Prose Pet Peeves

Over the past two years I’ve tried to be a good little author and read things I “should” not just the things that I’d have picked as no more than a for-pleasure reader. I’m glad I’ve done this. I’ve run across some gems I would otherwise have missed, and I’ve learned things from some absolute stinkers I really wish I had missed.

One thing I’ve learned, is that some things that I simply hate in a book aren’t necessarily wrong, they’re just not my style. (Some of them I think SHOULD be wrong, but they don’t let me make the rules.) Does this happen to you? Well reviewed books that just leave you flat for a reason you can actually pin down and say ‘this is what ruined the book for me’?

Here’s one I’ve encountered in several books lately:

Internal monologue. (Just for clarification, we’re talking about third person POV here, not the internal narration of first person POV.)

Not that I think it’s always a bad thing. Clever and very, very sparing use (as in once or twice in the entire book) works really well for me. That one, brief contradictory or sardonic thought in the middle of a scene where it’s important or enlightening to know that the POV character is thinking something you can’t get from body language or that just works so much better in a quick snippet can make a whole scene.

Ex: He said what?


John couldn’t believe Jim had said such a thing.

Depending on the mood, voice, character, the internal monologue there can be exactly what you need rather than the longer explanation that carries much less of an impact.

That said:

I genuinely hate, no, despise regular internal monologue, especially when it’s used for exposition. To me, it’s the worst kind of telling. For starters, it’s unrealistic. Think about it. You’re seventeen and the love of your life, who you were convinced didn’t care about you at all, just declared his love.

Is this your internal reaction:

He loves me? OMG, he loves me! How long have I been in love with him? I’ve waited so long. But I never thought he’d ever love me back. Am I dreaming? I can’t believe this!

Or is this more like it:

Speechless, random waves of shock, elation, giddiness, disbelief. Get choked up, tear up a bit. Want to say something to him but can’t seem to form a coherent thought, much less articulate it. Then:

“You do? But I thought– Really? I’m– OMG, I can’t believe– Really?”

We don’t usually think in full sentences. Of course, now that I’ve said that, you’re thinking in complete sentences. But really, day to day, just daydreaming or musing or even in conversation, you might come out with a complete sentence in replying to someone, but you didn’t craft it in its entirety before it came out of your mouth. We think a lot faster than we talk or write. In part because we’re thinking in ideas, images, feelings. NOT completely articulated thoughts.

So reading it that way in prose just drives me up the wall. It distances me from the character because I’m not experiencing this with them, I’m being told about it in dry facts and thought-out responses.

Is this a universal truth? Heck no. In fact, one of the books I read lately that prompted this post was the latest by one of THE name writers in that genre. Clearly there are talented authors and editors who think I’m totally wrong about this. But reader-Leah is convinced that she does NOT like internal monologue.

How about you?

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9 Responses to Prose Pet Peeves

  1. Jaimie says:

    Interesting. I write 3rd person POV and I wonder if my stuff would qualify as annoying to you. I don’t do the italic stuff; it never felt genuine to me. And I don’t do the thought-out reaction to surprising things, just the emotional response and the dialogue… it’s only later anyone really thinks through shocking things. But one thing I DO do a lot is the “she wondered.” I wonder (she wondered…) if that’s something I’ll cut out in later drafts. Probably, because I seem to do it a lot lately.

    Most annoying thing to me that isn’t technically wrong, but should be: writing a whole book in the present tense. I put books down over that.
    Jaimie recently posted..Okay, here is the best movie of 2011My Profile

  2. Jessica says:

    My biggest pet peeve is when a book IS first person pov but then suddenly I’m reading what another person is thinking without any kind of transition. If it’s a first person narrator there’s no frickin’ way I could know what someone else is doing or thinking unless the narrator is a mind reader.
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  3. Jarrett Rush says:

    I am not a fan of internal dialogue for the reasons you just explained. I also dislike that string of rhetorical questions as internal dialogue.

    “But what if this? And what about that? Could this be true? But didn’t he say this?”

    A lot of times they are use for exposition, too. It seems like an easy way out to me. A cheat, almost, for the author. An easy way to drop in some information.
    Jarrett Rush recently posted..An even swapMy Profile

  4. John Hancock says:

    I’ve mentioned it on twitter, but here goes MY pet peeve:

    when an author has a character go back over some previous event, a flashback, etc. And to bring it back to current events, the author uses the hated word “REVERIE”. as in “(expanded expositional retelling of old stuff). Bernard snapped out of his reverie and approached the current timestream” I mean, C’MON! when has the word reverie ever been used in common language in the past 20 years EXCEPT as a lame plot device to signal the reader “OK, done remembering stuff now, we return you to your regularly scheduled plot”.

