Friday, March 11, 2022

A System for Tracking the "Internals" in Your Fiction or Memoir

In my post a month ago, I ranted a bit about IM, or internal monologue, a technique that so many writers use to reveal the internal landscape of a character in fiction or memoir. IM is literally a monologue--a thought process, like dialogue except not spoken aloud. (If you missed that post, go to

There are other ways to reveal internals in your story, though--not just IM. But we may not be aware, as writers, that they are already present. When I learned from one of my past students about a nifty tracking systems for internals, I wanted to try it out and share it here.

Interiority or "internals" is a fancy way to describe the reader's view into your characters' inner lives. Some genres require a lot of this (memoir), some much less (thrillers). Internals are what makes a character real to the reader. Skilled writers reveal interiority in several ways. It's important to know what your genre requires and how to plant and build the interior lives, without having them slow the momentum of the story.

One of my past students worked for several years her memoir about the mystery illness she experienced as a child and how it changed her life--and her family's. She presented the story factually at first, as she remembered from endless doctors' visits and tests and challenges at home. One of her big questions when we worked together was how to show other people who are very close to her--her parents, for instance. Since proximity and familiarity can blind us to what the reader needs to see, my first suggestion was to get solid feedback, from peers (her writer's group) and instructors. What was she assuming about interiority, and was it correct? Did her mother's anguish really come across in that scene?

Because she couldn't use internal monologue when showing the interiority of another character, she had to use other markers. There are many. When writing about oneself, or in the voice of the main character (narrator), interiority markers can be body sensations and the result of them as they are externalized. For example: "I felt the sting of tears but swallowed hard and made my voice as casual as possible." That's interiority via a body sensation (feeling sting of tears) and a gesture (swallowing hard and casual voice).

An observer could note the second (gesture) and guess at the first, which delivers a good result. "I saw her swallow hard; her voice sounded casual when she answered, but I knew she held back tears."

This writer grew more confident at choosing scenes where interiority needed to be present--at a medical exam where new findings shocked her parents, the reader would need to see that anguish in her mother, for example, with the kind of gesture plus assumption above.

But here's the rub: To add this same type of marker to every scene would drag the pace. How do you plant interiority for major characters where it coincides with peaks of tension and deepens the story most effectively?

I start with setting the manuscript aside for 6 weeks (the amount of time it usually takes to get out of my writer's head and gain distance). Then I read through it aloud. Aloud is the key--that gives me the reader's view. How does it sound? Are there places where the interiority comes forward? Are there places where it needs to be present but drops out?

I take a highlighter and mark the manuscript to note these.

Then, I tried an extremely helpful next step: to chart the type of interiority used. Listing just the page number and the thing that shows the inner life--that's pretty much all it takes. You can also go through assign a highlighting color to different types. The goal is to see any duplications.

Making the chart is tedious. It's an editor's tool that I often use and have found super valuable, though, and it's also a great way to confirm feedback.

What if, as another past student just experienced, you are working with a mentor or paid editor or even writer's group at final revision, and one of them suggests that you make the main character's internal life more explicit? Test it out. Feedback is valuable, in that it gives you more about what a reader might want--which is hard to see yourself. I never discount it but I do test it.

Skillful writing includes interiority (the inner life) versus the outer life in the right balance for the genre. Again, if your story is plot-driven, fast-paced, tense, you will have fewer moments of interiority, so don't try to force them. Look for the natural pauses, when the character is reflecting on what's been learned or experienced. Or look for the places where they are trying to hide something from themselves or others. There's no formula, but these are usually where I've used internals to best advantage.

One more suggestion for those still twisting over this. Read good examples and chart them too--just one chapter, charted, will tell you a lot. I have a bookshelf full of great novels that I routinely take apart (chart and analyze) to answer these kinds of questions.

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