Say What: The Importance of Internal Dialogue


“One night, as I lay in bed, my stomach rumbling something fierce, I tried to think of an idea, anything to bring in a little extra cash, I was no scholar, so a career in tutoring the younger kids was probably out. And as for babysitting, who would ever hire Dangerous Dale Sweet’s daughter?” Faith Harkey, Genuine Sweet




Internal dialogue is voice.


That golden nugget right there is one of the best things I heard at Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers this year. I was lucky enough to be in the group led by the amazing and talented and gorgeous and funny Janette Rallison. And I loved her lecture on internal dialogue and this idea that your inner character’s thoughts is what voice is. I’d never heard it explained like that before. But yes! Of course it is.



“Nothing creates a buzz like an Executive Deluxe day planner. Not that I have much experience with buzzes, especially of the chemical variety, but my brother did double-dose me on NyQuil once when I was eleven. That thirty or so minutes of faint inebriation had nothing on this feeling. Pure, organized bliss.” Lindsey Leavitt, Sean Griswold’s Head


Internal dialogue reveals what makes our characters unique. It shows us what’s important to them, what they notice first, what bothers them, what they’re afraid of, what’s hilarious to them, what they’re looking forward to, what they want. It can reveal the character means the opposite of what they’re saying and disclose parts of them, the dark or painful thoughts, the bits and pieces they keep hidden away from the people around them.


“I woke up on the worst day of my entire life fully expecting it to be the best day of my entire life. Sometimes life is funny that way. And when I say funny, I don’t mean funny as in, “Ha-ha, that’s a good joke, thanks for sharing.” I mean funny as in someone coming to your birthday party, punching you in the stomach, and then stealing your new puppy.” Marion Jensen, Almost Super


Internal dialogue can also increase tension in a story. If your character tells everyone around her one thing, but her inner thoughts reveal another story, we become more invested in this character.


Sobbing Girl’s eyes widen in recognition. “Aren’t you in my PE class? Didn’t you, like, one time have this horrible rash on your legs? From hay or something?”

“It was actually this organic fertilizer my dad was trying,” I explain, trying to pretend we’re having a perfectly normal teenage girl conversation. “Turns out I’m allergic to worm castings. But I’m not actually allergic to worms. Go figure.”

The girls stare at each other a second and crack up. “Wow!” Sobbing Girls says. “That’s the most insane thing anyone has ever said to me! You are totally weird.”

Gosh, I’m glad I could cheer her up.” Frances O’Roark Dowell, Ten Miles Past Normal

A character’s inner thoughts tell us what she thinks about her story.


“What would it be like, to be Lord Death’s consort? Not to rest in the world where the dead are, now and always without fear, but ever to cross from one world to another, always able to see the life that was left behind. Worse, to serve at his side in his office as the bearer of pain and tears and heartache. To see every day a man weep like a baby himself over his lost little one. To see a new widow stare at her living children with hollow eyes, her heart torn out of her. To stand at the bedside, invisible in the shadows, while great men rocked in their beds with pain. To be the bringer of plague. Ah, ’twas one thing to die, another to be Goodwife Death.” -Martine Leavitt, Keturah and Lord Death


So, what do we do? How do we get better at writing internal dialogue?

One way is to make sure we know what our own internal dialogue sounds like. Try writing it! Write what you’re thinking about right now. Write about something you want to do. Write about that new thing you bought. Write about a dramatic memory. Write it with your internal dialogue, like the way you would speak it. Set a timer for ten minutes or so and write!

Try writing this with someone else’s internal dialogue, say, your mom’s or your best friend’s or the strange neighbor down the street. How does their internal dialogue change it?

Now, write it with your main character’s unique inner thoughts. What is their inner voice like? How does it change their internal dialogue?


“The writer’s voice casts a spell. The right voice makes the work accessible; it gives us the tone and point of view that best illuminate the material and make it shine.” –Steven Pressfield


“Grace’s aching eased a little once she was off the bus and standing in front of the enormous arc of the Salt Lake City Library. Here was a building of straight lines and perfect curves, of peaceful spaces and friendly librarians’ faces. A building where being quiet wasn’t weird, it was following the rules. The library wouldn’t ever pack up and move across the country just because its dad got a job at a fancy university in Boston. Not that libraries had dads or jobs, of course, but that was the point. That’s why you could count on them.” Elaine Vickers, Like Magic




Erin Shakespear writes silly pictures books and middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. After all, they say, “Write what you know.” And with six kids, her days are full of…quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures.