Too much interior monologue will kill a good story

“Interior monologue, in dramatic and nondramatic fiction, narrative technique that exhibits the thoughts passing through the minds of the protagonists. These ideas may be either loosely related impressions approaching free association or more rationally structured sequences of thought and emotion.” – Encyclopaedia Britannica

True stream-of-consciousness fiction can yield a lot of exciting passages about a character’s inner life (which s/he may or may not confuse with reality) as well as plot-advancing impressions that mesh well with the story line.

When I think of “too much interior monologue,” I’m not bashing well-written stream of consciousness techniques in spite of the fact that readers who don’t like literary fiction will hand out one- and two-star reviews for such novels on Amazon. When an author’s protagonist thinks about the situation s/he is in, that’s interior monologue.

Naturally, it’s normal and relevant to think about the situations we’re in. On the other hand, when this thinking does on for hundreds of words in multiple places in a novel, then it is likely to ruin the story. Writers are told that most of what they put in a novel should advance the plot. Overused interior monologue doesn’t advance the plot: instead it puts the plot on hold.

I just finished reading a novel with an interesting plot. A protagonist with a history of panic attacks which s/he manages with prescription medication (as much as possible) undergoes a traumatic experience before being put into an unrelated but more dangerous situation where her life and the lives of others is at risk.

I’m not going to identify the novel or even count the number of words in it and compute what percentage of it is plot-stalling interior monologue. My impression, though, is that 40% of the novel is interior monologue along the lines of. . .I need to keep my self from screaming. . .I need to relax. . .maybe I didn’t see what I think I saw. . .can I trust person XYZ. . .maybe if I told my story and/or got certain people to trust me, they would believe me and/or help me.

Stop Talking to Yourself and Do Something!

A little bit of this is fine. But when it goes on and on and on, there’s really nothing happening. Yes, maybe this would happen in real life, but writers are also told that writing fiction that copies real life–as a 24/7 video camera might view it–is bad because a lot of that real life stuff is trivial. In the novel I just finished, the character’s fight to keep her panic under control and her considerations about what may or may not be happening can be conveyed to the reader much faster.

When I see excessive amounts of interior monologue, my first thought is that the writer doesn’t really have enough depth in the plot to make a novel. That is, there are two few events and dialogue passages to sustain a book-length story. So, the interior monologue pads the length of the book out to the minimum number of words the author or publisher feels are necessary to call the book a novel rather than a short story, novelette, or novella.

I liked the plot of the novel I just finished. I liked the satisfactory ending and the fact that the protagonist’s experience ended up making her a stronger person ready to take stock of a lot of decisions about her life that had been stalled. I think it’s a shame, though, that the story was dragged down by the interior monologue instead of being pushed forward with a greater number of plot elements.

Dan Brown’s “Teaching Moments” Come to Mind

Dan Brown and others who write novels about ancient secrets with a modern twist to them are often criticized for stopping the action through the insertion of a lot of exposition in which one character tells another character what the ancient secrets are all about. This is a slick way of telling the reader what those secrets are about. If you were going to write a spoof of such books, you’d have one character pull a knife on another character and then–so to speak–freeze the action while the character tells somebody else why all this matters (for, say, a thousand words) and then go back to the knife fight.

That really tears apart the pacing of the action. It’s also very frustrating to the reader. Excessive interior monologue has the same negative impacts.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and other magical realism and fantasy novels.

Review: Alice Hoffman’s ‘The Rules of Magic’

The Rules of MagicThe Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Rules of Magic,” the prequel to Alice Hoffman’s 1995 bestseller “Practical Magic,” sparkles with the same wisdom and magical realism as the witching story of Sally and Gillian Owens did twenty two years ago. The characters, stories and writing style of this stunning prequel fit hand-in-glove with the characters, stories and writing style of “Practical Magic,” not an easy bit of conjuring for an author to face when going back to a story she told before she truly knew the magical rules when she first wrote about them.

This backstory about Sally and Gillian’s aunts Franny and Bridget (AKA “Jet”) focuses on a theme about life’s curses and blessings and what individuals wish to make of the fate and destiny they are given. Early on, Franny and Jet’s mother asks the sisters whether they’re opting for courage or caution in their unfolding lives. Their answers make for a cohesive story. Clearly, Alice Hoffman opted for courage when she traveled back to 1995 to continue the story of the Owens family.

