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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.

picture of metal letterpress types from istock

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.

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