characters’ inner thoughts

At my weekly critique group, we’ve been discussing the issue of identifying characters’ inner thoughts: put them in italic, or not?

First: inner thoughts, or inner dialogue, are when a point-of-view character is talking to him/herself. We all talk to ourselves; it’s part of being human! Our characters do as well. However, thoughts are private to that character—the others who populate the story are not privy to what our point-of-view character is thinking. These thoughts allow the reader to understand the character more deeply. Perhaps she is showing a lot of angst on the outside—but if the writer doesn’t take us inside her head, we may not learn what’s driving that behavior. Perhaps she wishes she could murder her husband. Or wring her daughter’s neck. Or have sex with someone other than her partner. Inner thoughts are intimate, and private. We’re glad, in real life, that our family and friends don’t know what’s going on inside of our heads. But in fiction, the writer can take us there–and in doing so, gives the character a voice that is different from all the others in the story.

Traditionally, private character thoughts were put in italics, to clue the reader. However, if the thought were tagged with “he said” or “she said,” then the italics were not needed. But today, many writers are not italicizing inner thought, whether it has an attribution or not.

When I went to desktop publishing school in the mid-1990s, we discussed typography and readability. For example, we were taught that italics are not as easy to read as Roman (standard) type. I think it’s fine to italicize the text when there is no attribution if the thought is short. But a paragraph of italic type is tiring for your reader.

Whatever choice you make, to italicize thoughts or not—there is no right or wrong–be consistent throughout your manuscript. Not only does this look more professional, it is also a subtle guide for your reader. They will appreciate the consistency.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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1 Comment

Filed under craft, writing, writing craft, writing tips

One response to “characters’ inner thoughts

  1. JSM

    Thanks, this is a really helpful post. Truth be told I’ve avoided using inner thoughts much in my writing because I was unsure of how to present them. I feel like I’ve missed out on accessing my characters’ minds fully!

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