Internal Thoughts: How Much is Too Much?

When James knocked on his elderly neighbor's door, it swung open. 

"Hello?" he called out, poking his head into the house.

No one answered, so he entered. The unmistakable stench of vomit assaulted his nose. Piles of old newspapers and trash scattered a trail across the room to the bedroom door, and he fought the urge to cringe. It looked and smelled so much like his father's last home, he expected the man to lurch from the bedroom and pummel him with his fists. Even drunk, his father's aim and punch carried great strength.

He shook his head and stepped around a pile of newspapers, following a trail of tissues and discarded soda cans, not beer cans, toward the bedroom. Hand on the doorknob, sticky with questionable residue, he licked his lips. His father was dead. Long gone. He wouldn't see him on the other side.

Shame washed over him. This sweet lady might need his help. She hadn't answered the door and her home had stood dark since the sun went down. Yet, he fought the irrational fear to run from his father. Before he could change his mind, he turned the doorknob.

When we write in a close point of view, we need to experience everything as the point of view character experiences it. We see through his eyes, we hear his thoughts, smell what he smells. We become that person.

The question becomes how much is too much? Do we spend several paragraphs relaying everything?

In my writing critique group, we're quick to point out lengthy periods of internal thoughts and encourage the writer to eliminate paragraphs of information. This is not necessarily wrong, but make sure you understand why before you do delete it.

In the example above, a writer might add too much internal thought by going into greater detail about the father's drinking habits, recounting an entire event when James' father smacked him around, or  detailing the elderly neighbor's habits and relationship with James. We don't need all of that information. We have what we need to know:
  • James' dad was a drunk who hit him
  • James' dad did not keep a clean home
  • The elderly neighbor means something to James because he's aware of her lights not being on
  • The elderly neighbor is sick or worse

If we need more than this, the writer needs to filter it in as needed. Not in a data dump in the middle of a tense situation for our character.

On the other hand, if we don't provide enough thoughts, the passage above might read like this:

James knocked on the door of his neighbor's house. The door swung open. "Hello?"

No one answered, so James entered the house. He wrinkled his nose in distaste as he walked across the messy room and reached for the doorknob of his neighbor's bedroom.

See how much we miss if we don't include some thoughts and sensory information?

Signs of Too Much Internal Thought

Beginning writers spend paragraphs and pages telling us about what a character already knows. Often this occurs in the first few pages of their story. Have you done this? Not sure? You might have too much internal thoughts and information if:

  • At the beginning of the story or after a significant event, you provide several paragraphs of detail and description devoted to informing the reader what they don't know.
  • No action occurs for several paragraphs.
  • The narrative tells the reader what's happening rather than showing it.

Signs of Too Little

Just as we can give too much information, we can err on the side of too little. Years ago, I made the mistake of slashing internal thoughts to the detriment of my work. Feedback I received from industry professionals and beta readers indicated I'd cut too much. If you've shortchanged the reader on internal thoughts, people will say:

  • They don't identify with your character
  • They can't recall your character's name and situation
  • The actions are out of character when you know why they're acting that way


The Trick is Balance

It takes practice to work out how much internal thought to keep in your story. This differs from genre to genre. When I started attending my writing group, I was one of the few members who wrote fantasy. Others wrote mystery, historical novels, or contemporary fiction. Each of these genres has different expectations for internal thoughts and backstory.

How can you tell if your writing has too much or not enough internal thoughts? Check the points listed above and read, read, read in your chosen genre. Begin to notice the following:

  • What percentage of the story focuses on internal thoughts?
  • How many paragraphs and sentences are devoted to information and internal thoughts?
  • When are internal thoughts used more and when are they used less?
  • How does the author use the internal thoughts to develop the character and plot?
There's no exact science to this. You will find some writers get away with more internal thoughts than others. A lot of that depends on how popular that writer is or when their story was published. Just like the world, the publishing industry undergoes constant change, so do the expectations and acceptable rules of writing.

In the end, the key is do the internal thoughts engage or drive your reader away?


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