Saturday, November 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Conveying Internal Thought Without Using Italics

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Two 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 29.

This week’s questions:

How do I go smoothly into the thoughts of my protagonist. I am writing in the third person but loathe to present thoughts as reported speech. I've been using italics but feel that is difficult for the reader. I'm not sure how to present or punctuate it. Any suggestions?


Market/Genre: Supernatural Romance

NOTE: There's a revised snippet for the fantasy for the piece struggling with names and infodumps for those curious to see how the author revised.

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:


It was some time later that Eva opened her grimoire to retrieve the blossom the tree had bequeathed her the previous day. She held it sitting on her cool bedroom terrace where the sun did not reach until the afternoon.

“This too will pass” she told herself, words that a wise schoolteacher had once spoken. But what if?..

She needed to resolve the matter of her guilt and the answer might be found in the tarot. Quickly she fetched her cards and shuffled the pack asking in her mind

‘Should I continue with my astral work?’


Afraid to look she let the pack fall open and then smiled. There it was, a blessing for her work. She had chosen The Hierophant, the great priest himself had appeared to sanctify her unnatural labours. At one end of the pack she saw The Queen of Pentacles meditating, bringing forth nature’s fecundity all around her and at the other end she found The Ace of Wands, symbolising quintessential power to effect change through the fire of the zealot.

She was sure beyond doubt that all was well.

I’m being tested that’s all. Maybe my run of misfortunes is not over yet, but this flower was sent to me by The Unseen to give me courage and remind me there is great beauty in this world as well as ugliness. As a creature of free will, I choose to believe that The Universe wishes me to do this work and I will not deviate from this strange path wherever it takes me. Rafael… always to you. Now I’m ready to paint...

My Thoughts in Purple:

It was some time later that Eva opened her grimoire to retrieve the blossom the tree had bequeathed her the previous day. She held it sitting on her cool bedroom terrace where the sun did not reach until the afternoon.

“This too will pass” she told herself, words that a wise schoolteacher had once spoken. [But what if?..] To make this just part of the narrative and an internal thought, just don't italicize it

She needed to resolve the matter of her guilt and the answer might be found in the tarot. Quickly she fetched her cards and shuffled the pack asking in her mind

[ ‘Should I continue with my astral work?’] Same here. You could just make it part of the previous sentence, maybe after a colon or em dash. Or change it to past tense: should she continue with her astral work?

Afraid to look she let the pack fall open and then smiled. There it was, a blessing for her work. She had chosen The Hierophant, the great priest himself had appeared to sanctify her unnatural labours. At one end of the pack she saw The Queen of Pentacles meditating, bringing forth nature’s fecundity all around her and at the other end she found The Ace of Wands, symbolising quintessential power to effect change through the fire of the zealot.

She was sure beyond doubt that all was well.

[ I’m being tested that’s all. Maybe my run of misfortunes is not over yet, but this flower was sent to me by The Unseen to give me courage and remind me there is great beauty in this world as well as ugliness. As a creature of free will, I choose to believe that The Universe wishes me to do this work and I will not deviate from this strange path wherever it takes me. Rafael… always to you. Now I’m ready to paint...] If italics bothers you here, try shifting this to third person past tense and make it part of the narrative (examples below)

The questions:

1. How do I go smoothly into the thoughts of my protagonist? I am writing in the third person but loathe to present thoughts as reported speech. I've been using italics but feel that is difficult for the reader. I'm not sure how to present or punctuate it. Any suggestions?


I love this question. Conveying internal thought can be done in a variety of ways, and if italics aren't your thing, don't feel you have to use them. (And this coming from someone who loves italics). The easiest things to do is just make it part of the narrative. For example, let's look at that last paragraph that's all in italics:
I’m being tested that’s all. Maybe my run of misfortunes is not over yet, but this flower was sent to me by The Unseen to give me courage and remind me there is great beauty in this world as well as ugliness. As a creature of free will, I choose to believe that The Universe wishes me to do this work and I will not deviate from this strange path wherever it takes me. Rafael… always to you. Now I’m ready to paint...
First person, present tense, done well if you're trying to make this an immediate internal thought. Try shifting it back to third person past tense.
She was being tested that was all. Maybe her run of misfortunes was not over yet, but this flower was sent to her by The Unseen to give her courage and remind her there was great beauty in this world as well as ugliness. As a creature of free will, she chose to believe that The Universe wished her to do this work and she would not deviate from this strange path wherever it took her. Rafael… always to you. Now she was ready to paint...
Same information, just without the italics and it flows along with the rest of the narrative. Or you could add a tag to tell readers what follows are her thoughts:
It was test, that was all, she thought. Maybe her run of misfortunes was not over yet, but this flower was sent to her by The Unseen to give her courage and remind her there was great beauty in this world as well as ugliness. As a creature of free will, she chose to believe that The Universe wished her to do this work and she would not deviate from this strange path wherever it took her. Rafael… always to you. Now she was ready to paint...
One thing to be wary about with third person internal thought, is that depending on your narrative distance (how close your narrator is to your POV character) it can sometimes feel a little told. "Was" pops up a lot and that can often make you feel like you're writing passively, when you're not--it's just past tense. So if things feel a little tellish to you, you might consider a slightly tighter POV and bring in a little more of the character's voice.

(Here's more on narrative distance vs telling)

For example (and just making up stuff here since I obviously don't know this story or how this character ought to sound):
It was a test, obviously. Maybe her run of misfortunes was not over yet, and The Unseen sent this flower to bolster her courage and remind her there was great beauty in this world as well as ugliness. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. So be it. If The Universe wished her to do this work, she would not deviate from this strange path wherever it took her. Rafael… always to you. Now she was ready to paint...
This shifts the thoughts a little tighter into her head so it sounds more like her thinking and trying to figure things out. (Though everything in me wants to italicize Rafael...always to you)

(Here's more on a tight third person internal thoughts)

Let's look at that again with my reasons why I choose those edits:

It was a test, obviously. This is her judgment on what she thinks this situation is. Maybe she's right, maybe not, but she thinks this is the case, so she'll follow this assumption in how she considers the situation she's faced with. Maybe her run of misfortunes was not over yet, and The Unseen sent this flower to bolster her courage and remind her there was great beauty in this world as well as ugliness. I shifted this to her asking this question as if trying to figure it out, not state it as a given fact. It's her opinion, even if it is true in the book  She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. So be it. These two lines are to reconnect to her physically and remind readers that these are her thoughts, not an outside narrator. If The Universe wished her to do this work, she would not deviate from this strange path wherever it took her. She's finished considering her options and now she's made a choice. It puts her into the driver's seat with a decision that moves things forward, not just stating what's about to happen (which fits the spirit of the original first person thoughts closer) She will do this. Rafael… always to you. Now she was ready to paint...

Third person internal thought can work well to convey what the character is thinking. I've found that mixing some actions and physical clues (like taking a deep breath) helps remind readers that these are the character thoughts. One trick, is to have the character touch or refer to their head to show readers they're about to hear that character's thoughts. I used breath and shoulders here, as that's in the right "brain" area. But she could have brushed hair out of her eyes or sighed, or done any number of things.

(Here's more on show don't tell in internalization)

One thing to think about as you write internal thought, is where you are from a point of view standpoint. If you're outside looking down, then the thoughts might feel more told or not connected to the character. It might need a "she thought" tag. If you want it to feel more in the head of the character, you might try more physical clues.

(Here's more on mixing character actions and internal thought)

Overall, I think you'll be fine if you stop using the first person italics you dislike. Decide how tight you want to be to the POV character's head and add the thoughts to the narrative itself. It might take you a few tries to find your rhythm, but soon you'll be doing it without even thinking about it.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

4 comments:

  1. I love this topic. Great advice, Janice.

    I think italics work well for injecting concise, characterful thoughts into third person, past tense internalization. As Janice mentioned, "Rafael... always to you" would be a good candidate for italicization because it would then stand out from that paragraph and feel more immediate to the reader.

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  2. This is something, if you ask my crit partners, I've struggled with: whether to use italics for internal narrative. I've finally stopped using italics and started doing what Janice suggested, just feeding the thoughts through the character, in their voice.

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  3. Thanks for this RLD and for the examples especially. I'm working through an edit with exactly this author concern and have given examples, but I believe yours (being outside his work) will allow a more objective view.

    Thanks also to the submitter - you've helped a fellow author determine an answer for the same conundrum. Good luck with your book!

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  4. Great advise Janice. This is an issue I have struggled with as well. Glad to know how to resolve the issue.

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