The book contains wonderful surprises, making it much deeper than a family tree tacked on to the front of a famous novel many years later. The book offers its own multiple levels of depth and angst and joy while changing in positive ways the way many of us who read it will view the characters and themes of the original novel. (Emerging writers considering magical realism as a potential genre for their work will find both novels to be a demonstration of how an author can utilize magic and realism seamlessly in novels set in today’s world.”

While the ending of “The Rules of Magic” represents the best of all possible worlds for the two novels and their characters, turning the last page might be depressing for some readers. The reason is simply this: nobody wants the story to end because when it comes down to it, we need these characters, their joys and sorrows, and their magic in our lives.

View all my reviews

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.

Autumn Price List for My Kindle Books

Prices on the following books have been reduced in time for the vast amount of shopping you plan to do for the holidays.

  • Eulalie and Washerwoman (novel) – $2.99 – conjure, crime, and magic in Florida
  • The Sun Singer (novel) – $1.99 – contemporary fantasy in the Montana mountains
  • Mountain Song (novel) – $1.99 – realism with a splash of magic in the Montana mountains
  • At Sea (novel) $1.99 – realism with a splash of magic on an aircraft carrier in the Vietnam War
  • “Waking Plain” (short story) $0.99 a very fractured fairy tale

Happy shopping!

–Malcolm

To learn more about my books, please visit my website.

Memorial Day Excerpt from ‘At Sea’

Excerpt from At Sea

Jayee’s Lists (The Poor Sons of Bitches who Died) lay faded in a low kitchen drawer beneath batteries, broken pencils, expired dog food coupons, forgotten pink birthday candles, gum erasers, and other unsorted miscellany.

Superimposed over the small battlefield of the ranch where lambs and eagles met largely unrecorded deaths on a rangeland framed by fences and box elders and cottonwoods and a narrow creek carrying water off the backbone of the earth in years of drought and years of flood, the old man recorded soldiers’ names and souls.

He read the news from Vietnam with morning coffee and evening spirits, and with a fine surveyor’s hand, he tallied the bare bones of body counts between narrowed-ruled lines in light-weight Bluehorse notebooks intended for the wisdom of school.

After dinner he walked his dessert out through the bluebunch wheat grass and settling sheep to his ancient Studebaker pickup truck. He carried a sharp yellow pencil and a pack of Chesterfields, tools for doing his sums, “calculating Montana” in a cloud of cigarette smoke from “vintage tobaccos grown mild, aged mild, blended mild.”

On the first page of the first book he wrote, “Here are the poor sons of bitches who died.” On the last page of the last book, he wrote, “The dead, dying and wounded came home frayed, faded, scuffed, stained, or broken.”

On the pages in between, he wrote the name of each Montana soldier who was killed or missing in recorded battles far away. Sipping bourbon, smoking like a lotus in a sea of fire, he ordered, numbered, and divided the names by service branch, by casualty year, by meaningful cross references, by statistically significant tables, by the moon’s phases and sun’s seasons, by the cycles of sheep.

Jayee remarked from year to year that the notebooks grew no heavier with use. He saw fit to include the names of the towns where the dead once lived, fathered children and bought cigarettes. These names he learnt were also lighter than the smoke.

The current of his words between the pale blue lines of each thing page arose in fat, upper case letters that scraped the edges of their narrow channels. They began as a mere trickle from 1961 to 1964 that grew in volume in 1965 before the first spring thaw, to become a cold deluge that crested in 1968, wreaking havoc across the frail floodplain of pastures and pages, carrying the dark angry names scrawled with blunting pencil, and broken letters, through irregular grey smudges, over erasures that undercut the page deep enough and wide enough to rip away the heart from multiple entries. There was little respite in 1969. After that the deaths receded and most of the physical blood dried up by 1973.

