic thoughts.

(Here’s more on when and where to use italic internal thoughts)

After today’s session, we should have eliminated any awkward and unnecessary internal questions, and tightened up how our characters are reacting and judging the world around them. Next, we'll work on sharpening the hooks and tightening the pacing.

Tomorrow: Sharpen the Hooks and Tighten the Pacing
New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. In your example "is he asking me out? vs Was he asking her out?" the POV goes from 1st to 3rd. If your writing in 1st only, how would you write that line? Because now that I read think the only thing that comes to my mind is "I wondered…" :) It's like I read all the look out words and they just stuck in my brain.

    Internalization is a weak point for me. It's been suggested to me that I don't have enough of it. I know it's because when I read books, I tire of the internal rehashing of events. So, now I'm looking for that balance. – I'm reading your (more on when and where to use italic internal thoughts) next.

    1. The example given is how to show an immediate thought (first person/present tense) when the main text is third person/past tense. If your main text is first person/past tense, then you would write the sentence as "Was he asking me out?" But of course you could also have your main text in first person/present tense (meaning that everything you write is "immediate"), in which case you'd write "Is he asking me out?" without italicizing it.

    2. Peter said exactly what I would have :) Thanks Peter!