A Writer's Life

I'm Rebecca Mahoney, a freelance journalist, fiction writer & manuscript editor who likes to chat about books & writing, share editing tips, and muse about the freelance life. Visit my full website at rebeccamahoney.com.

The most critical element of a successful novel

When I was a journalist, I was an observer. My job was to notice people’s actions and reactions, what they said and where they were, and report those details in a creative but objective way.

When I made the leap to fiction, those same details came easy for me – actions and reactions, dialogue, and setting. What I struggled with, though, was something my journalism training couldn’t help with: Developing internal narrative.

Internal narrative is the character’s thoughts and feelings, the private monologue that makes the reader feel as though we’re inside that character’s head, experiencing the world through his or her eyes.  Not only is internal monologue  important – it’s perhaps the most critical element of a successful novel.

Here’s why: Most fiction, especially literary fiction, is driven by character, not plot. Sure, plot and premise are important, but what makes a story soar is how the protagonist addresses the challenges he encounters – how he thinks, how he feels, how he makes his decisions, his petty jealousies and secret admirations and insecurities, his hurts and his triumphs, the choices he’s proud of – and the choices he’s not.

And the delicious joy for readers is being able to be experience that journey from inside that character’s mind; being privy to all those secret thoughts and feelings. If we just have actions – he nodded, her hands shook as she lit the cigarette, he slammed the door – then we discern only some of those feelings, and that’s not enough. Internal monologue is the only thing that truly reveals how a character ticks – what motivates her, what’s at stake for him. Without it, the story falls flat; it feels bland, hollow. It’s a story without a lifeforce.

Unfortunately, writing internal monologue is one of the most challenging areas for many writers, especially new writers. It’s one of the most common issues I see in the manuscripts I edit.

One reason writers struggle with this technique is due to that old rule: show, don’t tell. While that’s a darn good rule, many writers – especially new writers – take it to mean that they should never tell anything, including what a character is thinking. They think that if their protagonist slams his fist against the table, they’re doing their duty by showing that the protagonist is angry. But we need more than that. Maybe not in every single instance, but action alone can’t do it all. This is especially important if their actions and emotions are different, as they so often are in real life – if, for example, the protagonist is secretly angry or hurt, but doesn’t want to show it.

A second reason writers wrestle with internal narrative is that writers don’t know their characters well enough. After all, how can you know how a character will react in a situation, what he’ll think or feel, if you don’t know what motivates him, what makes him jealous or angry, where his weak spots are, what he’s ashamed or proud of? To help a reader understand a character, the writer himself needs to understand that character, and not just the big stuff – what he wants, what he hates, who he loves – but the small stuff, too: what he does on Sunday mornings, how he likes his coffee, his favorite place, what he thinks when he looks at the sky. The better you know your characters, the more fluid and natural it will be to write internal monologue.

It comes down to this: A friend who was struggling with internal monologue recently said that she “needed to move the camera closer” to her protagonist. No, I said; you need to put the camera in his head.

Internal monologue isn’t about the reader viewing the character more closely. It’s about the reader seeing the world through the character’s eyes.


3 comments on “The most critical element of a successful novel

  1. tandybelt

    Reblogged this on Lighting it Up and commented:
    Critically important idea, and Rebecca Mahoney writes about it in a way thatt is crystal clear.

  2. ann harrison

    Reblogged this on life after a degree and commented:
    Just read this post from Rebecca Mahoney. She talks sense in a clear and positive way. it helped me to think about my novel and to reread and see possible alterations. Thanks Bebecca.

  3. ann harrison

    Reblogged this fantastic piece. Thank you Rebecca

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This entry was posted on 07/25/2013 by and tagged , , .