The importance of internalization … and getting the balance right.


As some of you will know (and may be sick of hearing!) I hit a big–no, gargantuan–1000-foot high brick wall about half way through my current WIP, where I felt that my MC’s voice was feeling flat or non-existent, and it FREAKED me out! I flicked back to the early pages of my WIP and felt like her voice was there, but then it suddenly dropped off and I didn’t know why.

Ever since then I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of what on earth happened, as a result i did this post here about how filter words can create distance, and the importance of showing MC Voice, but there is another tool in the writers toolkit that is so important for luring in that reader and making them feel for, and understand your MC: internalization.

Internalization gives a unique insight into the world the character lives in and how they feel about that world–it can show their biases, prejudices and attitude, showcasing that they have a unique and intriguing personality–through the words and style of words that your MC would use.

Example: Two different types of characters receiving an overdue bill.

The OCD bitch:

Keta’s hands began to shake as she saw the crisp white envelope from the council ruined by red ink, it seeped through the pores of the paper to form one aggressive word. OVERDUE. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The only time she’d ever been late dealing with anything–ever–was when she’d relied on her ex-boyfriend of two years to post a cheque. With a three-week buffer, he couldn’t even get that right. She sighed. What idiot bureaucrat fucked this up.

A solo-mother:

Keta saw it, buried under all that junk mail, the council’s crescent gave it away. She’d been waiting for it; for the last week she’d gnawed on the tips of her nails knowing it could arrive any day. And there it was, sitting under pamphlets for outdoor furniture and BBQ’s, and other things she could never afford. With a trembling hand she slowly pulled it out. Looking at the heavy-duty ‘late’ stamp, she tried to recall the last time she’d seen just a regular white envelope–with no blood-like capitalized letters that made her heart skip a beat–she couldn’t. Keta didn’t want to open it, she already knew what it’d say: twenty-eight days and counting. It wouldn’t be enough time to package up every memory of him, and say goodbye to the house they’d brought together.

Same scene, different personalities and circumstances frame the action, reaction and internalization in each example.

This type of internalization should not be italicized like emphasized internalization, and as such it should be kept in the same tense as the rest of the your novel.

A mix of character action and internalization (and dialogue if the scene calls for it) feels the most natural. If there is just action, it can feel detached, formulaic and list-like. However, a paragraph of internalization can have the reader wondering when the author is going to get to the damn point already, it also slows down the plot as there is no action advancing the next scene.

For my WIP I noticed when I hit that gargantuan wall, I was leaning towards having too much action and formulaic description, and not enough of the characters opinions, bias, attitude–the internalization was lacking, and as a result it is something that I concentrate on in the rewrite stage.

beautiful Do you struggle with balancing internalization with action and dialogue?


Filtering: great for your coffee, bad for your manuscript.

Filter words are those pesky things that can drive a wedge between the reader and the POV character, creating distance and lessening the impact of the scene. If you’ve been following my blog, you will know I hit a wall half way through my WIP where I felt as though I “lost” my main characters unique voice.

I’ve put it down to a couple of things, one: hitting writers block and taking a week off from writing, when I came back I felt as though I’d lost that connection with how my MC would naturally act and talk (to a degree). Two: wondering whether I should have written the whole novel in first person instead of third person, which leads me to Three: in third person I felt like I was struggling with the distance. I asked myself why, and one of the reasons I gleaned was that I was creating too much distance for the reader, and as a result it felt as though I was reporting my main characters actions, and noting her feelings instead of allowing myself and the reader to experience those things alongside Grey (my MC).

So what on earth are filter words? They are words that report what the character does and note what the character feels, and are typically the following: saw, watched, heard, felt, noticed, realized, thought, wondered, looked, decided. Even touched, tasted and smelt can distance the reader.

When you are writing in third person deep, like first person POV, you do not need to distance the reader; you are always in the main characters head for that particular scene or chapter. So, for example, when you are writing internalization, you don’t need to say “she thought” at the end of the sentence, because the thought can not belong to any other character. Filter words are not only unnecessary (in most cases), but they also dull the impact of the scene by putting more distance between the reader and what that character is doing and feeling.

