Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
FYI—I updated this article on Jan. 15, 2015.
The topic of character thoughts has come up repeatedly for me in the last couple of weeks, and I promised to address punctuation for inner dialogue.
Inner dialogue is simply the speech of a character to himself. He hears it and the reader hears it, but other characters have no idea what’s going on in his head.
It’s the same for us and our thoughts. Unless we reveal them, no one knows what we’re thinking. In our worlds, however, even if we do reveal our thoughts, it’s likely that no one hears those thoughts uncensored. Lovers may share most of what they’re thinking, or an abusive parent might dump every thought on a child, but for the most part, men and women don’t share every thought. If they did, they’d be talking nonstop.
And they’d be opening up the very most intimate part of themselves. Most people simply don’t tell what they’re thinking, in full, to others. To do so would make them vulnerable, naked, without protection.
That’s a bit too much for any of us 3-dimensional people.
With characters, however, we get to listen in. And we hear not only passive thoughts—the stream of consciousness patter that flows through the mind—but deliberate dialogue—a character giving himself a pep-talk or talking himself into or out of particular actions.
Thought and inner dialogue give the reader insight he can’t get from watching a character’s actions from the outside.
Inner dialogue and thought reveal truth. They reveal darkness. They reveal hope or dreams or resignation.
They reveal emotions or beliefs too painful to be shared with other characters.
They reveal the heart. They reveal despair of the soul. They reveal strength of the spirit.
Thought and inner dialogue can be used to raise the emotional level of a scene. When we see a mother comforting her child, telling him all is well, and then we see into her thoughts, knowing that in truth she has no hope that all will be well, we feel her love for her child. We see her own feelings and the need she feels to protect her child from a painful truth.
Character thought can also lighten a scene. A man who’s holding back sarcasm or inappropriate humor may present a blank face to other characters but may reveal his irreverence to the reader.
What else can thought and inner dialogue do?
Thoughts and lectures to self allow readers insight into a character
They allow characters to be differentiated
They give characters an honest voice
They can reveal character motivation
They can slow the pace of a scene
They can reveal a character’s conflict between his inner man and the needs of others
So, how does the writer convey the thoughts and inner dialogue of a character?
First, the character must be the viewpoint character for a scene. Unless you’re writing from a completely omniscient viewpoint, which is quite unusual these days, you won’t be dipping into and out of every character’s head. And you certainly won’t be doing so within the same scene. So be sure we don’t get a thought from the dog when a couple is having a fight, not unless the dog is the viewpoint character for the scene.
Also, you’ll only want to reveal thoughts and inner dialogue that advance the plot. We don’t need to hear everything, just the good stuff. You could show random thoughts a time or two to establish the way a character thinks, but skip those kinds of thoughts for the most part. Give the reader thoughts that reveal the character and have bearing on the plot. Thoughts that up the emotional temperature for the reader.
In practical terms, try any of the following. But be selective: one option is likely to be a better choice than either of the others given the needs of a particular story and the effect you want or need to create. Option #3, writing thoughts without italics, makes for the least intrusive read and is likely the best choice for most of today’s writers and for most genres. It may not be perfect for every story, genre, and set of circumstances, but it will work for many. Especially for stories with deep POV, that very intimate third-person point of view.
1. Use italics and thought tags
For traditional third-person narration, you can use italics to indicate a character’s thoughts or inner dialogue. This sends an unambiguous signal to the reader that what she’s reading is thought or inner dialogue and not spoken dialogue.
The use of italics for thoughts, however, can create a greater narrative distance, setting readers outside of the character and the events of the scene. The reader may feel herself an outsider to the character’s thoughts, reading them, as if they were reported to her, but not hearing or experiencing them for herself. Yet if that’s the effect you want/need to create, italics for thoughts is a valid choice.
Such a choice may be necessary if an omniscient narrator treats readers to thoughts from a variety of characters in the same scene.
Yet a thought tag alone, with no italics, may also meet your needs.
Pairing the thoughts with thought tags (thought, wondered, imagined) is helpful to identify the owner of a particular thought.
Montrose angled his head, taking in both Giselle and her sister behind her.
They look nothing alike, he thought. He should have known Giselle was not Ariana.
Also . . .
Montrose angled his head, taking in both Giselle and her sister behind her.
They look nothing alike, he thought. I should’ve known Giselle was not Ariana.
No need to write he thought to himself. The reader knows he’s not thinking to someone else. Unless, of course, we’re talking paranormal or sci-fi. In such cases, you might indeed need to tell us who Montrose is thinking to.
Note that the verb look is in the present tense. Because this is inner dialogue—words directed to the character from himself—verb tense can be past or present, even if the rest of the narrative is past tense.
2. Use italics without dialogue tags
When you’ve made it clear who the viewpoint character is, you can use italics without the dialogue tags. Readers will understand that the viewpoint character is the one revealing his thoughts. This lessens the narrative distance, and the reader feels closer to the story events, less like the outsider observing events or reading a report of what someone thought.
Montrose tilted his head to get a clearer view of the hoyden behind Giselle. They look nothing alike. He dismissed the two of them with the flick of a wrist. And neither looks like my Margaret.
