Externalising the inner voice – lessons from Dexter

Posted: October 18, 2013 in watching, writing
Tags: , , , , ,

It can be difficult to get a character’s inner voice out. With books and short stories we can at least put thoughts straight onto the page, though that can sometimes be overly expository or slow down the pace. And for films and TV it’s even harder – characters’ attempts to express their emotions, to tell us what the writers want us to know of their inner state, can seem very forced. But this week I was struck by a particularly good example that uses varied approaches.

It’s the TV show Dexter.


In case you don’t know it, Dexter is a drama about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers. He’s a dark character who has trouble addressing his own thoughts and feelings. The actor can’t always show them on Dexter’s face because he’s a sociopath hiding what feelings he has from the world. But that’s awkward, because Dexter’s inner workings are central to the show.

They get round this in three ways – through ordinary dialogue, through Dexter’s inner monologue, and through the speeches he gives to his victims.


The dialogue is the most standard tool, and applies more to the other characters than Dexter himself. The writers, and the actors performing their words, do a good job of showing rather than telling what’s going on with a character. Someone who’s on edge won’t say they feel on edge, they’ll snap and snarl at people around them. It’s a standard approach, one every writer needs, but it’s easy to forget how hard it is to get it right. And they get it right.

Inner monologue

Every episode we get to hear Dexter’s thoughts. Not the chaotic jumble of natural human thinking, but an organised monologue about things from his past and what he feels about his current situation. Dexter addresses the audience directly, letting us know where he’s at. Done badly, this could just be crude exposition, but here it adds depth to proceedings, showing what can’t be seen on the face of a stone cold killer.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have used a similar technique in some of their comic collaborations, such as Sleeper and Criminal. As well as illustrating a character’s thoughts and feelings this sets up dramatic ironies, with thoughts and visuals in contrast.

There’s show going on as well as tell. Dexter doesn’t always tell us that he’s conflicted over something – as with other dialogue, often he’ll give us just enough to work it out for ourselves. And when he tells us something directly, it’s a way of bringing things together, of highlighting a theme and clarifying an episode’s message.

The villainous monologue

Dexter’s speeches to his victims have something of the super-villain monologue to them, explaining what he’s doing and why. But they don’t feel forced or unnatural. The writers have created a character who needs to vent in this way, and then given him an opportunity to do so.

And of course there’s some show as well as tell here, as Dexter’s inner life becomes more complicated, so his relationship with his victims becomes less straightforward.

The spice of life

The writers of Dexter have created a problem for themselves, and then solved it in a variety of ways. It’s part of what keeps the show fresh and interesting, and I find it a useful example to examine. Which thoughts and feelings are expressed in which ways can be as telling as the words themselves. It’s inspired me to think hard about how I show characters’ inner states.

What do you think? Are there other examples that are good at this, in books or on the screen, or that get thoughts out in other ways? Let me know in the comments – I’m always interested to have more ideas.

  1. Nathan says:

    Dexter works for me because there are rules about when they use internal monologue and he’s the only character that gets one. it’s always used in one of two ways; to highlight the differences between what he’s thinking and what he’s doing (to reinforce his sociopathic nature) or to explain to the audience why he’s doing what he’s doing. Without it you’d need a another character to whom he could explain things (c.f. Lewis to Inspector Morse, Mathilda to Leon) at which point you lose the lone-hunter part of the character. They’ve even had to go down that line to a certain extent with the visions of his father.

    I suppose the next nearest example I can think of are the visions of Caprica six that Baltar gets in Battlestar Galactica. They’re using in a similar way, to show the conflict inside a character’s head and to explain to the audience why a particular character is acting the way they are.

    • The conversations with Harry! Can’t believe I missed that out – must make notes next time I have an idea for a post. Those conversations are one of the best ways Dexter does this, getting the thoughts out through conversation with someone who’s not really there. Like you say, it’s similar to Baltar, and arguably the ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth (boom! high-brow reference – my old English teachers would be proud).

  2. I was immediately put in mind of the technique used in the recent TV version of the Sherlock Holmes stories, where Holmes’ observations appeared as text on the screen as the actor looked about. Very effective on TV, I thought.

    • Great example, and it’s interesting what a very different approach it is – flashes of factual insight to show what he’s noticing, it’s almost a way of extending the viewers’ senses into the screen.

  3. […] Externalising the inner voice – lessons from Dexter […]

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