The pages were dog eared, marked with paperclips already turning to rust, and fading to pale dust behind the list of towns: RICHEY, WHITEFISH, HELENA, CHOTEAU, BOZEMAN, BUTTE, KALISPELL, THOMPSON FALLS, THREE FORKS, STEVENSVILLE, TROUT CREEK, BILLINGS, CHOTEAU HINSDALE, GREAT FALLS, HARDIN, SACO, SIDNEY, HAVRE, HELENA, GREAT FALLS, HELENA, BOZEMAN, BUTTE, DODSON, HELENA, ARLEE, REEDPOINT, HAVRE, BIG SANDY, MISSOULA, BILLINGS, WHITLASH, ROUNDUP, ROUNDUP, ST. IGNATIUS, HARLEM, BUTTE, BUTTE, WIBAUX, STEVENSVILLE, ABSAROKEE, LIBBY, WHITEFISH, GREAT FALLS, MISSOULA, HELENA, LIVINGSTON, CONRAD, GREAT FALLS, EUREKA, GREAT FALLS, HARDIN, HELENA, JOLIET, BUTTE, MISSOULA, BROCKTON, MISSOULA, LEWISTOWN,  LAME DEER, SCOBEY,  ROSEBUD, GLASGOW, BILLINGS, ANACONDA, FT. BENTON, MISSOULA, KALISPELL, GREAT FALLS, HARDIN, ST. IGNATIUS, DODSON, MISSOULA, SHELBY, MILES CITY, CUSTER, GLASGOW, LEWISTOWN, BILLINGS, BELT,  LARSLAN, MILES CITY, BUTTE, BUSBY, MISSOULA, MELROSE, BILLINGS, LIBBY, BILLINGS, BAINVILLE, HATHAWAY, BOZEMAN, BILLINGS, BILLINGS, BUTTE, MCALLISTER, WIBAUX, BROWNING, MISSOULA, THOMPSON FALLS, THOMPSON FALLS, LOGAN, AVON, MISSOULA, ST. IGNATIUS, KALISPELL, BILLINGS, ROSEBUD, DENTON, CHARLO, ST. XAVIER, HARLOWTON, SANDERS, LEWISTOWN, LIVINGSTON, MISSOULA, LIBBY, BUTTE, BILLINGS, SUNBURST, TROY, BUTTE, CHINOOK, JORDAN, DODSON, GREAT FALLS, LIBBY, HELENA, BUTTE, ROSS FORK, GREAT FALLS, INTAKE, BUTTE, BUTTE, GREAT FALLS, LIVINGSTON, BILLINGS, REDSTONE, MISSOULA, BILLINGS, MCLEOD, FORSYTH, BILLINGS, HELENA, BILLINGS, MISSOULA, BOZEMAN, BUTTE, MALTA, KALISPELL,  ANACONDA, GREAT FALLS, ST. IGNATIUS, INVERNESS, RONAN,  MISSOULA,  SCOBEY, ANTELOPE, BUTTE, MISSOULA, FORSYTH, BILLINGS, BUTTE,  BILLINGS, GREAT FALLS, DODSON, HELENA, GREAT FALLS, LAUREL, BUTTE, CUT BANK, WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, DEER LODGE, BUTTE,  HAMILTON, MILES CITY, KALISPELL, VALIER, SHELBY,  KILA, CHOTEAU, GREAT FALLS, MILES CITY, HAMILTON, GREAT FALLS, HAVRE,  LAME DEER, GREAT FALLS, TROUT CREEK, POLSON, PABLO, HELENA, BIG TIMBER, LAUREL, BILLINGS, GREAT FALLS, GREAT FALLS, BUTTE, MISSOULA, ANACONDA, GREAT FALLS, MISSOULA, BOZEMAN, GREAT  FALLS, GLEN, GREAT FALLS, ST. IGNATIUS, FROMBERG, MISSOULA, KALISPELL, CORAM, KALISPELL, BILLINGS, HAVRE, GREAT FALLS, COFFEE CREEK, LIBBY, FT. PECK, BOZEMAN, FORSYTH, POLSON, MISSOULA, WOLF POINT, KALISPELL, BUTTE, FAIRVIEW, MISSOULA, MILES CITY, ANACONDA, GREAT FALLS, BILLINGS, WIBAUX, BILLINGS, CUT BANK, TERRY, ANACONDA, BUTTE, MISSOULA, FLORENCE, HAVRE, SUNBURST, EUREKA, BILLINGS, THOMPSON FALLS, RONAN, WOLF POINT, FLAXVILLE, GREAT FALLS, HELENA, KALISPELL, MISSOULA, ANACONDA, ALDER, VALIER, TROY, RICHEY, LINCOLN, CHOTEAU, BUTTE, MISSOULA, BILLINGS, CLYDE PARK, MISSOULA, MISSOULA, HAVRE, and TROY.

