The Return of the Internal Monologue.

This spring and summer I’ve noticed at least three tv shows that rely heavily on the (in)famous internal monologue of film noir. Harry Dresden, Painkiller Jane and Burn Notice.
A little while ago, Dead Like Me and IIRC, Joan of Arcadia used the same device.

Now, it could be used by a lazy writer as a short hand for exposition, but in the shows above, I think it works, sometimes better, because a healthy amount of self-irony and dry humor. Over used, it gets annoying, but I’ve always been a fan, as long as it’s done well, and I prefer the original Blade Runner, because of this.

What do you guys think - yay or nay?

Any more shows using this right now? Is it a trend or just a blip?

Scrubs has been using it for years.

Ally MacBeal used it too.

I think if it’s used to provide irony or insight, it’s useful.

Some achieve the right or perfect level of emotional and thoughtfulleness expression through thoughtful visual exposition, like House MD and Rome, and I prefer it that way given a choice. Some, though, like my all-time favourite Dead Like me, inject a great deal of humour into the internal monologue and couldn’t really be done without.

Most shows don’t do either, like Battlestar Galactica, and are worse off for it.

Sex and the City used it. A lot of people found it very cheesy.

Maybe that’s it. the juxtaposition of what we see and what we hear…
I’m not sure my thoughts on this is clear, but I’ll think about it.

I really, *really * miss Dead Like Me

Charlie Kaufman: [voice-over] I’m pathetic, I’m a loser. I have failed, I am panicked. I’ve sold out, I am worthless, I… What the fuck am I doing here? What the fuck am I doing here? Fuck. It is my weakness, my ultimate lack of conviction that brings me here. Easy answers used to shortcut yourself to success. And here I am because my jump into the abysmal well - isn’t that just a risk one takes when attempting something new? I should leave here right now. I’ll start over. I need to face this project head on and…
Robert McKee: …and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.

“Internal monologue” is a bit different from narrative voice-over (which is usually just damned annoying, like Ron Howard’s explication in Arrested Development), and can be useful when the character has a complex line of thought that can’t otherwise be demonstrated by action. It can also be damned funny, as in the opening interior monologue of Adaptation. There’s a tendency to overuse it, though, as a way of introducing exposition that is either totally redundant or annoyingly banal, like Mickey Spillane’s obnoxious and misogynistic prose. (A satire of this, however, such as The Man Who Wasn’t There, where Ed keeps telling us stuff we already know, can be quite amusing.) When it becomes the primary way by which the viewer learns of plot developments, it’s overdone, as is the situation where you have two characters talking about a situation they both understand, or alternatively one describing the crisis they’re in to another blatantly ignorant character (see Larry Niven for all kinds of examples of this) just for the benefit of the audience.


Like everything else involving art, It Depends.

A good internal monologue will add to the story by having us see the character’s thinking. It’s not lazy when done right and is really no different in a TV show than a first-person narrative is in a book.

Same for narrators. In Arrested Development, for instance, the narration was essential, or else the episodes would run an hour each in order to show what the different character were doing. It allowed the show to get to the jokes without a lot of setup.

However, the narrators at the beginning of Dark City and The Dark Crystal are completely unecessary and give away all the plot points in advance.

I’m hoping it’s a trend, in that the style is typical of comedies that don’t follow the setup/punchline/laugh-track formula. Consider NBC’s current Thursday lineup:

My Name is Earl - narrating central character
30 Rock - no narration
The Office - no narration but frequent interludes where characters share monologues with the camera
Scrubs - narrating central character

None of them are conventional laugh-track sitcoms and I’d be happy seeing more like them (though Office is the weakest of the four, I find).

And I greatly preferred the original Blade Runner, too.

I know one movie that was destroyed because the writer/director bought that meme about voice-over being a sign of flaccid, sloppy writing. Sometimes it’s absolutely essential.

In Kiss the Girls Goodbye, an obsessive type named Carl kidnaps a woman named Dawn and chains her up in the basement, forcing her to wear a big harness gag the whole time. About two thirds of the way through the movie, she’s rescued by friends. And as the story develops we learn she has kind of ambivalent feelings about Carl, in the sense that he’s sending her love notes and she’s storing them in a shoe box and reading them in secret instead of reporting them to the cops.

