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Inner Dialogue—Writing Character Thoughts

on February 28th, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on May 17, 2012

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 the following. The option without italics makes for the least intrusive read. 

1.  Use italics and dialogue tags

For traditional third-person narration, use italics to indicate a character’s thoughts or inner dialogue. Clearly signal to the reader that what she’s reading is thought or inner dialogue and not spoken dialogue.

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, use italics without the dialogue tags. Readers will understand that the viewpoint character is the one revealing his thoughts.

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. If you’re using italics to convey that inner dialogue.

3.  Don’t use italics at all

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 thoughts of the character or dialogue directed to the character from himself.

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.

In the first person—

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 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 show what you’ve done.

Do not, however, use I, me, we, or our without italics if you’re using third-person point of view. Without the signal of the italics, readers will think you’ve switched from third to first person mid-paragraph.

Keep in mind—

While it’s not required, consider beginning thoughts and inner dialogue with 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.

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.

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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.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Grammar & Punctuation, Writing Tips

100 Responses to “Inner Dialogue—Writing Character Thoughts”

  1. Hajo says:

    This got me a bit confused, because you used a style that made your examples all appear in italic. There’s no italic-italic (or mezzogiorno-italic) to distinguish your inner dialogue from the rest.

  2. Hajo, the italcs and roman fonts show up here on the article. Is it just on the e-mail version where some paragraphs are shown in all italics? I don’t know that I have control over that setup. I’ll have to check. Thanks for the heads-up.

  3. BG says:

    Beth,

    You, your blog and this article are a godsend. Thanks so much for the very helpful tips and attention to all the questions. I have two.
    1) I’m struggling a bit with paragraphs, especially in dialogue and narrative. How best should one continue the same paragraph including dialogue, while still using new paragraphs to indicate the change in speakers? For example;

    My mother is sitting on the balcony, but she’s alone. There are no pointy heels punctuating the floor and Ma’s face is a crumpled handkerchief.
    “What happened, mom? Where’s Aunt Stella?”
    “I don’t know.”
    My mother looks down, her eyes red and wet.
    “Didn’t she call?”
    She just shakes her head.

    Should the sentences following the dialogue be indented as new paragraphs or left as they are?

    Question 2.

    In dialogue, should titles like “Mom” be capitalized?
    Many thanks!

  4. BG, I’m glad you’re finding something you can use.

    Mom is a name as you’re using it, so yes, it gets capped. Sir or honey or sweetie wouldn’t get capped.

    The lines after the dialogue look like new paragraphs in your example, but that may be a function of the comment. So . . .

    My mother is sitting on the balcony, but she’s alone. There are no pointy heels punctuating the floor, and Ma’s face is a crumpled handkerchief.

    “What happened, Mom? Where’s Aunt Stella?”

    “I don’t know.” My mother looks down, her eyes red and wet.

    “Didn’t she call?”

    She just shakes her head.

    Or try . . .

    My mother is sitting on the balcony, but she’s alone. No pointy heels punctuate the floor, and Ma’s face is a crumpled handkerchief.

    “What happened, Mom? Where’s Aunt Stella?”

    My mother looks down, her eyes red and wet. “I don’t know.”

    “Didn’t she call?”

    She just shakes her head.

    Also, you’ve got mother, ma, and mom. How does the narrator think of her mother? My mother can be paired with either of the other options, but there’d be little reason to have all three words for mother, especially in a section this short. Does she think of her mother as Ma or Mom?

    A bit more than you asked for, but I hope this helped. Use a new paragraph when a new speaker talks, even if that character has an action beat before the dialogue begins.

  5. BG says:

    Dear Beth,

    You are a lifesaver. Thank you so much. This is incredibly helpful. I”ll be back for more!

  6. Thanks. A big help as my current WIP is in first person with plenty of inner dialogue.

  7. Sheryl, I’m glad to have had something timely for you. Good luck with the WIP.

  8. AL Levenson says:

    I think important to point out the topic discussed is inner monologue, which is one character voicing thoughts silently. The best example I can think of is Hemngway’s one character novel, The Old Man and the Sea.

    Inner dialogue is a rare and challenging device used when within the head of one character, the voices of two entities have a dialogue. It could be a true conversation between the character and a spirit i.e. a deceased parent or mentor.

    This was a key device that made Magic, the 1978 movie starring Anthony Hopkins movie, in which the his own dummy overtakes the mind of his ventriloquist.

  9. Al, thanks for joining the discussion. I remember Magic. It’s one of the reasons I find certain kinds of dolls creepy. They did a great job with the movie.

    While dialogue, monologue, and character thoughts are each different, I used the term here for any kind of character speech, whether that speech is between characters, is a character speaking aloud to himself or an object, or is a character speaking in his mind. Dialogue is a more commonly discussed fiction term than is monologue, so I hoped those searching for dialogue tips, no matter what their form, would be able to find and use the article.

    Also, I’ve found that the meaning of dialogue has expanded beyond a conversation between two or more people. Dialogue in one sense is a reference to any of the spoken words in a piece of fiction. Thus we wouldn’t need to specify that a novelist writes both good dialogue and good monologue; dialogue by itself conveys our meaning.

    But true inner dialogue—a conversation between two parts of the same person—that indeed would be fascinating.

    Thanks for pointing out the classic definitions of dialogue and monologue.

    • AL Levenson says:

      I considered that some will regard my comment as overly picky. I did not mean to dilute your otherwise great discussion of monologue.

      Your additional remarks flesh out the concept even further. Thanks for that.

      The only real I had is how does inner dialogue look on a page? I did a story once with only one character for the first 2/3s of the story. He has an inner dialogue with his deceased father. I remember agonizing over how to express it. I think I punctuated it as though it was simple dialogue.

