Thursday, July 5, 2012

Italicizing a character's thoughts

by Stephanie Morrill


Hope all our American readers enjoyed their 4th of July holiday. ('pendence day as my 4 year old calls it.) My husband had the day off work, which was great, but it felt so much like a Saturday yesterday that when he left for work today, the kids and I were both feeling a bit dazed.

So ... putting a character's thoughts in italics...

(How was that for a smooth segue? Let's blame it on too many hot dogs last night - they're not exactly brain food.)

There are no hard rules about "Don't italicize your character's thoughts" but it is rather frowned upon. I know I'm not a fan of reading books where the author does so. If it happens a couple times, fine, but I've read books where it happens every page or two, and I find it incredibly distracting. Especially when it's a book written in first person (I walked, I sat) since you're so obviously already in the character's head.

The first person thing might be a no-brainer but I'll throw in an example anyway:

I walked through the door into eerie silence. Why is it so quiet in here? "Mom?"

 Revising it with no italics makes it so much smoother and - I think - deeper:

I walked through the door into eerie silence. Why was it so quiet? "Mom?"


For those writing in third person, I better understand the writer's temptation to italicize:

John walked through the door into eerie silence. Why is it so quiet in here? "Mom?"

The writer wants us to know what John is thinking, wants to dip into John's head so we can see the thought scrolling through his mind. We, the reader, want that too ... but we don't need the italics to communicate it to us. Consider this:

John walked through the door into eerie silence. Why was it so quiet? "Mom?"

You still get that's a thought, don't you? Again, it's because the writer has already established who we're following - John. Therefore we understand - without help from formatting - that John is the one wondering why it's so quiet.

But what if you write your stories in an omniscient POV, the way Harry Potter, Gossip Girl, the Luxe series and countless other books are? I won't pretend to be an expert on using omniscient POV, but I still think you should avoid italicized thoughts. Because even with an omniscient narrator where we, the reader, might pop into the several different minds in one scene, the writer still needs to have established which character we're talking about in that moment.

Like Cecily von Ziegesar does here in You Know You Love Me (Gossip Girl):

Blair nodded impatiently. What did Ms. Glos think she was, a moron?

Even though that book is written with an omniscient narrator, the writer signals "Hey, it's Blair's turn on the stage" by starting the sentence with her name.

So when do you italicize sentences?


  • Sometimes dream sequences work better in italics. Especially if it's a book that has several short ones throughout. (Out with the In Crowd does and my editor suggested putting the dreams in italics. It worked well for that situation.)
  • Prayers, especially "breath prayers" like Thank you, Lord or Little help here, God?
  • You might run across the occasional thought that just plain works better in italics. I've had that in a few manuscripts and the only common thread I can pick out is that they're extremely vulnerable, involuntary character thoughts. I actually spotted one in You Know You Love Me:
Dan nodded. Do you have to go? He was afraid to open his mouth...
That works and falls into that category I mentioned above. He desperately wants Serena to stay there with him, and that's his gut reaction to her saying she's heading home.

So don't automatically unitalicize every thought in your manuscript, just determine why you chose to format it that way.

Any questions I can (attempt) to help with?

34 comments:

  1. I do have to admit, I am guilty of using the italicize button maybe one too many times. It's the impulse I have. I did like the idea of reserving it for the characters most vulnerable moments. Great stuff. :)

    My question is, in my book, my character has a few flash backs. They're just small little pieces of her past when they move the story forward, but is it okay to italicize those?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's your call, Clarebear. (And your future editor's.) What I tend to do is if it's a snippet of a moment that comes back to the character, or a piece of dialogue, I italicize it. If it's more than that, then I'll do something like this:

      Present time, blah blah. That had been the last day things had been good between me and Chris. I can still see him there in the kitchen. "You won't leave?" he had said to me. And when I told him no, blah blah blah.

      But now, back in the present time, words words.

      Make sense? I used to be obsessed with italics. If a chapter was a flashback scene, I would italicize the whole thing. Sigh.

      Delete
  2. I usually italicize stuff when it's written in third person, though I do have a mixture of both.
    I never do it in first person.
    I enjoy the italicized stuff in books I read. The Inheritance Cycle is my favorite series ever, and it's got tons of italic stuff.
    I generally just go with whatever seems to fit better.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The italics in that is Saphira talking into Eragon's mind and she's a dragon so it's supposed to be special. I was told that if you have a dragon that speaks into minds of other characters, you should italics the words because otherwise it could be any old person talking.

      Delete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oh boy. You hit my nail on the head, looks like! I'm afraid I'm probably quite guilty of using thoughts in italics... It's third person at least. But I'll have to go read all those thoughts again. :D Thanks for the informing post!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Woohoo! That means that FINALLY I am doing something right with my writing. :) You just made my day! I'm writing this current WIP from omniscient POV and decided not to italicize my characters thoughts because I just didn't like how it looked. I love the idea of italicizing important thoughts though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lol, RJ. That's always a nice surprise :)

      Delete
  6. I use italics because my character has frequent discussions in present tense with himself, and it gets confusing for it NOT to be in italics. For me, at any rate.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hm...this is interesting! I actually like it when the author uses italics, but I think you might be right about it sounding deeper without them. I definitely agree with the "breath prayers" in italics. When a character is thinking about something to him/herself, I usually use italics for that.
    I've read a first person book (Winnie the Horse Gentler) that used italics for thought, and I liked it because it gave you a little break from the monotony of things happening through Winnie's voice, and suddenly jumping into her head more. That way you got some distance from the character, but went inside her head too.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm like Becky Badger. My characters have WAY to many inward conversations for them to NOT be in italics. It was getting slightly confusing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Internal argument is a great addition to that list - that could get very confusing otherwise.

