An interesting post by Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about inner dialogue. Sometimes, a certain amount of inner dialogue is helpful. It can add some richness to a story, and add to character development. But, like everything else, inner dialogue is probably best given in measured doses.
Too much inner dialogue can slow a story down, and lead to ‘telling, not showing.’ And the wrong sort of inner dialogue can even be melodramatic if it’s not handled effectively. So, it’s important that any inner dialogue be carefully managed.
Inner dialogue is used in a very interesting way in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. In that novel, we are introduced to eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood. She, her sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian live in a large house not far from a small Vermont town. Almost from the beginning of the story, we get the sense that something is very, very wrong with the family, and we soon learn what that something is. Six years before the events in this novel, three other members of the Blackwood family died of poison. No-one was ever convicted, but the villagers are convinced that one of the Blackwoods is guilty. So, they give the family a very wide berth, as the saying goes. Still, the Blackwoods have managed to get along. Then, the outside world intrudes in the form of a family cousin, Charles Blackwood. He visits Julian, Constance, and Merricat, and his stay touches off a series of incidents that ends in real tragedy. The story is told from Merricat’s point of view, and it’s interesting to see how her internal dialogue is woven into the novel. Among other things, it gives the reader insight into her psychology, as everything is filtered through her thought processes.
Zoran Drvenkar’s You follows several plot threads, including the friendship among four teenage girls: Sunmi ‘Schnappi’ Mehlau, Ruth Wassermann, Isabell ‘Stink’ Kramer, and Vanessa ‘Nessi’ Altenburg. They’re concerned because the fifth member of their group, Taja, hasn’t been seen or heard from in several days, and they decide to check on her and make sure she’s all right. Their search for Taja, and what happens when they find her, involves them in the other two plot threads – and into serious danger. All of the plot threads are narrated in the second person, and in present tense, so the reader is drawn into what the characters are thinking in a different sort of way. Although there is plenty of action in the novel, there is also reflection, as we learn about the different characters’ backstories and interactions. So, there is plenty of inner dialogue; it’s told in second person, though:
‘You look at your wrist, the tattoo gleams dully. Gone. You can’t take your eyes off those four letters and wonder what would happen if you saw all the things in your dreams that you don’t want to see in real life.’
Some of the characters reflect on heir pasts in this way, too.
In Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, make the long trip from Scotland to Victoria, where Alistair grew up. With them is their nine-week-old son, Noah. The flight itself is awful, but when they land and start the journey to Alistair’s home town, the real nightmare begins: they lose baby Noah. A massive search is undertaken, and the media and public are quite sympathetic at first. But there’s no trace of Noah. After a time, questions about, especially, Joanna, begin to come up. Could she or Alistair (or both) have had something to do with the baby’s disappearance? As more suspicions are raised, matters get worse and worse for the family. The novel is told from a few different perspectives, including Joanna’s, Alistair’s daughter, Chloe’s, and his ex-wife, Alexandra. As we see these different points of view, there’s plenty of inner dialogue. So, we learn how the different characters feel about each other, about the situation, and so on.
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is the fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people to be executed for murder in Iceland. The story begins in 1828, when Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. All three suspects are found guilty, and it’s decided they will be hanged. In the months before the execution, Agnes will stay with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. It’s hoped that, by living with a ‘proper Christian family,’ Agnes will repent of what she’s done and talk about it. At first, it’s awkward for the family to have a convicted murderer with them. But gradually, they get to know Agnes, and they learn a little more about her. And, as Agnes reflects, we learn about her life, and about what happened that led to the murders. And part of that information comes from Agnes’ inner dialogue as she thinks about the family she’s with, and about her situation.
And then there’s Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons. That’s the story of thirty-seven-year-old Finn Bell, who’s reached a crossroads in his life. His marriage has ended, and he’s in a wheelchair as a result of a car accident. He decides he needs a new start, and chooses the town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island, to do so. The cottage he’s bought was previously owned by the Cotter family, and Bell soon finds out the tragedy in that family’s past. In 1988, Alice Cotter, who was then a child, disappeared and was never found. A year later, her father also went missing. Little by little, Bell gets drawn into the mystery of what happened to the Cotters. At the same time, he’s working with a therapist, Betty Crowe, to put the pieces of his life back together. As Bell works to find out the truth about the Cotter family, he discovers that some very dangerous people want the mystery buried. He also finds himself slowly coming back to life, as the saying goes. And readers follow that progress through inner dialogue, as Bell processes what he’s discovering.
And that’s the thing about inner dialogue. As Cleo points out, it can drag a story down, and it has to be used very carefully. But when it’s handled effectively, it can be very effective.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from George Harrison’s Stuck Inside a Cloud.