Jayee’s tallies added up like this:

USA  – 169

USAF – 16

USMC – 59

USN  – 23

TOT  – 267

 

The old man made 267 trips around Montana between 1961 and 1972 that no surveying jobs could account for. He said little to the family about it and they didn’t often ask.

During Jayee’s second trip to Havre in 1966, Mavis, a waitress at the Beanery, noticed a stack of 44-inch white crosses sticking out from beneath a tarp in his truck.  On each cross there was a name. When she suggested that Jayee was stealing them from roadside accident scenes, he said he made them per spec to repay old debts.

Mavis asked Katoya if Jayee was all right and Katoya said “right enough.” He returned to the restaurant multiple times to prove he was right enough and was sitting there on August 31, 1967 when the 77-year-old Great Northern restaurant served its last bowl of Irish stew and closed its doors for good. When the building was torn down the following February, he pounded “an extra cross” into the rubble where the counter once stood and said it was the best he could do.

Months passed and additional stories surfaced about an old man crisscrossing the state searching for the families of the fallen, and of warm conversations lasting long into the dark hours. Jayee remained solitary and taciturn in the face of public or private praise or blame and traveled from town to town methodically, as though he was marking chaining stations along an endless open traverse.

After each individual’s name, he wrote XD (cross delivered), XR (cross refused), or CNF (could not find).

On October 18, 1974, Jayee died (surrounded by old relatives and the close perfume of vintage tobacco) with a freshly sharpened yellow pencil, with a half-smoked pack of Chesterfields, with lists and spirits close at hand, “waiting,” he always told those who asked about them.

Reverend Jones stood before the mourners in the small church and read the names of those who wished to remember and to be remembered, and one upon one, they created a great hymn that rose up over the banks of their consciousness and flowed down the rivers of their perception in a crowned deluge.

Copyright (c) 2010, 2016 by Malcolm R. Campbell

Mother’s Day Weekend Sale – three books are free

Three of my books are on sale on Kindle Sunday and Monday for $0.00. (May 14th and 15th).

At Sea

Even though he wanted to dodge the draft in Canada or Sweden, David Ward joined the navy during the Vietnam War. He ended up on an aircraft carrier. Unlike the pilots, he couldn’t say he went in harm’s way unless he counted the baggage he carried with him. As it turned out, those back home were more dangerous than enemy fire.

This novel was inspired by my services aboard an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin in the late 1960s.

Mountain Song

David Ward lives in the Montana mountains where his life was impacted by his medicine woman grandmother and his utilitarian grandfather. Anne Hill suffered through childhood abuse and ultimately moved in with her aunt on the edge of a Florida swamp. Their summer romance at a mountain resort hotel surprises both of them. But can they make it last after the initial passion wears off and they return to their college studies far apart from each other especially after an attack on a college street changes Anne forever?

This novel was inspired by my work as a seasonal employee in Glacier National Park.

Carrying Snakes Into Eden

The title story, “Carrying Snakes Into Eden,” is a whimsical 1960s-era tale about two students who skip church to meet some girls at the beach and end up picking up a hobo with a sack of snakes, and realize there may be long-term consequences.

“Hurricane in the Garden” is a folktale that explains why the snakes were swept out of Eden in the first place. The story features animal characters who made their debut in the three-story set called “Land Between the Rivers.”

These stories are inspired by a love of the Florida Panhandle where I grew up.

Happy Mother’s Day,

Malcolm

Review: ‘White Tears’ by Hari Kunzru

White Tears pays homage to the blues, the blues that grew out of pain and a mix of organic musical styles that was sung by down and out African American men and women in the 1800s and ultimately recorded by hundreds of performers on 78 records during the early 1900s–Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and others whose names are long lost to most current day audiences even though the influences of the blues run through the heart of American music itself. It has been said that Robert Johnson achieved success as a singer by following an old conjure procedure of selling his soul to a black rider at the crossroads. Whether you believe the legend or not, the music known as the blues carried the souls of its performers as they cried out the cruel injustices of their lives.

