Writing

How to Write Internal Dialogue: Dialogue Formatting Guidelines

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 11, 2019 • 3 min read

Internal dialogue can tell the reader what a character is thinking. It can provide deep insight into a character’s thoughts, fears, self-esteem, and general point of view. For that reason, internal dialogue is one of the most important tools at an author’s disposal, as it can provide a rich, three-dimensional rendering of a character.

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What Purpose Does Internal Dialogue Serve in Writing?

Internal dialogue is an opportunity to get inside your character’s head, allowing the reader to experience the character’s innermost thought patterns, point of view, and opinions. A main character’s inner dialogue (also known as internal monologue or internal thought) may add additional context to their spoken dialogue or contradict it altogether, revealing direct truths about the character. Oftentimes, these inner thoughts will divulge an emotion or POV that the character feels is too painful or embarrassing to reveal to the outside world.

How to Format Internal Dialogue

Keep in mind that the only real rule when it comes to internal dialogue in fiction writing is that, while you may use dialogue tags, you typically should not use quotation marks. Quotation marks should be reserved for writing spoken dialogue. Some writers use italics to indicate internal voice. Italics add a layer of narrative distance between the character’s thoughts and what’s actually happening in the scene. Your format will depend on your writing style as well as whether you are writing in the first person or third person point of view.

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Direct Internal Dialogue vs. Indirect Internal Dialogue

Direct internal dialogue is internal dialogue that’s written in the present tense. When internal dialogue is written in the present tense, it is considered “direct internal dialogue.” Direct internal dialogue is always written in the first person present tense, regardless of whether the rest of the story is written in the present or past tense. It’s most common for direct thoughts to be set in italics. When internal dialogue is written in the past tense, on the other hand, it is known as “indirect internal dialogue.” It’s more common for indirect internal dialogue to be presented without the use of italics.

3 Internal Dialogue Examples in Third-Person POV

Internal dialogue loops the reader into what characters written in the third-person are thinking and feeling. Here are examples of internal dialogue written in the third-person POV:

  1. Italicized, with tag: Jasper kept screaming about how the aliens were after him. Alex sighed. This is not science fiction, old man, he thought. This is real life.
  2. Italicized, without tag: Jasper kept screaming about how the aliens were after him. Alex sighed. This is not science fiction, old man. This is real life.
  3. Not italicized, with tag: Jasper kept screaming about how the aliens were after him. Alex sighed. This is not science fiction, old man, he thought. This is real life.

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4 Internal Dialogue Examples in First-Person POV

Many bestselling authors choose to tell their stories through first-person narration, capitalizing on the increased sense of immediacy the style brings. Here are examples of internal dialogue written in the first-person POV:

  1. Italicized, with tag: Jasper kept screaming about how the aliens were after him. I sighed. This is not science fiction, old man, I thought. This is real life.
  2. Italicized, without tag: Jasper kept screaming about how the aliens were after him. I sighed. This is not science fiction, old man. This is real life.
  3. Not italicized, with tag: Jasper kept screaming about how the aliens were after him. I sighed. This is not science fiction, old man, I thought. This is real life.
  4. Not italicized, without tag: Jasper kept screaming about how the aliens were after him. I sighed. This is not science fiction, old man. This is real life.

How to Write Internal Dialogue in the Omniscient POV

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When writing in omniscient POV, italicize the direct thoughts of the POV character and include a dialogue tag as well. This will help you differentiate between the narrative point of view, character dialogue, and the inner voices of your characters. For example:

Jasper kept screaming about how the aliens were after him. Alex sighed. “Come on, Jasper, get inside.” This is not science fiction, old man, he thought. This is real life.

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