      AL

  10. Al, no worries. All discussion is good discussion.

    Though we always want to get it exactly right, being consistent is sometimes the most important issue. If your character never spoke aloud to others, the reader probably wouldn’t have gotten confused, would not have assumed the character was talking aloud rather than thinking to himself. Yet, I still like reserving quotation marks for spoken dialogue.

    But need sometimes trumps rules. And that’s part of what makes the written story so fascinating and unpredictable.

  11. Thank you so much for this blog post. This topic had me so confused and now it’s all clear to me.

  12. You are most welcome, Julieann. I’m glad the explanations helped.

  13. Misti says:

    I have two or more characters communicating mentally in my manuscript. I start a new paragraph every time and put it in italics should I also put it is quotation marks since they are talking to one another?

    By the way thank you so much for this blog it is the most helpful thing i have found so far!

  14. Misti, with all the paranormals and sci-fi that have come along, the need for writing mind-to-mind communication has increased. There’s no one standard yet, at least as far as I can tell.

    But you definitely don’t want a lot of italics taking over your manuscript. Paragraph after paragraph of words in italics is simply hard on the reader. And you don’t want both italics and quotation marks. That’s just overkill.

    Reserve quotation marks for spoken words. If you used them for thought and speech, readers wouldn’t know which it was. Also, let readers know right from the top that characters can mind-talk. And then keep that mind-talk brief.

    Unless someone comes up with something we all can use and easily recognize, the best option for mind-talk at this time is still italics.

    But just as you would break up spoken speech with action beats and action and description, break up mind speech as well. Don’t let any one character talk for pages. Breaking up the visual of all italics will give the reader a break. And giving characters more than mind-talk will give them a break.

    Maybe another reader has a suggestion regarding this issue, something they’ve seen or tried.

    A few of my reminders about mind-talk have to do with other issues that might come up. That is, how do you turn off the thoughts from others? Can your characters shut them off or are they bombarded by mind-talk constantly? How far can your characters mind-talk? That is, do they need phones or can they reach around the world with a thought? Or maybe they have to be in the same room with the other person. But why would that be so?

    Just some issues to consider . . .

    Great questions, Misti.

  15. I have just found this site on searching for information about using punctuation when a character is sitting back and reliving in his thoughts a word by word converstaion he had with someone in the past. Would I be right in thinking that in this case puctuation would be the correct method

  16. Margaret, I’m glad you found the blog. However, I’m not sure what your question is. Are you asking about quotation marks for a reply of a past conversation?

  17. Thank you for coming back to me Beth. I am and have never been a writer of stories, but I am now making an attempt to write a short fan fiction story.I should have made myself more clear….Yes, I am looking at quotation marks. My main character is going back six years in his thoughts and is recollecting a word for word conversation he had with someone, and I am writing the conversation down word for word. But, as this was a conversation in the past, but being re lived in his mind now….I am not sure if I should use quotation marks in the conversation as if it is happening in his thoughts now.I hope this makes sense. I may be making a meal of this and perhaps the quotation marks should be there anyway. whatever way I am writing this into the story line.

  18. Alex says:

    I’m a first-time writer and I struggled with this topic. I googled all over and found your post to be BY FAR the best explanation. Succinct, clear, and just totally awesome. Someone on AbsoluteWrite had the same question, so I posted a link to your post and raved about it. I hope it’ll help him/her as much as it helped me. Thanks.

  19. Thanks, Alex. I’m glad you found the information useful. And I like raving—thanks for the plug.

  20. Cindy S. says:

    Thanks for your advice on how to write a character’s thoughts. I have one question though for which I cannot seem to find the answer. Do you insert a question mark into a thought? For example- is the following correctly punctuated?
    What is happening to me? he thought despairingly.
    (The thoughts would be in italics.) Thank you very much for your help!

    • Cindy, Chicago MOS (16th Ed. 6-67) says yes, use the question mark with direct questions in the middle of a sentence. I’m sure, however, that I’ve also seen such sentences without the question mark.

      While the CMOS example is not italicized, I definitely like the question mark with italicized thought—What is happening to me? he thought.

  21. Riley says:

    I’ve bookmarked this and will refer my friends! Thank you for clarifying much of which I knew internally, but was unable to articulate to my friend.

  22. Riley, I’m glad you found this helpful.

  23. Toni says:

    This is a great explanation for using or not using
    Italics for your characters thoughts. I plan to use italics for remembering the past. Does that work

    Thanks Toni

  24. Toni, I wouldn’t recommend italics for remembering the past because you don’t want to overuse italics. If you give your readers a memory or flashback, that’s likely to last for more than a line or two. Italics are both noticeable and sometimes difficult to read. I’d reserve them for words, phrases, and short sections of thought. You don’t want to do anything that might slow the read for your readers and italics can do just that.

    Help the reader out whenever you can.

  25. I have the same question as Margaret Smith, which you didn’t answer here. My character is remembering something someone said to her. Example:

    He’s never vague with his opinions, so what does “Yeah. It was fine.” really mean?

    I’ve used quotes here, but I’ve also considered quotes with italics. And do you include the end punctuation?

  26. Linda, you’ve got a couple of options, but let me address the last question first—no, you don’t include the period for the example you cited. Sometimes you don’t need to include the capital letter either.

    Don’t use both quotation marks and italics—there’s no reason for both. Simple, if it’s clear, is almost always better.

    If one character isn’t really quoting the other character’s words, you can use italics: He’s never vague with his opinions, so what does yeah, it was fine really mean?

    Or you can use quotation marks, but I’d suggest not using a cap for yeah: He’s never vague with his opinions, so what does “yeah, it was fine” really mean?

    No commas needed for either of these examples.

    You could just as easily say: He’s never vague with his opinions, so when he said it was fine, what did he mean?

    Or, to indicate a direct quote: He’s never vague with his opinions, so when he said, “Yeah, it was fine,” what did he mean?

    Another option: He’s never vague with his opinions, so what did he mean when he said, “Yeah, it was fine”? (No period here after fine.)

    Does that help?

  27. Linda, I’m glad the examples were useful. I might have to copy some of this info to the article on punctuation in dialogue. It could come in handy there. Thanks for the questions.

  28. Tracie says:

    How do you properly puncuate He said, she said and I said. I am having a debate with a friend as to what’s right and what’s wrong.

    Correct: He said, “Look I will call you later.”

    Incorrect: He said. Look I will call you later.

    Does this apply to he said and I said?

  29. Tracie, I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking. Your correct example is correct and your incorrect example is incorrect (though both need a comma after look). This would be the same setup for any dialogue tag, no matter who was speaking. I’ve got a lot of examples in the article Punctuation in Dialogue. Let me know if it doesn’t answer your question.

  30. What about punctuation with question marks in thoughts:

    Is it:
    What was the use? he thought. – as it would be in quote dialogue
    OR
    What was the use, he had thought?
    OR, do you lose the question mark all together…
    What was the use, he thought.

    • Cindy S says:

      That has always been my question too! I usually prefer this:
      Where have my keys gone? he thought. The thought,Where have my keys gone, is also in italics. But, Microsoft Word always corrects it to have NO question mark at all, just a comma. I’ve tried looking it up in The Chicago Manual of Style, but it really does not give a clear answer, at least one I could find.
      I think the most important thing to do is to be consistent, whatever punctuation you decide on. Hope this helps.

  31. Dana says:

    My main character is going back in her thoughts to a scene that happened hours ago. She is remembering word for word conversation and action she had with someone, and I am writing the conversation down word for word as she remembers. But, as this was a conversation in the past, but being re lived in her mind now. Is it best to just say, It was some time before she could find rest as her remembered what had occurred AND THEN just give the scene as though the reader is experiencing it, then have her come back from her thoughts? In this way, (3rd person) I would just give the scene from her perspective including action and conversation with quotes. Would this be the best way to handle?? Margaret Smith asked this last year and I can’t find an exact answer to this queston.

  32. Seamus, I agree with Cindy that the question mark goes before the thought tag, just as it would go before a dialogue tag. You definitely don’t want it after the tag.

    Yet, for such a sentence, you could also consider dropping the question mark and simply using a comma—de-emphasize the question part. Soften the feel of a hard question.

    Would that be correct in terms of the traditional rules of punctuation? Maybe not enough for some of the sticklers. But would it be stylistically correct for your story? It might well be perfect for it.

    In a related issue—I just finished reading a novel that used almost no question marks at all, not for any questions. It took me a while to get used to it, but then I felt what the writer had established with her choice. The characters asked a lot of questions, many rhetorical, and question marks would have cluttered the text, been a visual distraction.

    Had I edited that book, I probably would have suggested using question marks for some of the characters. As we use different sentence constructions to differentiate our characters, we can also use different punctuation. Some characters would naturally emphasize the question as a question in their thougths and speech, even if others didn’t. It would be a way to accentuate those differences.

    For your example, Seamus, the thought tag may or may not be necessary. If you’ve put readers into your character’s head, they’ll know such a question is his thought, making the thought tag unnecessary.

  33. Dana, you have some options here.

    If you want to show the conversation exactly as it happened, treat it like any other flashback. That way you can include setting details, the dialogue word for word, and the characters’ movements. Use quotation marks for the dialogue, just as you normally would. And introduce the flashback in a way that lets the reader know it’s a flashback and then bring the reader back to the present in a way that indicates that’s what is happening.

    If, however, you want to show how the words from that conversation affect the character in the present—she’s tossing and turning and can’t sleep—you may just want to pull out a line or two of the conversation. The emphasis here is less on the whole conversation and more on how the character is reacting to what was said. If what she remembers is a short line or two, consider italics rather than quotation marks. An example—

    Janelle couldn’t sleep, certainly didn’t want to dream now that her precious dreams had been shattered. Matthew had finally told her what he felt about her. My wife must be of one of the First Families, a woman of pedigree. She pounded her pillow and pounded again. You come from . . .

    She knew her background, much, much better than he did. She’d heard the accusations since her first days in the capital. She pressed the pillow over her face, hoping to drown out not only his spoken words, but those he’d left in his thoughts. You come from trash. You are not worthy of my name.

    You could also separate out his words in this manner—

    Janelle couldn’t sleep, certainly didn’t want to dream now that her precious dreams had been shattered. Matthew had finally told her what he felt about her.

    My wife must be of one of the First Families, a woman of pedigree.

    She pounded her pillow and pounded again.

    You come from . . .

    She knew her background, much, much better than he did. She’d heard the accusations since her first days in the capital. She pressed the pillow over her face, hoping to drown out not only his spoken words, but those he’d left in his thoughts.

    You come from trash. You are not worthy of my name.

    You can, of course, always use quotation marks for the dialogue.

    Janelle couldn’t sleep. Her conversation, her fight, with Matthew wouldn’t stop looping through her mind. She covered her eyes and ears, but she still saw his face, heard his words.

    “My wife must be a woman of pedigree,” he’d told her, his face averted. “You come from . . .”

    Trash. He’d almost said it, the epithet for all her kind.
    ————-

    The best option for one story, for one scene, won’t be the best for another. Flashbacks always stop the forward motion of a story, but they get the job done. If the scene is powerful and necessary, show it in a flashback.