      Delete
  9. I had honestly never even thought about this before -- I just assumed that if it was a thought, it had to be in italics.

    I will be looking at this in my WIP, as one of my characters has thoughts in italics occasionally.

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I tend to not care whether a character's thoughts are in italics, but I guess I am in favour of it. I'm a very dialogue-centric person, and might skip over a long paragraph of description if I don't see some italics. It's like a little flag that says "Hey, internal monologue, pay attention to this!"
    A rather specialized example of ways to use italics is also this: Telepathy. If you're writing a story where a character has to "think" at someone else (i.e. "Eragon"), then I think italics can function better than quotation marks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, I find this, too, Lindsey. I often get more on my second read of a book, because I skipped large paragraphs on the first read because I didn't see any dialogue.

      Delete
    2. Yep, telepathy is another good addition, Lindsey.

      And for me it depends on the book. If the author has a tendency to lapse into more description than I care for, I definitely start skimming those. I try not to, but my eye seems to naturally do it :(

      Delete
  11. One of my friends was wondering if head-hopping, or switching into multiple characters' thoughts, is still incorrect if you're writing omniscient POV. Is it? I thought it was incorrect, but I could be wrong.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Margaret, maybe this will help. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narrative_mode

      Delete
    2. Becki, thanks for linking to that article!

      Margaret, this is why POV is so, so tricky. Because it seems each has it's own rules. Yes, head hopping is acceptable in 3rd person omniscient, though there's certainly a technique to it. I would pick up a modern novel that's done well and is written in omniscient (Harry Potter, Gossip Girl, The Luxe series) to get a feel for it. Many classics are written in omniscient as well, but I would study the techniques of the modern novel as well.

      Delete
  12. I definately agree. Italicizing is a little like skipping around changing POV every few paragraphs (not good!). But I do have a question... :) Should you italicize words that you want to stand out? Like: "I *said* stop it." Or should you avoid that too and hope the structure of the sentence carries the weight of how the word should be emphasised?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cait, I think using italics to emphasize words is perfectly acceptable. However, I think it can be overdone.

      Delete
  13. I've often see (and also use myself) italicizing used for a character's thoughts when it is written in a dialogue style. Such as: *characters thought* he thought, *more thought*. As though the italicizing is used instead of quotation marks because it is internal thoughts instead of external dialogue. Is this wrong?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Again, this is a style thing, so it's not necessarily wrong, but an editor (or agent) might want it done a different way.

      In my first drafts, I tend to overuse "I thought." I try to cut that whenever I can and just show that the character is thinking this. Kinda like the word said.

      Delete
  14. One thing to note, if there are italicized thoughts on every page, if you use them a lot (and it's not for telepathy *grin*) most agents and editors will immediately think, "Amateur writer!" I've heard this again and again at writers conferences and thought the same things myself as I read manuscripts as an editor. So, if you do decide to keep italicized thoughts often, be very careful that you don't over do it.

    ReplyDelete
  15. great post! working on my story, which includes a lot of the POV character's daydreaming, and rambling thoughts(much like inside my head!:P). I wasn't sure if they needed to be italicized or even single quoted or something. So thanks.:)

    ReplyDelete
  16. Wow. *Never* thought about this before. I like italics in the books that I read so I suppose that's why I've never given it much thought. I can't explain exactly why I like it...I suppose because I still read a majority of 3rd person and it makes it more personal to me, but even in the River of Time books when we were no-doubt in Gabi's head, I liked the italics. Still, I think I have overdone the italics in my manuscripts, so thanks, Stephanie, for pointing this out to me!

    ReplyDelete
  17. I italicize my character's thoughts, and they tend to do a lot of thinking, but I hate actually putting it before they speak, and it's usually praying anyways.

    I guess a lot of the books I've read and loved do this. I hope it works ok with my book and how I use it...

    ReplyDelete
  18. I had the same issue, I wonder sometimes If I've used too much Italic, even to emphasis things like -
    '-Naming her Rosa. Labelled Rosa.' I put the 'Labelled' in italics but now seeing this page made me wonder how much italics I was putting in. Sometimes I wonder also if putting some of it in bold italic would break up some of the italic, like a document or dream sequence?
    Or if it was too much, but I would never do it too often in paragraphs near each other, just drips and drabs.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I use the italic thingy waaaay too much in my lastest WIP. It's written in first person, and I can and do totally see your point on how we are already in their head. Time for some revising.... :)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Oops! Haha, I'm definitely guilty of this one! I'll have to watch out for that. X) YOU GUYS ARE SO SMART! :D

    ReplyDelete
  21. I like to read the italics when they're here and there and not overdone. It's like this is the character's consious thought, instead of just whatever ran through his mind. Thanks for the post.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Ahhh this was so helpful. I am always using the italics - now I know more of how I should use them!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Stephanie Morrill, a vampire story I'm writing, Red Mist, starts with a dream that's in first person and italics but you don't know that it's the mane character Claire until she wakes up, is that good or bad considering it was not just a dream but a weak psychic flash. The dream itself isn't actually her in it, but her in another's body in the dream, like she's gotten into the head of the person, Brooke, and is looking at what he's looking at though it's a premonition of the werewolf attack and she connects with Brooke because she's his blood donor and he's holding her father's arm. Throughout the story, there'll be brief moments where Claire will have these premonitions and the more Brooke has fed from her, the stronger they become until she can communicate with Brooke and make her presence in his mind felt.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I have just started editing my 2 year old manuscript that has more than necessary italicised character's thoughts. I'm starting from again now that I've found this invaluable advice, at the right moment too. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete

Home