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Monday, March 11, 2019

How to Write Excellent Introspection

Nothing can quite kill a story's pacing like a big hunk of introspection, except, of course, its cousin, the info-dump. The reason for this is that the more time we spend reading a character's thoughts, the less immediacy the story has, which means the less the audience cares about it. Often beginning writers put in whole paragraphs or even pages of introspection in addition to info-dumps--killing the pacing and readers' interests even more. Some writing instructors will tell you that you shouldn't spend more than 20% of the novel in a character's thoughts. But yet in some successful stories, this rule is completely disregarded.

I admit I can be a sucker for a good chunk of introspection. I just love character depth. So how do you master introspection so that it makes your writing stronger, not weaker? Well, here are some tips.

Less is More

Because beginning writers usually also love character depth and are trying hard to get the audience to feel close with their characters, they will often write huge chunks of introspection, especially in the opening. It's a great way to annoy or bore your audience. What usually happens, is that the writer--because she or he is the writer--already feels a strong connection to her characters, and in an effort to get the audience to feel and see what she does with her characters, she thinks that writing more is the answer.

In reality, writing less is more. If you truly want your audience to love your character as much as you do, you need to let them discover the character for themselves--you don't need to spoon-feed them with chunks of introspection. You need to let them come to their own conclusions about your character.

Have you ever sat next to someone at a social gathering, maybe a wedding, who will not stop talking about himself, even when you've said multiple times you are trying to leave? That happened to me a few months ago. I literally said I needed to leave, but he just kept going on and on.

You think I'm looking forward to talking to that person ever again?

No way! I'm going to try to avoid him.

To get your audience interested in your character's interior, you need to show them just enough. Keep it short enough to stay interesting, but long enough to cover the character's point. A glimpse of an interesting interior will make us want to come back, without slowing the pacing in your story so much we want to get away.

You can sneak in bigger chunks after we already know and care about the person. But almost never put big chunks in the story's opening. (Rare types of stories can break this rule though.)

Look Forward, not Back

A mistake that is easy to make is to only include introspection that looks back at something--something that happened earlier in the story, or, that really naughty thing, a flashback, and have the character relive it in his or her thoughts.

It can be very important to have a character think back on something. But since introspection naturally takes away immediacy, it's often better to have your character think forward on something. What could happen. (Yes, you've heard me talk about this before.) The past can't change (unless you shift context). But the future is something we can only guess at. And having your character think forward on something can create anticipation, tension, hooks, fear, dread, or hope, and then makes the audience want to read more to see what happens.

It's not necessarily bad to look back, but it's problematic if you only or almost only ever look back, and not forward. Ideally, if your character is going to look backward, see if you can connect it to something that is forward--how a past experience is going to effect an upcoming one, how a past experience makes the character fearful or hopeful of a future one.

Make it Intriguing

A chunk of introspection can hold the audience's attention if it's intriguing in some way. This means that the character's thought can't simply be a recap of something the audience already knows or read. Introspection needs to have a reason to be in the story, which usually means it needs to bring something new to the table.

While it's common for introspection to take away from tension, because it takes away immediacy, when used well, it can actually add tension, through your character's interpretation, perspective, and predictions. If your character is dreading something that could happen, and how it will completely unravel her world if it does--that can kick up tension.

At the beginning I talked about how introspection can come from the writer trying to create character depth. Character depth can be intriguing--but only if it's something new or unusual. Rehashing what a character thinks for a full paragraph is boring if we already know what the character is naturally thinking. Rehashing isn't depth. It's repetition. To achieve more depth, you need to peel back your character's layers to reach something deeper--an inner motive, thought, or feeling. And it should be interesting. If your character appears happy that her best friend threw a birthday party for her, but when we go into her mind, she's fuming--that's interesting. To add depth, we want to peel to answer why she's fuming and then why she's pretending to happy even though she is fuming.

Introspection can be very intriguing when it asks thematic questions. Remember the key here is the questioning. If your character is musing about the theme's final answers without having considered the questions, it's more likely to be boring. But if they are legitimately questioning something moral, ethical, thematic, or intellectual, that can stir the reader's own mind, which makes it interesting.

Introspection can be intriguing when the character brings a new interpretation, or new context, to the story. For example, having the protagonist think back to some small talk he had with an unassuming taxi driver can be really boring. But reading about Sherlock's interpretations of that exchange can be mega interesting. Why? Because he brings so much new context to the table. His introspection appeals to our intellect.

If you need to have your character think back for a bit, one way to keep it interesting is to have them change the context and interpretation of what they are thinking back on. That gives us an interesting way to interpret the past event and it gives us more character.


You can get away with a bit of introspection if it's entertaining. If your character has an interesting voice or worldview, audiences won't have a problem sitting through her introspection. Lemony Snicket is a great example of this. He can write a whole paragraph about his thoughts an driver licenses, and it's so entertaining that we love it. We like to hear the way he thinks and his voice.

In closing, when working with passages of introspection, make sure it adds value to the story, instead of taking value away.

 Write Your Book in a Flash by Dan Janal

Hey everyone, I was recently given a copy of Write Your Book in a Flash by Dan Janal from the publisher (thank you so much, Maria!)

If you've followed my blog over the years, you probably know I'm a very slow writer. 😅 But I love to include others' writing approaches on here, such as when I had my friend Paul do this post on how to publish yearly.

Write Your Book in a Flash is a little different in that it's intended to help you create a non-fiction business book. Heck, I've had a few people suggest I turn some of my blog posts into non-fiction books over the years. . . . maybe this book will help me decide. 🙃

Written by an award-winning journalist and ghostwriter, this book shows business executives, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders how to get focused fast, so you can write your book without tearing your hair out.

If this sounds interesting to you, check out the book here.  Or visit the TCK Publishing's website.

See you guys next week!


  1. Your content seems to be very similar to

    Im assuming this is allowed?

    1. Hi, I authored both posts, so yes. I coach on Writing Helping Writers--did you look at the name and bio on that page? However, I'm glad people care about such things to check ^_^

  2. Thanks for the post. Helpful. Could you offer me pointers on the best way to format introspection when writing in 3rd person limited from a point of view character?

    Do you need to say things like: She couldn't believe she fell for that, she thought. Do you need some kind of inner-dialogue tag? What's the best way to separate it from other elements of the story?

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for visiting. What you are asking relates to what's called Point of View Penetration. I have a post on that here: https://www.septembercfawkes.com/2015/09/point-of-view-penetration.html

      It depends on how deep into the viewpoint character's mind you want to go. Most books will hit every point.

      You can sort of summarize:
      She thought he was a jerk.

      Or put it as a direct thought:
      He's a jerk, she thought.
      --In this example "He's a jerk" should be in italics. Direct thoughts should be italicized. If italics isn't available, they should be underlined. The way you handle tags is the same way you would for dialogue. You just say things like "thought" or "wondered" instead of "said."

      Then, you can also write the prose in such a way that they take on the thoughts of the character (see the link to my other post). In cases like that, you could write:
      He's such a jerk.

      And it will be implied that the viewpoint character thinks that, since we are in her viewpoint.

      I hope that helps.


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