    If what’s more important is the effect of an earlier scene on the present, consider pulling out only certain parts of it and playing up the impact on the character in the now.

    Which would be more dramatic? Which would do a better job of raising conflict and tension? Which would be more revealing of character?

    The good news is you have options. The bad news is that sometimes we don’t want options. There is no general right or wrong for this one. Try both and see what works for the story.

    If this the kind of thing you were looking for?

  34. Chad says:

    I’ve written and self published a novel wherein characters are possessed by demons, angels, and spirits. These characters interact on occasion but they all have their own agendas. There are also many conversations that take place internally between host and possessors. At times I can have two or three physical beings in one place but 4-6 different personalities engaged in conversation with the other characters as well as internal dialogue with their hosts.

    I have taken to putting these internal dialogues between host and possessor between asterisks and anchoring the text to the character.

    Ex.-

    “I mean you no harm, human. Nor you, demon.”
    Uriazel spoke quickly to Alistair in his head. *Don’t acknowledge that you are possessed.*
    “No demon here, other than yourself, demon.” Alistair spoke aloud immediately.
    “Don’t attempt to play games with me human, I am not known for my patience.” Belial warned ominously.
    *He’s not lying.* Uriazel cautioned internally. *He’s quick to anger, and we’re not in fighting shape.*
    “What can I do for you, Prince Belial?” Alistair asked in a more diplomatic manner.
    “You can start by recognizing my act of truce and put your weapons away.” The Forbidden Prince stated.
    Alistair shrank his weapons back down into its bracelet form. “Fair enough.”
    “Who is the demon possessing you?”
    “I’m not possessed.”
    “How would you know who I am; were you not possessed? Also, I can smell him embedded within you, human.” The massive demon stated as he inhaled deeply. “Is that you Uriazel?” He asked as he recognized a familiar scent.
    *We’re had.* Uriazel spoke internally, then aloud. “Yes, it’s me, Prince Belial.”

    My dilemma: I have started query letters to different agencies and I keep getting turned down. Now, I don’t believe that my writing is bad and I have received some input back from several agents. They say the same thing. “We’re afraid your project isn’t quite right for our lists at this time, but we encourage you to continue editing and querying other agencies.”

    My gut tells me it’s because I don’t use italics for internal dialogue, but I don’t feel this will work with my situation of characters. Do you have any suggestions?

  35. Chad, while I doubt that punctuation alone would keep a story from being accepted, your punctuation/font choice is unusual. Those you’ve sent it to may get the impression that since you hadn’t used traditional methods for conveying talk/thoughts, you also haven’t used other writing conventions. Consider sticking with italics for these characters thinking inside other characters. Or, since they do this a lot and you probably also have the characters thinking to themselves, consider quotation marks for the character-to-character thought. It really is conversation. You just need to make sure readers know who is think/speaking.

    You do have some other issues in this example. The punctuation for the dialogue itself needs a review. Also, you typically don’t want to refer to one character by several names. With the high number of characters you no doubt have, I suggest you stick to one name for each one in a scene. You’ve got Belial, Prince Belial, the Forbidden Prince, and the massive demon referring to the same character in only a few lines. Readers will not know if you’re referring to the same character each time.

    Also, who is the viewpoint character here? I assume it’s Alistair, since you’re showing us his thoughts. But then we have a line that shows Belial recognizing the scent of the demon. That’s a viewpoint violation that doesn’t belong in a scene from the Alistair’s POV. And does Alistair know Belial’s name before anyone mentions it?

    Also, consider cutting the explanations in the dialogue tags. Let characters speak without qualifying how the words are spoken.

    This example supposes that you’ve already explained that Alistair hears Uriazel in his head.

    “I mean you no harm, human. Nor you, demon.”
    Uriazel cautioned Alistair, “Don’t acknowledge that you are possessed.”
    “No demon here, other than yourself, demon,” Alistair said.
    “Don’t play games with me, human. I am not known for my patience.”
    “He’s not lying,” Uriazel told Alistair. “He’s quick to anger, and we’re not in fighting shape.”
    “What may I do for you, Prince Belial?” Alistair asked.
    “You can start by recognizing my act of truce and put your weapons away.”
    Alistair shrank his weapons [plural] back down into its [singular] bracelet form. “Fair enough.”
    “Who is the demon possessing you?”
    “I’m not possessed.”
    “How would you know who I am; were you not possessed? Also, I can smell him embedded within you, human.” He inhaled deeply. “Is that you, Uriazel?”
    “We’re had,” Uriazel told Alistair before saying, “Yes, it’s me, Prince Belial.”
    ——–
    How does something like this sound to you?

    • Chad says:

      Thank you for taking the time to look over my extensive question! The example I gave you probably wasn’t the best to throw out there as it takes place in the beginning of the fourth chapter. It was just a quick excerpt I grabbed out of the text to illustrate my dilemma. You did answer my question for me. Thank you! Now I have to sit down and figure out how to dial this back into the accepted norm…. Again, thank you for your time and feedback! ~Chad

  36. My pleasure, Chad. Good luck with your changes.

  37. Hello.

    Can you please help me out? I have a character who is at home remembering a converstation he had with police officers earlier on that day. Do I use italics for this or use normal dialogue with quotation marks? This is the first time readers will know of this conversation.

    Any advice would be gratefully received.

    Thanks.

  38. Barry, you have a couple of ways of playing this.

    If the character’s replaying the moment and the dialogue word for word, you can treat it like a flashback and use quotation marks for the dialogue. Show readers the scene as it happened—

    The precinct had been crowded and noisy. When he’d caught the eye of both Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, they’d aimed straight for him.

    The sergeant pulled him aside and then, with a long sigh, he dragged him into a tiny office and slammed the door.

