Here's a question from the mailbag...
Q: When I first started writing, I though all internal thoughts should be italicized. Then during an embarrassing moment at a writer’s conference, I learned that only some thoughts need italics. So I started italicizing thoughts I felt my character spoke in her head. But since then I got another critique where my italics were still being questioned. When do I italicize internal thoughts?Like so many things in writing there is no hard and fast rule here, because personal taste plays a role. Some writers dislike using italics at all, while others love them and use them all the time. Tastes will vary, but I've found italics work best when they emphasize something.They're also useful when you want to show internal thoughts directly "heard" from the character rather than a thought in the narrative.
A general guideline for italics in all forms is to use them sparingly. If you emphasize everything, then nothing stands out anymore. They're an accent, a spotlight.
Let's take a look at some options. In this scene snippet, (set in the Bob and the Zombies world, just after the zombie apocalypse has occurred) Jane is trying to decide who to give the remaining precious few bullets to--herself, Bob, or Sally. There's tension between the trio because Bob is in love with Jane, but it married to Sally, and they all need Sally to survive the zombie hordes. In the below examples, the italicized thought is meant to make the reader wonder about Bob's conflict between the two women, and suggests that Jane is both aware and unhappy about that conflict.
Option 1: To Emphasize Immediate Thoughts
Use italics to emphasize an immediate thought, using first person present tense (regardless of what the point of view style of the books is), thus drawing attention to it for some purpose. Either because the information is important, or funny, or kicks up the tension or something similar. This works very well with a tight point of view, but can work for any POV style.
Third person: Jane rounded up the last of the ammo, splitting it into three even piles. She glanced at the remaining two bullets, and placed one in Bob's pile. The other bullet--her or Sally? She scoffed. I bet Bob's asking the same question right about now.The italicized thought should hopefully make the reader understand that Bob is also choosing between these two women, and Jane is not thrilled with this. Drawing attention to this thought is meant to suggest that this conflict is going to cause trouble, and likely soon. I want readers to wonder which woman Bob might choose and what trouble that will cause.
First person: I rounded up the last of the ammo, splitting it into three even piles. I glanced at the remaining two bullets, and placed one in Bob's pile. The other bullet--me or Sally? I scoffed. Hey Bob, I bet you're asking the same question right about now, aren't ya?
When to use: When there's a specific thought you want to bring attention to that will add punch to the section in some way. These are typically lines that tweak the emotional strings or create a question in the reader's mind. The goal of emphasizing this particular thought is usually to get an emotional response from the reader.
When not to use: For all internal thoughts. Too much of it feels distracting and loses its effectiveness. Good old fashioned internal thought through the narrative works just fine in 99% of thoughts.
(Here's more on internalization basics)
Option 2: To Show a Thought in a More Distant POV
In a more distant point of view where there could be an outside narrator, you might want to use italics to bring attention to a character's thoughts and show this is her thought, not the narrator, as if the reader just peeked into the character's mind and "overhead" it. Often you'll see the thought tagged here, though it's not required. This works quite nicely with a medium to far narrative distance.
Jane rounded up the last of the ammo, splitting it into three even piles. She glanced at the remaining two bullets, and placed one in Bob's pile. The other bullet--her or Sally? I bet Bob's asking the same question right about now, she thought.
Jane rounded up the last of the ammo, splitting it into three even piles. She glanced at the remaining two bullets, and placed one in Bob's pile. The other bullet--her or Sally? Is Bob asking the same question, she wondered.Here the italicized thoughts suggest the same conflict. I want readers to see that Jane is wondering about Bob's choice, and hopefully they will wonder too.
When to use: Just like Option 1, when you want to focus on a specific thought and draw a reader's attention to it for a specific purpose. Italic thoughts are chosen with goals in mind--you want the reader to take note of this thought at this time.You might also want it to feel more personal or draw closer to the point of view character's head at that moment.
When not to use: For all internal thought, especially those that would read more naturally as part of the narrative.
(Here's more on crafting natural sounding internal thoughts)
Option 3: To Show a Character Talking to Themselves
Italics can be very useful when you want to show a character talking to herself, creating more of an internal dialog. This can be especially useful when the italicized thought is working like the voice of conscience, or when a character is arguing with herself.
Jane rounded up the last of the ammo, splitting it into three even piles. She glanced at the remaining two bullets, and placed one in Bob's pile. The other bullet--her or Sally? She scoffed. Bob was probably asking the same question right about now. So leave him with the short stack. She winced. No, she couldn't do that.Here, the italicized thought is meant to indicate that Jane is thinking she and Sally deserve the bullets and Bob ought to be left out in the cold, suggesting that she's unhappy with him and adding more conflict to this trio's relationship. She's thinking maybe he doesn't deserve extra ammo, which could also suggest she's thinking he doesn't deserve her. The italicized thought in her conscious, or the thing she doesn't want to admit to herself. I want readers to wonder if Jane is going to reject Bob or if she's becoming annoyed with him.
When to use: When a character might be conflicted over what to do, and is weighing the options internally, or when you want to bring certain key moments to the reader's attention. The italicized thought might be something the character doesn't want to think but does anyway.
When not to use: When a character is having a normal mental debate and trying to figure something out. Readers don't need to see the entire thought process italicized.
(Here's more on showing vs telling internal thoughts)
Option 4: To Show Remembered Dialog
Sometimes italics are used to show a character remembering previous dialog, either something another character has said, or as a reminder of what she's said.
Jane rounded up the last of the ammo, splitting it into three even piles. She glanced at the remaining two bullets, and placed one in Bob's pile. The other bullet--her or Sally? Sally had been very clear on this. Any extra ammo goes to me. You two couldn't hit water if you fell out of a boat.
Jane rounded up the last of the ammo, splitting it into three even piles. She glanced at the remaining two bullets, and placed one in Bob's pile. The other bullet--her or Sally? Sally had been very clear on this. Any extra ammo goes to me, she'd said. You two couldn't hit water if you fell out of a boat.Here, the italicized thought is what Jane remembers Sally saying to her and Bob about their shooting ability. Jane knows she should give the extra ammo to Sally, but there's a hint that she might not do that. And from how Sally spoke to her, the reader can see why Jane might not be willing to be nice to her. I want readers to worry about that, and maybe even wonder if those extra bullets are going to come into play soon.
When to use: When past dialog is significant to the situation and the character (and the reader) needs a reminder what was said at that point in the scene. This isn't just reminiscing, this memory has a reason for being there and something has triggered that memory.
When not to use: When showing flashbacks or longer conversations larger than roughly half a page (this can vary depending on personal preference of course). Italics are harder to read, and long passages of it can be tough on readers. If a lot of italics are needed for a flashback scene, it's possible it's gone beyond remembered dialog and it's more of a scene, using a different format or writing style to set it apart.
(Here's more on remembered dialog)
Italicized internal thoughts are just one tool to show what a character is thinking. Traditionally, they're used for emphasis or to draw attention, and some writers don't use them at all. Opinions vary, so if you get different comments about them in a critique, decide where you stand on it and if the italics are doing what you want them to do.
How do you feel about italics and internal thought? Do you have a personal rule of thumb?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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