    Here’s a challenge to all authors: find everywhere you use the word “reverie” and remove that sentence. Find a BETTER way to differentiate between time frames. you can do it, you’re like writers or something. Every time I see the word “reverie” I’m seeing the fake facade of your writing showing through, like the shadow of a boom mike in a movie.

  5. LOL! I should have known. Get a bunch of authors started on a subject like this and you could go all day. 😉

    Jaimie, I haven’t noticed the “she wondered” stuff bothering me as much as the italicized passages, so I can’t really say. But I agree with you on present tense. I’ve had to learn to deal with it lately, since it’s so popular, but it’s a huge hurdle for me to get past. The rest of the book has to be frickin brilliant.

    Jessica, I’ve been known to jump up and yell “he couldn’t possibly know that!” when that happens.

    Jared, Yes! That reminds me of anther “cheat.” When they think something like ‘if I didn’t have brown hair and brown eyes, would my life be different?’ or some similar method of trying to drop in character description that would never happen in real life.

    John, LOL. I’ve never noticed that use of reverie before. Not saying I haven’t run across it, just hadn’t noticed. But you’re right, like everything else, if you don’t do it right it feels contrived. There’s a fine line where the author disappears and the story becomes reality, and it’s a lot harder to find than people realize.
    Leah Petersen recently posted..Review: Eden by Phil RossiMy Profile

  6. The comment you made about internal monologue only being used once or twice in an entire book seems off to me. I wonder if it’s used that sparingly if those particular sentences would seem disconnected from the work as a whole– like one or two present-tense sentences in a novel of past-tense sentences.

    I think some of the things you said, about how inner monologues are often unrealistic, and the information being conveyed may oftentimes be better transmitted via other methods, are true. However, I have come across good uses of extensive inner dialogue that cannot be done any other way.

    When inner dialogue distinguishes different POV character’s thoughts. Good inner dialogue is like good regular dialogue: It is unique to that particular character. I wonder if sometimes inner dialogue is not given the same care as actual dialogue. I think also, which is often a problem authors have with regular dialogue, is that every character speaks with essentially the same voice, and so the inner monologue of one character sounds basically the same as the next.

    Inner dialogue is great when there is a character that thinks something differently than what they actually say, especially if that’s a character-trait unique to a particular character. One that always is insulting other characters in their head, but never out loud, or a character that is often quiet and carefully ponders everything before they say something, or a character who has a particular obsession with something and is constantly thinking about a particular thing even if they’re not talking about it, etc.

    Like anything, any literary device can be used poorly or used well. I don’t know that a lot of authors think about why they include an inner monologue; they just do, and that’s when it looks and reads sloppy.
    Eric Hamilton recently posted..UnluckyMy Profile

  7. Well, this is different, because it is actually wrong, but I can’t stand to read anything that is supposedly professionally published which has obvious typos or incorrect grammar, etc.

    Recently, I read a blog post by Scientific American, and there were numerous blatant errors! For example, one sentence started with “i.” As in, “i wonder if this asshat bothered to even spell-check this piece?” Or “their/there/they’re” or “your/you’re,” etc.

    It was an interesting piece and something I normally feel strongly about (foisting faux science on schools), but after I read, “i,” I had to take a deep breath. By the time I got to the third obvious error, I couldn’t stand to read it anymore. I felt like he was setting science *back.*

    It’s one thing if you’re tweeting or sending an email or writing a personal blog (although I do spell-check my blogs), but for a professional piece of writing? Come on!
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  8. Nicole says:

    I have a raft of pet peeves, primarily revolving around punctuation. I’m able to overlook it when people don’t use commas with coordinating conjunctions in a compound sentence as long as it’s consistent, but incorrectly punctuated dialogue or commas tossed into sentences all willy-nilly…oy. This is primarily a self-published or indie published thing, usually accompanied by a note saying the author’s brilliant cousin or uncle edited the novel. Oh, and misuse of the semi-colon should be punishable by death. Yeah, I’m a little bit of an ass about that kind of thing, but I try to read and feel like picking up a red pen to make corrections.

    As far as writing itself goes, it drives me start raving mad when all men in a novel are written to sound like women with penises. Or all women are written as simpering morons.
    Nicole recently posted..Embrace the Horror: On Querying a Horror NovelMy Profile

  9. AuroraLee says:

    This is a great post! Definitely some good points to think about as I work to finish/edit/rewrite my novel. I think I definitely need a better balance with the internal monologue.
    AuroraLee recently posted..Death, Life, Eternity – snippetMy Profile

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