Various choices arise when it comes to writing characters’ thoughts, and general approaches are largely a matter of choice rather than found as hard and fast rules in various writing manuals. First and foremost consistency within a manuscript is key. If working with a freelance editor either before submitting a work to literary agents or self-publishing, keep communication lines open to establish preferences. Beyond that, publishers will vary in their approach and follow a house style guide when it comes to dealing with handling the inner dialogue of a viewpoint character.
This year, I will be covering a revision exercise on photography and writing, punctuating dialogue, outlining a novel, using past perfect, and bringing setting to life. Feel free to explore Word Bank’s archive of writing posts. In particular, you may find this post on narrative distance and filter words of interest.
Writing Characters’ Thoughts
All characters will engage in some manner of inner speech where their thoughts are revealed to themselves and to the reader, but not to other characters in the story. This is a way to establish character and can be utilized regardless of the point of view being used or the book’s genre. However, the amount of inner dialogue varies that can successfully be used to infuse emotion into a scene to reveal dark or hopeful thoughts as well as that character’s truth. Interjecting a character’s thought into a scene can also be a great way to reveal motivations and conflicts or to add levity. In the most serious of moments, it’s very human to find the humor in trying situations.
Using Quotation Marks and Italics
An erroneous approach to writing characters’ thoughts would be to enclose the thoughts in quotation marks. Such punctuation is reserved for writing spoken dialogue rather than rendering thoughts. Sometimes, authors will even italicize on top of using quotes marks for thoughts, which tends to indicate the writer’s confusion on the matter. On the other hand, it’s widely accepted to reveal inner dialogue via italics paired with thought tags when writing from a third-person point of view. In the case of first person narration, using italics for certain thoughts can be done for the sake of emphasis or to create more narrative distance.
You can read examples of inner monologues on the Now Novel website.
Letting Context Shine
As an editor and writer, I’m generally a fan of keeping things as simple as possible. Why italicize if a thought tag can make it abundantly clear an inner monologue is taking place? A good text essentially teachers a reader how it needs to be read, so an over-reliance on italics or tought tags can become a negative. The case for not using italics to reveal thoughts is especially so if the character in question tends to do a lot of thinking since reading a lot of italicized text tends to be hard on the eyes. However, italicized thought generally serves its purpose and won’t make most readers bat an eye. When perspective and context is clearly established, always ask yourself if italics truly serve a valuable purpose.
Assess Thought Tags
Thought tags are often needed, but like speech tags such as said and asked, simpler is generally better. Some genres sprinkle such adverbs more liberal than others, but stronger writer will rely more on nouns and verbs to do the work. Speech tags and thought tags act as filter words that function to increase the narrative distance between reader and writer. As with speech tages, simple thought tags like thought or wondered get the job done rather than draw attention to themselves. Above all, for the love of all that is good in writing, please avoid writing “he thought to himself” or “she thought to herself.” What other possibility exists? Don’t state what is already a given. Another groan-worth favorite is the timeless, “memories flooded her mind.”
Avoid Tense Switching
When writing characters’ thoughts, it’s common to place inner dialogue in the present tense even when the main story is being told in the past tense. This is a logical choice and can have the effect of more fully immersing the reader inside the viewpoint character’s mind. However, it can just as often feel jarring. Most stories are written in the simple past for a reason. There is less chance of distracting the reader with the attempt to switch back and forth between verb tenses. Do you sense a theme throughout this post? Yes, keep it simple!
By taking the above advice into consideration, writing characters’ internal thoughts will truly start to take shape as you develop a better handle on how to do so. That being said, always feel free to experiment with form, but the old saying of mastering conventions before tinkering with them tends to hold true.
What experience have you have with reading or writing characters’ thoughts? Can you think of any experimental attempts you’ve either loved or loathed?
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2018. Post may contain affiliate links. Image credit: Metal Letterpress Types.
I always use the word thought.
Three of my books have featured characters that speak telepathically, so I put those mind exchanges in italics but still use the word thought.
Alex, italics seems a fitting choice for telepathic thought when featured characters are involved. Typesetting and punctuation can be used to convey subtle cues as needed that’s for sure.
Thank you, Jeri. This was just the advice I needed. I’ve been debating whether to use italics or not for the longest time. I’m still not sure if I have a whole paragraph of thought though. What would you advise?
Glynis, if you find your writing contains longer passages of a viewpoint character’s inner thoughts, I would advise against using italics for sure. An entire paragraph of such type is hard on the eyes where reading is concerned. You’re probably safe just to make sure to use thought tags as signals and skip the italics.
I recall coming across the single-quote thoughts in some of the stories I critiqued and yeah, it did create some confusion for me! I am one of those people who has been conditioned to see italics as internal thought.
Loni, single-quote thoughts doesn’t sound appealing at all. I don’t think I’ve ever used italics for internal thought in my own writing, but then again, practically every writing workshop I took in college was full of professors who shot them down, along with adverbs and all other manner of things!
I learned the mistake of over-using character thoughts from you, Jeri. In our first go-round of edits, it was a true rookie mistake to have too much thinking and not enough action. Italics are great for emphasizing key thoughts but limiting their use makes them that much more effective. Another wonderful ‘tips’ post. Loved it. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge.
Lisa, balancing how much thinking a character does along with action to keep the reader as engaged as possible is always a fine line. You do write great character-driven stories, so it’s a given you will use inner dialogue more than some.
I’ve often enjoyed books that alternated narrators, sometimes by chapter, as a way of delving into characters’ thoughts.
Ken, I enjoy alternating narrators as well, especially when both are unreliable 😉
The modern approach of speaking through the character is quite effective. What is your take on that Jeri? Thanks for sharing your expertise. I have some short stories that have been waiting! 🙂
“A good text essentially teachers a reader how it needs to be read, so an over-reliance on italics or tought tags can become a negative.” I picked this sentence to draw your attention to some words that need attention.
Balroop, that’s great that you have come short stories in the works 🙂 Thanks too for pointing out my typo!
I always love your technical writing tips. I learn something new every time! Thank you for sharing your expertise with us!
I think the use of Italics to denote the inner thoughts of a character makes sense. The reader will come to know this is what it means, whereas quotation marks could be confused for dialogue. Great subject to write on here, Jeri!
Great post dear Jeri…
Keeep it simple… and also… sometimes ‘less is more’: why would one say, for instance: ‘she/he thought to herself/himself’ when ‘she/he thought’ is enough (and the first version is clearly redundant).
I haven’t considered that inner dialogues are often written in Present (now I do!). I guess we’ll have to get back to Molly Bloom’s monologue (from Joyce’s “Ulysses”) to see how all these issues show up. ? sending love and best wishes ?
Aqui, I’m glad I could draw your attention to the use of present tense in inner dialogues 🙂
Great advice! I was thinking to myself 🙂 that this is useful for all writers. Thanks for sharing.
Denise, haha. It’s good to know you’ve been thinking to yourself 😉
The tense swap is one I’ve seen only work once, and then it was tenuous. You have some great tips, but we have to keep in mind your opening statement. There are definitely exceptions to every rule.
Crystal, exceptions to rules are great when the writer can pull them off.