I’ve noticed the following two problems in my own writing and in the writers I edit:

1. Too much inner monologue.

2. Not enough setting and description.

This is a problem because the more inner monologue you use, the younger your writing sounds. I don’t know why this is, but inner-monologue-heavy novels feel younger and more fit for teenagers than novels that give less access to their characters’ heads.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Hunger Games is selling millions of copies while Cormac McCarthy is winning awards and living in relative obscurity. We like our inner-monologue-rich novels. But they also feel less like art. Decide whether you want to use it accordingly.

Fair Chaim Potok the Promise

Photo by Kevin Dooley

Narrate Through Setting

Speaking of art, I was just looking through Chaim Potok’s The Promise again. I’m going to include portions the first three paragraphs here. If you’re in a rush, at least skim it looking for inner monologue and description:

The county fair was Rachel’s idea. She had a passion for the theater, James Joyce, and county fairs, and she could be quite persuasive when it came to those three passions. We would go on the Sunday in the third week of August, the closing night of the fair, when there would be a fireworks display. We would have a splendid time, she said. It was also her idea that we take her cousin Michael.

It was warm that Sunday night and the sky was clear and filled with stars. We sat in the front seat of the DeSoto and Rachel drove carefully along the dark asphalt country roads. Michael sat quietly between us, staring out of the windshield. A moment after we reached the highway he suddenly became quite talkative…. I saw Rachel smiling. She wore a yellow sleeveless summer dress and her short auburn hair blew in the warm wind that came through the open windows of the car.

We came to a crossroads, bright with the neon life of a night highway, then went around a sharp curve. Set into the darkness about an eighth of a mile away, and looking as though it had carved itself into the night, was the county fair. Michael abruptly ceased talking and leaned forward in the seat.

I like this example because it actually begins with inner monologue (or at least narration), as Chaim writes, “The county fair was Rachel’s idea.” But notice that soon after jumping into the protagonist / narrator’s thoughts, it starts describing the setting. We learn it’s a warm, Sunday night. The stars are beautiful. We’re in a DeSoto (which means this is not present day).

We also learn Rachel is beautiful and that the narrator’s probably in love with her. No Chaim doesn’t write, “I was in love with her.” That would be too easy (and too young). Instead, he describes her dress and her hair and the warm night.

Instead of reading his thoughts and feelings of love, we see through his loving eyes.

There’s lots more we could say about how Chaim uses description and setting to narrate the thoughts and emotions of the characters, but let’s stop with this: good description and setting evokes emotion and thoughts without explicitly telling the reader.

Show. Don’t Tell.

In other words, Chaim shows us the protagonist’s mood. He doesn’t tell us he’s in love. Which of course leads me to the writing proverb I have to exclaim so many times in every manuscript I edit (including my own!):

Show. Don’t tell.

Show a character in love. Don’t tell us he’s in love.

Show your character acting intelligently. Don’t tell us she’s intelligent.

Show how afraid your character is. Don’t tell us he’s afraid.

Show by using setting and description. Don’t tell by using inner monologue. You’re writing will be better and more artistic for it.

Do you use or avoid inner monologue in your writing? Why?

PRACTICE

Describe the room you’re writing in.

Use description and setting to show either ANGER or FEAR.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, share your practice in the comments section. And if you share, please comment on a few other practices.

Thanks!