    “You’re damned lucky to be alive.”

    ———–

    But if he’s just remembering bits and pieces, you could use italics or quotation marks for the dialogue—

    What had that sergeant said? “You’re damned lucky to be alive.”

    What had that sergeant said? You’re damned lucky to be alive.

    ———-

    I like italics for this short memory-dialogue, but when italics are used too often, they lose their effect and start to annoy. You wouldn’t want to use them for more than a line or so. If you’re going to write out the dialogue in full, use quotation marks.

    Quotation marks are the standard punctuation for spoken dialogue, so you’re safe to use them for that purpose.

    You can also use indirect quotations—

    The sergeant had said he was damned lucky to be alive. He didn’t know if he was lucky, but being alive sure felt good.

    ————–

    Does that help?

    • Barry W. says:

      Thanks Beth. That did help A LOT! I’ve tried playing out the scene many different ways but none of them looked quite. . .right. You’ve made it look so simple; why couldn’t see it like that before?

      Can I be a lad and ask one more thing?

      What’s the best way to write dreams? To be italic or not to be italic? That is the question.

      Thanks Beth. You’re not bad at this writing lark, are you!

      Kind regards.

      Barry W.

  39. Thanks, Barry. I do love writing and editing and putting it all together.

    There are for specific reasons to use italics in fiction, but using them for long passages of text is not encouraged. For one thing, it’s simply difficult and distracting to read long sections of text in italics.

    Is it done? You bet it is. But that doesn’t mean using italics is the best choice.

    I read a book a couple of weeks ago that used italics for long stretches of text. It was done for a particular purpose, and I recognized that as I was reading, but I found myself having to reread sentences or words because they just didn’t look right on the page. I also rubbed my eyes because the read was a bit of a strain. The font looked smaller in italics (thought I’m sure it wasn’t) and had they bumped up the font size, that might have eased my problems.

    So, to answer your question, the recommendation is to stay away from italics for long sections of text whether that means dreams or flashbacks or even thoughts between mind-talking characters. (A publisher may choose italics for any of these purposes, of course. But that’s their decision. What you want to do is identify that the dream section is something other, something different from the surrounding text. And you want to make it easy to read.)

    Roman text is sufficient for dreams. Simply introduce the dream as a dream and show when it begins and ends. You can do this by writing us into and out of the dream with words that indicate that the character is dreaming.

    Or you can use the present tense in your dreams, giving them a feel different from the rest of your story (if you’re using past tense).

    If you choose not to introduce the dream with words, set it up as a scene of its own, with scene breaks at both ends.

    If your character dreams a lot or has nightmares that you want the reader to see, once you’ve shown one or two, readers will catch on to your setup, whatever it is, and know you’re presenting a dream. So you wouldn’t have to show a character falling asleep every time. Simply give us a scene break and introduce a recurring dream element—the character walking down a deserted street, the character being chilled or hearing her own footsteps echoing louder and louder as she walks, the image of a broken doll or a cloud-shrouded moon or the murmur of indistinct voices.

    Readers are smart, so if you give them a hint, they know how to run with what you’ve provided.

    Not be italic is my suggestion.

  40. Barry W says:

    Ta, Beth.

    No italics then.

    I know what you mean about italics making the print appear smaller. I reckon it’s an optical illusion.

    Don’t know if you’re familiar with British crime writer, peter James but he sometimes writes whole chapters in italics! It sometimes seems like the words run into each other. Great writer though.

    Anyway, I’ve used up way too much of your time.

    I’m off to dreamland now (without italics).

    Thanks for the advice. You’ve been a great help.

    Take care.

    Barry.

  41. My pleasure, Barry. Take as much of my time as you need to.

  42. Connie says:

    Thank you SO MUCH for the very clear explanation of when and how to use italics when portraying a character’s thoughts. The best explanation I’ve found.

  43. Connie, you are welcome. We’ve covered a lot of related issues here in the comments, so I might need to do a Part Two on this topic.

  44. My current problem is trying to figure out how to punctuate a paragraph in which a character is reading something to herself. If I just put quotes around the material being read, it looks like she’s reading it aloud. I’m wondering if single quotes would work. The paragraph which is from my upcoming novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill is:
    Block quote
    When he reached Abigail, Thornhammer pressed a stiff card into her hand. She fumbled with it and, after getting the Braille right-side up, read, ‘Professor Thornhammer’s Banned Four-Letter Words.’ Her heart raced in anticipation of the words he might have included, but the list was a simple one: ‘Like, Sure, very, fine and just.’
    Block quote end
    Thanks for any suggestions.

  45. Donna, you have some options, but using single quotation marks isn’t one of them unless you’re using rules for British English. American English doesn’t use single quotation marks in fiction except as a quote within a quote.

    If you’re going to use the word read as you have, then using quotation marks is okay. So—

    She fumbled with it and, after getting the Braille right-side up, read, “Professor Thornhammer’s banned four-letter words.”

    Or you could use italics. But since you used the word read, the quotation marks do work. Think of read as equal to said in this case.

    For the second section, I suggest neither quotation marks nor italics (though if I had to choose, I’d go with italics). But because this is just a list, you don’t need anything special.

    If someone’s reading a paragraph or so of text, you can use quotation marks—think of it as quoting someone, though the character isn’t truly speaking. If the words are few and interspersed with comments from the character, use either quotation marks or italics, depending on how you introduce the text and how many or few words you’re reporting—

    She had picked up the book, but had never gotten past the first line—Home wasn’t a place to live; it was a circus complete with animals, con men, and clowns.

    . . . gotten past the words Home wasn’t a place to live; it was a circus complete with animals, con men, and clowns.

