How to Write Introspection Well: Show “Just Enough”

september-c-fawkesNothing can quite kill a story’s pacing like a big hunk of rambling 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. And yet some stories have whole passages of introspection. So what gives?

Here are some tips to help you master introspection that makes your writing stronger, not weaker.

Less is More

Because beginning writers love character depth (who doesn’t?) and are trying hard to get the audience to feel close to their characters, they will often write huge chunks of introspection, especially in the opening.

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 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.

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.

Instrospection can become boring or come across as an info dump if the writer isn't careful. Here's how to write inner thoughts well!

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.

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.

Since introspection naturally takes away immediacy, it’s often better to have your character think forward on something. What could happen. 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 and sometimes you need to, but it’s problematic if you only look back. 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 affect 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 you character is dreading something that could happen, and how it will completely unravel her world if it does–that can kick up tension.

Instrospection can become boring or come across as an info dump if the writer isn't careful. Here's how to write inner thoughts well!

Introspection can be used to create character depth, which can be intriguing–but only works 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.

Introspection can be very intriguing when it asks thematic questions. Remember the key here is the questioning. If your character is musing about thematic 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. 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.

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

september-c-fawkes_3Sometimes September scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. She works as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author while penning her own stories, holds an English degree, and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. Find out more about September here, hang with her on social media, or visit her website to follow her writing journey and get more writing tips.

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16 Responses to How to Write Introspection Well: Show “Just Enough”

  1. xproverbs31womanx says:

    Is it bad to use state-of-being verbs (was, were, would) in a passage of introspection? I haven’t published my novel and I don’t want a reader to lose interest mid-paragraph.

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  3. I love this – Pacing is such a delicate thing. ANY and ALL tips on keeping a story moving along at the right pace is appreciated! Thank you again for helpful and useful information!

  4. jack dietz says:

    Hello September:
    Thank you for the timely article.
    My current story does require introspect and I have found myself concern for the very reasons that you have indicated. Yet, I feel that showing them just enough to shape the reasons why the character is now reacting so violently, is necessary. Well, at least for the first draft. This information is all new to the reader and the character is just now having to face the trauma which he had suppressed for most of his life. Thus, an explanation of some type is required that is acceptable and helps to move the story forward. Well, at least for the first draft. This is very uncharitable territory for me as a writer. Your article is helping me address my concerns, so I wanted to say thanks.

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  7. Carol Baldwin says:

    Excellent post. Thanks for these insights! Will keep this in mind as I review my ms.

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  9. Barbara Parker says:

    Great article. Thanks.

  10. :Donna says:

    ALways great stuff on this blog! Thanks, September! 😀

  11. Terrific post, September. Introspection can be such a huge challenge because it allows a writer to show the inner workings of a character and to flex that all-important voice, but it is such a trouble spot as it is very easy to use it as a crutch and slow the pace to a crawl as a result. Great advice here on how to make sure that doesn’t happen! Doing more with less means a tighter, more impactful story, too! 🙂

    • Angela,
      Yes, totally agree. It is important for the reasons you mentioned, but can be tricky to learn how to do well.

      And of course, the best writing always says more than what’s actually on the page.

  12. Thanks for the blog post. I love writing dialogue so I try to tell as much of my story as possible that way, but I know introspection is necessary. So glad you said less is more. I hate reading long passages of introspection so I keep mine to a minimum.

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