Hari Kunzru tells the story of two white students in their twenties who love the blues, though that love may be more of an affectation or an obsession than anything true. Carter is rich. Seth is poor. The music draws them together and they create a music studio dedicated to analog sound and music out of the past. Seth, who’s a bit of a geek without firm boundaries about who he really is, records sounds and music off the streets, and one day he captures the voice of a bluesman he never sees singing a song that will define the two young men’s lives. They run the words through their sophisticated equipment and end up with a recording that sounds like an old 78 record that might have been rescued or stolen from a southern barn or back porch. They put the recording on the Internet and announce that it’s real rather than mocked up. They name the singer Charlie Shaw.

The sound is a sensation.  But then they hear from collectors and other aficionados that Charlie Shaw was a real person who really did record a song that began with the words “Believe I buy a graveyard of my own.” A collector says he heard it years ago. Another collector turns heaven and earth to find the original, and maybe he does. The boys are spooked, to say the least: how can their faked record of a modern-day street singer suddenly be a real song by a person whose name they made up? If Charlie Shaw is real, Carter and Seth have stolen his soul.

At this point, readers will have been experiencing an immersion in the blues, well told through Hunzru’s deep understanding of the music and his very well crafted prose. While the novel remains compelling, it becomes somewhat fractured after Carter is–for unknown reasons–beaten senseless in “the wrong part of town,” and as he evolves into a hospitalized man in a vegetative state, his rich family decides that Seth was just a follower who lived off Carter’s money and really didn’t contribute anything to their business partnership. Denied access to Carter and the studio, Seth drifts, begins to think maybe the past or the blues or the real Charlie Shaw is after him. The novel fractures from the atmospheric realism that was following a plot into some lengthy slice-of-life sequences in which past, present, future–and bluesy reality–meander aimlessly rather than directly serving to storyline.

Yet, new incidents occur (mostly bad and/or unfair to Seth), magical realism or real depending on the moods of the moment and the novel shifts into a thriller chasing down a ghost story. The protagonist for three quarters of the novel is primarily Seth.  But Kunzru changes the point of view throughout the last several chapters in a chilling way. These chapters are powerfully written but, on balance, the strong ending of White Tears seems based more on shifting genres in mid stream and word-smithing trickery rather than the natural unfolding of a story. The message–white boys appropriating black music and making it their own–is a strong theme throughout the book. It’s not a bad theme. The story suffers, however, because of the author’s need to preach a cultural appropriation sermon rather than let his message speak for itself through the characters words and actions.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to discount the power of the book, the author’s technical mastery of his language, or the journey through the blues. Yes, this book is the blues, and those who love the music will probably read the book from beginning to end, seeing its flaws as little more than the scratchy static on an old 78 record.

–Malcolm

When you read a novel, do you identify with the protagonist?

I find it difficult to enjoy a novel if I don’t find some kind of connection or identification with the protagonist, even if that person has a dark side I don’t like or is otherwise very different than me.

If the protagonist is a man, I note ways we’re the same or that we’re faced similar questions or heartaches. If the protagonist is a woman, I note whether this is the kind of woman I would like to know, or have known, or perhaps simply respect.

How about you? Do you look for this connection? Do you feel a sense of admiration when the protagonist solves a problem, deals with an issue, gets past a bad habit, or discovers new meanings in life that are one way or the other similar to issues you’ve dealt with–or are still dealing with?

If so, I think we have a lot of company here, putting ourselves into the main characters’ shoes in one novel after another. Maybe we end up feeling inspired or less alone with the trials and tribulations that plague us. Maybe we feel better about ourselves when a main character makes the same kinds of mistake we’ve made or finds solutions to problems similar to those we’ve discovered.

As a writer, I hope to create characters that make readers feel this sense of identification. Partly, those feelings draw you into the story and keep you reading. And partly they might leave you with something more than a good read when you finish the book.

When I think of the novels that I’ve liked best over the years, I see there’s always something that drew me to the main character–for better or for worse. While reading, I was–in a sense–walking in his or her shoes.

Stories gives us many examples of others puzzling out the vicissitudes of life whether those people live in the distant past or the far-off future. The stories don’t become recipes so much as they become ideas, possibilities, or prospective ways to dealing with what we’re dealing with.

I love a novel than ends up seeming like it was sort of about my kinds of dreams and concerns. You might think of what you know about me and what you know about the main character in the novel I’m reading and see a night and day difference. But, as long as I keep reading, you can bet I’ve found some kind of a connection there.

–Malcolm