    . . . gotten past Richardson’s opening. “Home wasn’t a place to live; it was a circus complete with animals, con men, and clowns.”

    If your character is reading a lot of text—several pagragraphs or pages (though that could be very boring for the reader)—consider indenting on both left and right and not using italics or quotation marks. This simply sets the text off so the reader (if you’re submitting, this means agent or editor) knows that the text is something other than exposition or dialogue or action. With this choice, however, you do need to make clear when the text begins and ends. You can do that with line spaces and/or words that introduce the text at the beginning and then indicate, at the end, that the special text is finished

    ———–

    Using italics for a lot of text makes a tough read for the reader, so for submissions, try what I’ve suggested here. If the publisher wants to use italics for long sections of text, that’s their choice. What you’ll want to do is be consistent and clear.

    Unfortunately, there’s no one option that’s always right because the circumstances, especially the amount of text, is different.

  46. This article has certainly cleared up a sticking point in my own writing. Always having tete-a-tete discussions with my editing friend, I preferred using quotation marks in the middle of a paragraph and at the same time being annoyed that I could not develop consistency. I would use variation in different works. I will use the italics method, thanks to you, and begin new inner thoughts as new paragraphs. I think it should also blend in with my personal style development. Thank you, Beth.

  47. I am a retired IT maven. I procrastinated for twenty years, but in January I started writing Dragon at 1600. I had 200 pages of the worst grammar possible. In high school and college when they said grammar, I said already got a gramma. So, I met some writers on the Writers Network (LinkedIN) and started getting major help. One genius, took me under her wings. She is tough. For the past month, I have re-written the first 7 chapters five times. My grammar will get better, but my tenses and must have narration was killing me. I have had three different prologues. Hell I love Clive Cussler. The prologue is now chapter 15, but chapter 1 is killing me. I want it to explode. So, yesterday was a really bad day for me. I was searching the internet for answers and got your site. Hello, and thank you. I just re-wrote chapter 1 this morning. I changed 70% of the narrative to dialogue. I was having a problem because Buck was all by himself. Oh my God. I looked around my office and said what can i do. Hey, I yell at my TV all the time. I’m a NY Met and NY Jet fan. I’m lucky the TV still works. Thoughts, what an interest concept. I’ll be damned, someones at the door. Next thing you know, the whole narrative, minus what was not needed… became dialogue. I read something the other day that hit me hard. Write your scene like someone is paying $300,000.00. for it. If its crap it gets cut. The movie is only two hours. Everthing has to count. I would love to SHOW you the before and after, but won’t waste your time. What I do want is more ideas and ways to make narrative into dialog. In the past two weeks I have read 6 books on writing. Yes they all helped, but your site woke me up. Thank you.

  48. Stephen, you are welcome. I’m guessing that consistency is going to help not only the manuscript, but the way you approach your characters’ thoughts and their inner monologue. Keep in mind that if you’ve clearly shown the reader that they’re in the character’s head, hearing his thoughts, italics aren’t even needed. Or you might want to differentiate between passive thoughts and the self-directed thought-talk of your characters by not using italics for the first but using them for the self-directed thoughts.

    Here’s to the change making a difference.

  49. Gene, congratulations on your jump into writing. You’ve aleady begun the two best practices you could undertake at this point, as you begin your writing career—writing and studying the craft of writing. I’m glad you found something you could use here.

    Of course I’m going to caution you to not go overboard the other way with your use of dialogue. How much action do you have in that opening chapter? Perhaps some of that 70% of the narrative that was changed to dialogue should be action instead? Finding the balance is part of the writing experience, and each story will have a different balance of elements. And you’ll find that your style will naturally tend to lean toward one of the elements at the expense of the others.

    Thought and dialogue are vital, but so is action. If you want your opening to explode, light a match. But keep in mind that you’ve got to have an explosive of some kind attached, a situation that could explode. And sometimes you need to show the reader some of the setup, the reason why there’s a possibility of something explosive happening. You can play around with cause and effect, action and reaction, to see what works for the story’s needs.
    ———–
    Regarding action, even a character alone, as you pointed out from your own experience, can be active. A guy can reveal his rage or despair by throwing objects or kicking through walls. He can pound his fists into a floor again and again, until they’re bloody, as he tries to deal with the death of a lover or child. A psychopath could painstakingly put together a bomb, talking to himself all the while, as he readies the device for his next attack.

    You didn’t specifically mention action, but these are a few reminders to give the reader a break from thoughts and dialogue. Too much of any one element—dialogue, action, thought, exposition or summary, or description—is too much.

    As for ideas to make narrative into dialogue, one of the most effective is to make sure you’re writing scenes and not reports. Scenes mean people in specific places doing something. Sections of all thought all too often become a bodiless mind, and not a full character, thinking of past events. Reporting past events. In contrast, for a scene, characters need to interact with others, if those others are in the scene. But characters also need motion and interaction with props from the setting. And the passage of time should be clear. So a character is in an identifiable place, doing something, including talking to other characters, interacting with objects and moving around, as time advances in a recognizable way.

    Even if a character goes on for a stretch simply thinking, readers should know where the character is and what he’s doing, even if the focus is on his thoughts. Where is Roger when he takes a trip down memory lane to think about the guy who mentored him in high school, the coach who set him on the right track? Is Roger sitting alone at a bar? Is he pacing in a hospital ER? Is he on a stakeout? And what’s the catalyst for his trip down memory lane? What event gets him thinking? People don’t simply willy-nilly start thinking of events or people from the past—something brings them to mind. Be sure that stimulus is clear.