Use of italics allows the writer to treat thoughts as if the words are dialogue, as if the character is speaking to himself. So, we can use the present tense look rather than looked, even if the rest of the story uses narration in the past tense. The writer can also use I and me and we and our, even if the story is in the third person. Whatever you can do with spoken dialogue, you can do with a character’s inner dialogue.
3. Don’t use italics or dialogue tags
This is likely the option most writers will use for most genres most of the time. Not always, but quite often. It creates the shortest narrative distance.
You can eliminate the use of and need for italics if you’re using first-person narration or deep POV in third-person narration. Since the reader knows and feels he’s in the character’s head, there’s no need to use italics to highlight character thoughts or dialogue directed to the character from himself.
You could throw in a thought tag every now and then for thoughts that aren’t italicized if you find it necessary—maybe the effect you need to create or a particular rhythm would make the tag necessary. But for the most part, a thought tag wouldn’t need to be included. The thought could just be blended into the surrounding text.
Note: Do note, however, that in stories with an omniscient POV, readers will need to be able to differentiate between thoughts of the omniscient narrator and the characters. This is especially true when the narrator is opinionated and when you share both the narrator’s thoughts and the thoughts of multiple characters in the same scene.
The following is an example of thoughts without italics from a third-person POV. In this example, the reader is not being told Montrose’s thoughts, but actually hears them as Montrose thinks them.
Montrose tilted his head to get a clearer view of the hoyden behind Giselle. They looked nothing alike, these two women posing as his dead wife’s sisters. He dismissed both with a flick of his wrist. They also looked nothing like his sweet, sweet Margaret.
Stupid, ignorant fool. Should have known better than to believe. Than to hope . . .
There is no doubt that Montrose is the one thinking these thoughts.
For first-person POV, there are not often instances when you’d even need to use a thought tag to identify a character’s thoughts, much less use italics for those thoughts. Yet one instance for using thought tags for first-person POV would be to create some narrative distance or to create the effect of the character reporting his thoughts to the reader, as if to an audience.
Still, most often the thoughts of a first-person narrator will blend seamlessly into the surrounding text—
I tipped my head to get a clearer view of the hoyden behind Giselle. They looked nothing alike, these two women posing as Margaret’s sisters. I waved them away. And they certainly didn’t favor my sweet Margaret.
Stupid, ignorant fool. I should have known better than to believe. Than to hope . . .
Note that without the italics, I kept the verbs in the past tense to match the rest of the narration. This is a deliberate choice. It maintains consistency for the reader, keeps her from wondering why the writer changed from past to present tense.
With italics, the reader is given a signal to alert her to the inner thought. Without italics, there is no visual signal. Readers will understand that they’re reading thoughts, but a change to present tense in those thoughts—pushed up against past tense with the rest of the actions—may cause a hesitation for the reader. And you don’t want to do anything to pull the reader from the fiction.
This practice of switching verb tense only when using italics is a suggestion, not a hard rule. You’ve got options, and if you can make your story work by mixing present tense in your viewpoint character’s thoughts with past tense in that same character’s actions and do so without the visual aid of italics, try it. There’s nothing wrong with trying something.
Yet know that such a practice won’t be universally understood or accepted. Realize that you might lose your reader. And you definitely don’t want to make your reader hesitate, don’t want her wondering about the mechanics of story rather than being lost to the plot of story. Help the reader out.
While I wouldn’t want to say you can’t try something, my recommendation is to only switch tense in thought or inner dialogue if you use italics to highlight the thought.
I also counsel against using I, me, we, or our in thoughts written without italics if you’re using a third-person POV. Without the signal of the italics, readers will think you’ve switched from third to first person mid-paragraph. Again, however, if you can make such an option work, try it.
Keep in mind—
While it’s certainly not required and you wouldn’t use the technique all the time—maybe not much of the time—consider putting thoughts and inner dialogue into a new paragraph, as if it were spoken dialogue. Yet even as dialogue can share a paragraph with action, so can thoughts. Treat inner dialogue as you would spoken dialogue. Separate the thoughts into a new paragraph if you want to create a wider narrative distance, yet keep thoughts in the same paragraph to narrow the narrative distance.
Never use quotation marks for thoughts, even if those thoughts are inner dialogue, a character talking to himself. Reserve quotation marks for speech that’s vocalized. Readers should be able to tell when a character is speaking inside his head and when he’s talking aloud, even if he’s the only person in the scene.
Plus, if you can cut back on distracting visuals, including unnecessary punctuation, do it.
Be consistent. Use the same method of conveying character thought and inner dialogue on the last page that you use on the first page. Consistency keeps the reader grounded in the fiction. Changes in method distract the reader.
I hope these tips are helpful as you look for ways to convey thoughts and inner dialogue.
If you’ve explored other options, let us know what you’ve seen or tried for yourself. What works for you? What doesn’t?
Let your fellow writers and editors know how you write inner dialogue and character thoughts.
Share your own tips about punctuating thoughts.
Let us know how you write good fiction.
On May 16, 2012, I made a couple of changes to the examples and their explanations. I hope the options are now clearer.