Monday, November 17

Writing Basics: Choosing Which Thoughts to Italicize

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.

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?
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.

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?

Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my book 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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  1. This argument doesn't make sense to me. Italics ≠ emphasis. Emphasis only one of the many uses for them.

    Generally speaking, the italics come into play when the thoughts are first person, present tense and the narrative is not.

    1. Emphasis *is*, I meant, and there should technically be a comma after "present tense." Muphry's Law… :)

    2. I'm not saying it's the only use for them, just the most common one. Italics in general are used to set the text apart for some reason. I'm also talking more about fiction. Using italics to show a book title doesn't affect this question.

      If an entire narrative is in first person present tense, you don't italicize all the thoughts. There's to be a choice made as to what get italicized and what doesn't.

      And like I said, personal preference comes into play here. These are some general guidelines to help writers decide how they want to handle this.

    3. I am speaking of fiction, and you do say outright that "It's [emphasis is] what they [italics] were designed to do, after all," which both indicates that italics = emphasis and is actually false. They were originally developed as a condensed typeface, a devolution of cursive.

      Your general guidelines in this article are actually more confusing than illuminating, between the misinformation and the omission of a major component in the "Do I italicize this thought or not?" discussion.

      Perhaps there are some transitions missing between what's on the page and what you meant, as there quite obviously were in my comment? :-)

    4. I certainly don't want to be confusing, so I've edited things to hopefully make the article more clear. It's easy to misinterpret things or not get the right meaning down and I hope I've fixed that.

      As for the italics comment, I was making a humorous comment about how we tend to use italics these days, and it was obviously not coming across as intended. I was not at all trying to give accurate historical information about the creation of italics, so apologies if that was misleading or confusing. Some jokes fall flat :)

    5. I've actually had folks claim that sort of thing and mean it seriously, so that doubtless contributed to the joke falling flat to me as a reader. :-)

      Hope your day's going well!

    6. I can see that :) Been a good day so far, hope yours has been good, too!

    7. Interesting tidbit about italics originally being cursive! I write my story by hand, and I use cursive to signify where the italics will be when I type it up. How ironic. ;)

  2. What about text that is email or instant messaging? I worry there's too much italics, should I just change the font instead?

    1. Formatting-wise, you really shouldn't change fonts. You can sometimes change fonts in print books, but putting set fonts in e-books actually causes problems for a lot of readers, who will have their own preferred fonts and font sizes that they want to read in (which is part of the reason they read e-books to begin with).

      E-mails in particular can be formatted in blockquotes (with or without italics), but you'll want to use the ruler settings to set that up and make sure you don't indent it *too* much, due to e-book limitations on things like phones.

    2. In a manuscript, you could italicize if you wanted, or just put it on it's own line, or even change the font (I've done that). A manuscript is more about clarity since it's just for someone to read it it.

      I second Carradee If it's published (self or otherwise). The formatting will depend on the format of the book, be it print or e-book. I've seen printed books use a different font or spacing, and the design team will decide that when they lay out the book. E-books need to be as simple as possible since e-readers change the font and formatting on the fly. There's no guarantee that the font you choose will show correctly (if at all). Extra spaces and indents can also be problematic.

      So to sum up... what you want to make it easy to read.
      Printed Books...the design team will decide (if that's you, you pick)
      E-Books...keep it the same as the rest of the text. Maybe just put it on its own line to separate it from the rest of the text.

  3. There's a lot of debate around the topic of when to or not to use italics. Thanks for providing some essential guidles to consider during the writing process.

    1. My pleasure. I was suddenly getting a lot of questions about it and I guess that's why. Hmmm...maybe I ought to do the other side and "no italics" next? I talked about it in the RLD, but not a full article.

  4. This is something that I have been challenged by. And so I took careful notes. Thank you, Janice.

    1. Most welcome! Hope it helped you figured things out.

  5. I haven't run into a need for option 4 yet, but otherwise all of them work for me. Option 1 is probably the one I use most.

    1. I use Options 1 and 3 the most, with the occasional 4. I'm a big fan of the italicized thought.

  6. Thanks for you speedy answer to my question! It will be a big help. :)

  7. Hi Janice,

    I enjoyed your post, and I think it's very relevant. Just to add one more thought. Upon the rarest of occasions, I have used italics to get out of a jam with repetition. In the following paragraph, the final sentence should be in italics. (Not certain how to do that in your comment box).

    She slipped through the crowd, forged through a herd of men battling over the sole dipper for the water barrel at the base of the stairs, and buried herself in a shadowed gap beneath the porch steps. Awful enough to have been caught between James and Lovena. Far worse to know everyone had been watching. Please, God, make certain Mother stayed in the cabin and missed the spectacle.

    By putting the final sentence into a direct thought in italics, instead of my traditional third person pov narrative style, I can avoid using the narrator's name in the final sentence. Which is good because I have to use her name at the beginning of the next paragraph, and I can't use "she" due to the use of "Lovena." This isn't the best reasoning for using italics, but I do think it works if the line merits emphasis. And it is a great fringe benefit.

    1. I agree. That's another great example of where it works well. Thanks!

  8. Thanks for your post! I have a few questions for you.

    Question #1:
    If my flashback intentionally functions as a scene, and I'm not supposed to italicize it, what else can I do to set it apart besides have my character practically say "It's a memory"/"I'm flashing back"? I've never seen a published book change the font for a scene flashback; it sounds like a formatting hassle--especially if I end up self-publishing. As a reader, italics take my eyes a moment to adjust to, but I have always appreciated when writers/publishers put flashback scenes in italics. Because when they don't, I get really disoriented when the author switches to or from the present-day. When I see that many italics, and I know, "Okay, something is up," and I can consciously switch gears. It gives me a heads-up so I can get into the new flow and back without so much confusion.

    Question #2:
    I am writing in first person, and I have a main character with a dual personality. As I type up the character's conversations with himself in my first draft, I have been putting one personality's side of the dialogue in italics, and the other's in bold italics. I also have dream scenes in which some things are spoken, some things are thought to oneself, and some things are thought aloud. Is it acceptable to have these kind of bolded italic distinctions in a published work? Or do I need to find another way?

    Question #3:
    What about italicizing a word or phrase in a sentence for emphasis? In the introduction to one of C.S. Lewis' books, he said he had republished his book without italics, because he had come to believe that sentences in the English language could be restructured in such a way as to place emphasis on the right meaning without using italics. Do you agree? If so, do you have any insight on how to do this?

    1. A1: It typically depends on how long the flashback is and personal preference. I've seen people use italics for several pages, and I've seen them do a more traditional "she remembered when..." type intro. If you like the way italics works for a flashback and your beta readers have no issues with it, then go for it. Depending on how you publish (trad or indie) it could change in the final book, but it might be used as is. If your instincts say use them, use them.

      A2: I rarely see bold in a printed novel, but it sounds like you have a special case, so it's possible a publisher could keep that style. I'd say keep it that way for your manuscript and let the publisher or agent suggest what to do if/when you sell it.

      A3: I'm a little biased because I *love* italics for emphasis. I do it all the time. My personal rule of thumb here: If I stress the word when I read it, and it changes the feel or tone of the sentence if I don't stress it, then I put it in italics. If you like it, do it, if not, don't. Either way works, it's a matter of personal taste.

  9. I've heard so many conflicting opinions about this! Thanks for clearing it up :)

    1. Most welcome. There are so many ways to do pretty much anything with writing, so a lot of it is just deciding what you like to do to get your meaning down and being consistent.