    So to show a detective lost to his thoughts of his ex-wife, the one he let dovorce him without a fight in order to protect her, readers could see the character tapping the steering wheel as he sits a stakeout. Readers should feel the wind shaking the car, the biting cold as it creeps in through the window that doesn’t close all the way. Readers should hear the crackling as the character shifts in his seat, smell the odor of drive-thru chicken and burgers from the bags piling up in the back seat. And readers could hear the detective make a report to his partner or dispatch and then watch as he fiddles with the ring he still wears. And then readers could listen in as the detective remembers events from the past.

    But the present scene shouldn’t be forgotten and events and the reality of that present should interrupt the memories of the past. Coming back to the present scene will keep characters and readers grounded so neither are lost to memories and thoughts that play out only in a character’s head.

    The suggestion, then, is to write scenes and not simply character remembrances.

    Ways to convert narrative into dialogue (and action) would make for a good article. I’ll have to think about that one.

    Thanks for joining the discussion, Gene. I’m sure your comment sparked ideas and questions for others.

  50. Gene says:

    Thank you Beth. Maybe explosive was the wrong word. This is my 6 draft of chapter 1. I want it dynamic, but I’m introducing my protagonist. I did not want the narrator doing it all. Some people told me it was too wordy. Here is what I’m talking about.

    Buck believed America was a pretty damn good place to live. The US Constitution guaranteed that. He believed most people came here for that reason only. Some people— not just the rich— came to America for another reason. To bleed the red, white and blue for all it is worth.
    He was in his home office at his computer programming. He was making enhancements to his tracking system. The music was blasting through the computer speakers, his kind of music… It was another typical week for Buck, twelve to fifteen hour work days. This time around it was for America… not the man. Bruce Greenwood was getting his juices flowing.
    …That I’m proud to be an American, / where at least I know I’m free. / And I won’t forget the men who died, / who gave that right to me.
    Buck was retired now; he was finally done with the corporate bullshit. No more asshole bosses, who hired their even bigger asshole kids. There he was, poppa’s proud whatever… Mr. Vice President of just show the **** up to work.. The back-stabbing and the cry baby demands, yeah, Buck was done with that bullshit too.
    …And I gladly stand up, / next to you and defend her still today. / ‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land, / God bless the USA.
    A special report on the news, caught Bucks attention.
    Look at them he thought, they seek any law that can benefit their cause. They exploited it, twisted and use creative interpretation, only to push their own agenda… bleed America dry. They spit on Old Glory, stomp on her, then burn her. Why… because they can?
    “Damn,” said Buck to the TV. “They fight the very rights, our brave men and women fought to defend. The rights that made America… the land of the free.”
    Lynyrd Skynyrd was now rocking on the system. Buck muted the sound on the TV.
    Yeah that’s right! / My Daddy worked hard, and so have I, / Paid our taxes and gave our lives / To serve this great country / So what are they complaining about…
    Buck didn’t like people who took and never gave. Worse, Buck hated traitors.
    “Buck are you here?” said Roy.
    “Sorry didn’t hear you come in. Got the music blasting.”
    “I have a couple of things I’m working on,” said Roy. “I want to add it to the system, see how it looks.”
    “Knock yourself out.”
    Roy Singh was Bucks partner, best friend and Swami. Hell, he was a genius and had three pussy PhD’s to prove it.
    “What are your plans?” said Roy.
    “I was thinking of swinging by Sarge’s. Have a few beers, complain a little and blow off some steam. Micky’s up in White Plains, pushing his new novel, The Saratoga Project.. I want to go see him. He gave me a couple of people to look into and I want Sarge to drive.”
    My hair’s turning white, / My neck’s always been red, / My collar’s still blue, / We’ve always been here / Just trying to sing the truth to you. / Yes you could say / We’ve always been, / Red, White, and Blue…
    Buck had met Micky on an IT Security project in Purchase, NY several years ago. Micky was his mentor. They worked together, played golf and were constant dinner and drinking companions. Micky gave more than half his life to America, he was legit, and got the whole God and Country meaning. He put five years in the Navy and another twenty in the Air Force… he was still involved. He parlayed his IT Security and Auditing background from the Air Force into a nice career. After he retired, he became a mega-millionaire author.
    …If they don’t like it they can just / get the HELL out!
    “Hey Roy, I’m out of here.”

    First off… you don’t see that I used italics on the song words between the paragraphs. I want the reader to say… I’m with BUCK!

  51. Gene says:

    Beth,
    Thank you for responding. what I had listed was the first page and a half of a 3200 word chapter. The rest of the chapter has a 55-45 blend of dialogue to narration maybe even 60% dialogue. I have been working hard at turning narration into dialogue if I can. I realize that some narrative maybe important to me but does not move the story along. I have my orignal draft so it’s not like It’s gone forever. Hell, some are memories from 30 years ago. Obviously, I didn’t forget them. I created an inside cover that will grab the reader, if political espionage and suspense is their thing. Also, in my first draft, I gave all the goodies away in the first 30 to 40 pages. Why read the rest, when you know how it’s going to end. This time around, I want them saying, “I’ll read one more chapter before I go to bed, maybe two.” I read a lot. Some books you just can’t put down. I love James Patterson, but one of his last books just didn’t do it. I just kept putting it down. This may also be, because I’m reading in edit mode so I’m not enjoying it. I write 8 to 10 hours a day and edit in between. I start at 6 am and stop around 8 pm. So when I finally want to read for fun, I’m spent. I will tell you one thing I have learned. There is nothing that compares to writing. It is the one thing in life that you totally control. My protagonist had just saved two Russian Scientists who were kidnapped. They were boring. I went to bed and dreamed about my book. When I woke up, they were not longer boring. I made them smarter and more beautiful. They are now part of Bucks team. Writing is more than fun. It’s the funnest. How that for the grammarians.

