Make Me FEEL It: Internalization

So the votes are in and most of you wanted me to talk about internalization first.

Of course.

Because that’s the one I have the hardest time with.

Internalization is hard. It’s definitely a balancing act. Because if you give too much internalization, your book reads more like a Faulkner novel/stream of consciousness thing. And no offense to Faulkner, but…that’s not what we want.

But if you don’t give enough internalization, there is the constant feeling of being kept at arm’s length from the character and their emotions.

And if you don’t do internalization well, then your book becomes boring. Have you ever read about left brain/right brain sort of things? Of course you have. Well, I read this super interesting book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It talked about how in order to draw life-like, realistic pictures, you have to train your brain to turn off the “left” side of it. This is the part of your brain that thinks in terms of symbols and numbers and letters. It’s the math side. The process side. When you are drawing with the left side of your brain, and someone says draw a tree, you just draw a straight trunk and a bushy top that’s supposed to “represent” leaves. You don’t bring out the shading of the bark, the shadows on the bottom of the leaves, the light at the top of the tree. You said tree, your brain gave you a representation of a tree that anyone could recognize. But it’s not art.

I feel like internalization done wrong works kind of the same way. If you are being too blunt with it. If you are telling your reader exactly what the MC is feeling and thinking in these terms we use all the time, “happy,” “sad,” “confused,” “heart fluttered,” “stomach felt sick.” Then our brains automatically give us this shallow version of the feeling. The representative version. The short hand. But we don’t really feel it.

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Make your reader’s brain work! Make their feelings have to dig in!

It’s hard. Honestly, the best thing you can do is hand off your manuscript to someone and tell them to be merciless and mark every place where they feel like they don’t know how the MC is feeling. Every spot where they feel held back. This will help you see where you need more internalization.

There are several different ways to do internalization. We’re going to talk about a few and give examples from published books. Okay? Okay.

So let’s start with a Pitch Wars mentor’s book for the first kind of internalization. Physical reactions and feelings. Brooks Benjamin is awesome at this in his debut My Seventh Grade Life in Tights. Physical responses and feelings can be hard to get just right. So many are cliches and can feel more like telling than actually letting us inside the MC’s head. The trick is to let us know how the physical reaction feels in a new/voicy/true to the character way. So here is an excerpt when the MC finally kisses the girl he’s had a crush on the whole book.

Our lips touched. And on purpose. For a second all I could think was how there was no “How to Kiss a Girl” section of my dance tutorials. But in an instant that was gone. My brain exploded, fireworks shooting out of my ears and white doves flying out of the top of my head.

Isn’t that an awesome way to describe the feeling of a first kiss? It’s voicey, it’s perfectly MG. The beginning of the paragraph is two very short sentences that set up this feeling of a stilted thought pattern. And then when he decribes how it feels, he doesn’t just say, “my heart jumped out of my chest.” or “I felt dizzy.” No, he goes above and beyond and you FEEL it. Right?

Okay, let’s move onto another type of internalization. Memories. Often you can draw out how your MC is feeling by what memory they reflect back on. Let’s be honest, when we are thinking about things, do we really sit and think, “I feel sad.” Or, “I’m angry. Really angry!” No. Our minds wander and we make connections that others might not. Make sure your MC is the same way. Allow your reader to connect the dots between what memory your MC is having, and how they are feeling. For an example of this I used the first couple chapters of Melanie Conklin’s Counting Thyme.

Thyme has just moved to New York and she obviously doesn’t want to be there and is missing her home, family, and friends in San Diego. But Conklin never comes out and says, “I wish I was home in San Diego.” Instead, she has Thyme narrate what’s going on, but her thoughts keep trailing back to what they would be doing for Thanksgiving dinner that very day if they were back in San Diego with her Grandma.

As the taxi bumped down the street, I tried not to think about what I was missing at home. Grandma Kay had made us an early turkey dinner, but it still didn’t seem right to leave her alone on Thanksgiving Day…….

Thanks to the time zone difference, it was already six o’clock. Which meant it was three o’clock back at home, the exact time we would have started Thanksgiving diner at Grandma’s. It had always been my job to snap the green beans.

Don’t you just feel that longing in those last words? “It had always been my job to snap the green beans.” She never says it, but the reader knows Thyme doesn’t feel like they should be there. They don’t belong there. this is how you use memories and thoughts through narration.

Internalization can also happen in just short, little asides. A sarcastic comment here. An exclamation there. Think “Holy Bagumba” in Flora and Ulysses.

Internalization also works well with metaphors. How about another example from COUNTING THYME? She’s thinking about her best friend back home and says,

“I felt like I’d left my own skin behind.”

That’s a metaphor you can feel.

Now there is a kind of internalization that I want to warn you away from and that is questions. Obviously, there is a time and a place for your character to be full of questions and thinking about these questions. But they should definitely be used sparingly. Questions usually don’t pack the kind of emotional punch you need. Whenever you start to write your character thinking a question, try to see if you can write it a different way. Nine times out of ten, it’s stronger not as a question. However, they can be used well. I want to use one from the manuscript I got an agent with. My MC is struggling with the abandonment of her dad and her crumbling relationship with her best friend. She is eating lunch with another girl who is kind of setting my MC straight on how she should let her old best friend treat her.

Jane shakes her head. “People who love you don’t need to come back around. They never leave to begin with.”

But I know that can’t be right, because what would that mean about Dad?

It’s a single question, not a whole list of them. And it’s not done to show that she’s confused or she’s looking for answers. It’s just one question that shows not only what she’s struggling to come to terms with but what she’s not willing to admit yet. It denotes hurt and denial all at once without ever saying anything close to “I’m sad.” or “I don’t like to think about my dad not coming back.”

Those are just a few ways to use internalization to bring out certain feelings in your reader. The biggest thing I want you to notice is that you never come right and tell the reader what they are supposed to be feeling. And as much as possible, you never come right and say exactly what the character is feeling. You allow us to feel it alongside them by describing their physical reactions in such a way that we feel it too. You direct us to memories and thought processes that help us see the struggle and feel that struggle along with the character. But you have to do it carefully, don’t hit your reader over the head.

Like I said before, it’s a balance and it takes practice, but hopefully this helps!

What are you favorite ways to give internalization?

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