Lets look at a couple of examples of sentences with filter words, and then compare it to sentences where the filter’s have been taken out:

“Keta flipped the page of her book. Yet another late night, she thought, cringing at how dark the bags under her eyes would be in the morning. Just one last chapter. She heard a creak break through the silence; she felt every muscle freeze as she heard the windowpane shake and groan at the effort of being pulled open after so many years. He had come back she thought.”

Without the filters:

“Keta flipped the page of her book. Yet another late night, she cringed at the thought of how dark the bags under her eyes would be come morning. Just one last chapter. A creak broke through the silence; every muscle froze as the windowpane shook and groaned at the effort of being pulled open after so many years. He had come back.”

Filter words can make a sentence clunky, it reminds the reader – hey, you there, yes you with the book in your hand, you are reading this! Instead of allowing them to actually experience the events alongside the MC, or allowing them to glean from their reactions how the character feels instead of being told she felt something.

That’s not to say that you should necessarily go through your manuscript and cut them all out entirely, there may be some circumstances where you’re actually trying to create distance or where you do need to emphasize something by reminding the reader that the MC saw something, heard something, or felt something. But if you are doing it with every single sentence as in the first example above, it can get annoying for the reader, and make them not care about your characters because of the distance created. Which you definitely do NOT want. In my first draft I let them sneak in, but cut those pesky filters out during editing.

Voice and POV (a case of what’s right for the story)

Not so long ago I struck an issue that was causing me MASSIVE writers block. Sure I felt a bit burnt out from writing 40,000 words in three weeks (outside of my FT job)–but, the thing that really got me resisting even going near my laptop to write (CUE: distracting TV show), was whether my MC’s voice was strong enough in third person POV.

I was in the middle of writing a scene that should have been exciting, it had stakes, it had conflict, it had tension–what it did’nt have was my MC’s personality. Which FREAKED me out. Why? Because in earlier scenes I could see the MC in everything, how SHE felt when she saw the setting, how the setting was affected by her mood, how the people she interacted with were affected by how SHE was feeling. And then I looked at the scene I had just written. There was no personality on the page at all, it was a dry explanation of facts that my character was seeing or doing–it was clinical, and cold. A check-list, if you will, of setting and action that was happening to my MC, and not experienced through my MC.

Thanks to the invaluable insights and help from Susan Dennard with this super handy post: Changing a draft from third person to first person (please read it to see why and how Sooz decided to change from third person POV to first person POV for her novel Something Strange and Deadly) — I was able to see where I was going wrong and ways in which to improve.

If you’ve read the link you will see my original question to Sooz was whether I had the wrong POV (still something I am pondering) because I considered the MC’s voice to be weak (or wavering at that point in the story), however instead I’ve been learning  HOW to bring a strong voice into third person POV. Yes there will always be a little more distance in limited third person POV than first person POV–this is built in because first person is seen through the MC’s eyes (I could smell the roses) whereas third person is being narrated (she smelt the roses)–though if you use third person limited you still see/hear/touch/smell/taste from the POV character and have internal narration.

The main lesson that I took away is that in order to have a strong voice for your MC you need to write everything (the setting, the action, their reaction to other characters) with their personality infused into the words that you choose. For example, a MC that is a six year old child would look at a playground (the setting) entirely different to someone with their earphones in just walking through it to get to the shop on the other side. If you were describing that setting with no voice, perhaps these two characters would look at the setting in a similar way: a dry check-list–green grass, swing-set, slide (and not infused with how excited a six year old may be to go playing in the park or how the person wearing earphones only sees the gravel from the path under his feet). This is a pretty simple example but you get the idea.

If you struggle with Voice you’re not alone, let me know if you have any tips or strategies you use to help you bring out a strong MC voice.

Here are some links to some great resources on Voice and/or POV here:

**Note not talking about author voice here (just character voice).