This comes as a huge surprise because during Dawn’s captivity her entire acting repetoire consisted of staring mutely at Carl. That’s all she did. And there was no voiceover narration to give us any idea how she felt about what was going on between her and Carl.

And there really, really should have been. A nice, long internal monologue done in the form of voiceover narration would have improved the film IMMENSELY. As it is, when we got to the part where Dawn is reading love letters from Carl, it’s a huge WTF moment. It need not have been.

I did a montage of shots of Dawn in the basement in a review of the film I wrote. Here’s the caption:

What a shame. Teh film coulda been a contendah. As it is … meh.

I haven’t seen this movie, but from the way you describe it, I don’t understand how adding an internal monologue would have been an improvement–quite the opposite, actually. It seems like the final shot you mention–with her reading the letters–appropriately comes as what you called a “WTF moment,” in other words, a moment in which something about the character is revealed which transforms our understanding of what has gone on before. Indeed, this makes the inscrutability of her facial expressions during the kidnapping scenes all the more significant.

But if you explain all this during the kidnapping scene, using an internal monologue, then the “reading the letters” scene loses all its oomph, and the kidnapping scene loses its focus.

I’d say keeping the monologue out, in this case, is good writing, not bad.


Take a show like Dexter on Showtime, where the internal narrative is from the central character. It works in this show, because he’s a serial killer, and presents a false face to the world. If he didn’t let us know what was going on inside his head we would never figure it out.

In that case, they used the device of “narration” being read from the stupid, banal weekly column that the stupid, chain-smoking main character was inexplicably paid to write.

It started off worse. In the first season, Carrie asked a question from the column in VO, and this was followed by “man on the street interviews” of people answering the question. Wretched.

Yeah, some of those people were her friends (Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte, Skipper from season one, etc.). It was a bit painful watching those responses. Thankfully they phased that out.

The film Fight Club did that way back in 1999 and was something of a hip, edgy film. It worked there, though. It’s certainly hit or miss.

I’m trying to think of some more misses.

Well, actually, it isn’t the end. Carl kidnaps her a second time, though the nature of the kidnapping is somewhat problematical as all he has to do is cruise up next to Dawn as she walks down the street and say “get in the car.” Doesn’t have to point a gun at her or anything.

As a surprise ending, I guess it would work but all it would be is surprising. I think if you’re going to have a character go from, “Hey, I’m a fun-loving college-bound high school grad” to “Hey, being chained up in a psycho’s basement for months on end is a GAS!” you need to lay down some groundwork, you need to do some character development. You need to show how the character’s mind gets from point A to point C. Otherwise, it’s totally unbelievable. As was the case in this movie.

Ah, I think I understand now. So what we see is, she’s kidnapped, does nothing which would indicate (even obliquely) that she’s secretly enjoying herself, then later on she’s reading letters from her kidnapper and then later on she voluntarily gets in his car with him.

That does make little sense. I’m still not sure an internal monologue would have been the way to go, though. Remove the ball gag and let her and the guy converse. Things can be (obliquely) revealed about her through what she says to him and how she reacts to what he says.


Yes, revealing her thoughts through conversation would have worked, too, but realistically, she would probably have been very guarded in what she said to a psycho who had her locked in his basement, and whom she had seen kill several people in the course of the kidnapping. Anything would have been better than having her turn out to have liked her captivity, without explaining how or why in any way.

Of course, one suspects that the reason there was no character development because the writer didn’t know how to get her mindset from point A to point C, so just had her go there willy-nilly after the fact.

BTW, it wasn’t a ballgag – all the gag really did was cover her mouth, which meant that, realistically, she could have spoken quite clearly to Carl at any time. But she never did. It’s a pretty common mistake in mainstream films.

In used in moderation, and if well-written, it’s all good. And you’ve just gotta have internal monologues in noir-ish films, to be true to the genre. That’s why I think it works so well in the original Blade Runner.

Scrubs and My Name is Earl both now make good use of IMs, as noted above.

Well, ‘round about then Cooter was lucky enough to be drivin’ on by, and heard the bangin’ those poor tied up Duke boys were makin’ in the shed. Luckily those robbers were away still followin’ Boss Hog and lookin’ for the secret well where the county property taxes were hidden…

Grey’s Anatomy uses internal monologues from the title character, Meredith Grey, as framing sequences to introduce each episode and tie the various plot threads together at the end. It’s the exact same system used by Scrubs, and God help me, I enjoy them both.