    • Gene, I didn’t intend to take so long to get back to you.

      Writing in a way that makes the reader have to read just one more page is a perfect goal to strive for. We don’t want them stopping. Yes, we understand that they have lives, but if they have to be pulled away, that means they’re locked into the fiction.

      Look down the comments list for a few suggestions on your earlier text.

  52. xmarisolx says:

    Best article on internal dialog that I’ve read. Thank you.

  53. Gene, how does this work for you?

    Buck believed America was a pretty damn good place to live. The U.S. Constitution guaranteed that. He believed most people came here for that reason only. Some people—not just the rich—came to America for another reason. To bleed the red, white and blue for all it was worth.

    He sat in his home office, programming at his computer, making enhancements to his tracking system. Music blasted through the speakers, his kind of music. It had been another typical week for Buck—twelve-to-fifteen-hour days. But this time around it was for America, not the man. Lee Greenwood’s iconic song had his juices flowing.

    “I’m proud too, Lee.”

    Buck, finally done with the corporate bullshit, had retired. No more asshole bosses who hired their even bigger asshole kids. There he was, papa’s proud whatever, Mr. Vice President of just-show-the-****-up-to-work. The back-stabbing and the cry-baby demands? Yeah, Buck had retired from that bullshit too.

    Buck joined Lee, holding the long note near the end of the song far longer than Lee did and then laughing when he could finally catch his breath. A special report flashing on the TV caught Buck’s attention.

    Look at them, he thought, seeking any law that can benefit their cause. They exploit it, twist it and use creative interpretation to push their own agenda to bleed America dry. They spit on Old Glory, stomp on her, then burn her. And why, because they can?

    “Damn,” Buck said to the TV. “They fight against the very rights we fought to defend.” Stupid pr***s. Fighting against, weakening, the rights that made America the land of the free.

    Lynyrd Skynyrd was now rocking on the system, singing about working hard and paying taxes. Buck muted the TV.

    Buck had been raised to work hard, to do and contribute. His dad hadn’t been a slacker, and he wouldn’t allow any of his kids to slack off, to live off others. Buck had no respect for people who took and never gave. Of course, he hated traitors even worse.

    “Buck, you here?”

    He swiveled to see Roy standing in the doorway.

    “Hey, didn’t hear you come in. Got the music blasting.”

    “I got a couple of things I’m working on,” Roy said. “I want to add them to the system, see how it looks.”

    “Knock yourself out.”

    Roy Singh was Buck’s partner, best friend and Swami. Hell, he was a genius and had three pussy PhDs to prove it.

    “What are your plans?” Roy asked.

    “I was thinking of swinging by Sarge’s. Have a few beers, complain a little and blow off some steam. Micky’s up in White Plains, pushing his new novel, The Saratoga Project. I want to see him too. He gave me a couple of people to look into, and I want Sarge to drive.”

    He turned down the final chorus of “Red, White and Blue.”

    Micky was his mentor. Buck had met him on an IT security project in Purchase, NY, several years ago. They worked together, played golf and were constant dinner and drinking companions. Micky gave more than half his life to America, he was legit, and he got the whole God and country thing. He’d put five years in with the Navy and another twenty with the Air Force and was still involved. And he’d parlayed his security and auditing background into a successful career as a mega-millionaire author of political thrillers.

    The American dream writ large.

    “Hey, Roy, I’m out of here.” Buck shoved away from his desk, timing his words and his exit to Skynyrd’s final chords. Get the hell out indeed.
    ——————-
    A few general notes—

    Lee Greenwood, not Bruce (who’s an actor)

    Unless you got permission to use lyrics, you can’t quote them in books. There are some exceptions (public domain songs and not-for-profit scholarly books), but for the most part, steer clear of using someone else’s words, especially poems or song lyrics. Much of the song’s value is contained in a single line and writers don’t get to tap into someone else’s work to bolster their own. Use allusions to the song if you need to bring it to the reader’s mind, or mention the title. But keep in mind that readers don’t always have the same reactions to songs that you do. You may be introducing an element that doesn’t fit your intentions, but one you have no control over.

    Was is a workhorse word, but you’ve used it 18 times in this little snippet. Cut some uses and substitute more specific verbs for others. That will strengthen images and the feel of the passage.

    Try the more common order of Buck said rather than said Buck. It gives a story a more contemporary feel.

    I cut some words, changed some around, made some punctuation changes. I may have missed on the intent of some phrases, since I don’t know the story, but I hope this gives you some ideas.

    • Beth, many thanks.

      I was watching a movie with Bruce Greenwood in it, and without thinking put Bruce instead of Lee. The who said, said who, always got me. It’s automatic to write, he said, she said. I don’t know why I reverse it when using a name. Would you advise changing it for every ‘said’ tag. It’s probably a good exercise, for doing a full edit of my book anyway. Thank you on the ‘was’ also. It will make me think more, when writing. I sent letters to all the agents, whom I use songs, connected to their artists. They answered back within hours with a form to fill out. That’s when you never hear back from them. I like how you did it, and it makes sense. Be creative and stay away from problems. Thank you for showing me how to give the story impact. I noticed there were no spaces after the em-dash. I have the Chicago MOS, by my side and looked it up. I have some cleanup, on that too. I read somewhere, and didn’t mark it at the time, of a list of words, novice writers should watch for. Meaning there multiple usage. Do you know what I’m talking about. If so, I hope there is a list of alternates. I can’t say enough about your blog. Thanks!

    • I had another thought. You know, when we first learned how to drive, our parents taught us the pass the driving test. Then–they taught us how to stay alive.
      We write a MS to pass the test. Then what, someone makes it look good. They and fonts maybe. They do different paragraph spacing, etc. I looked back over the edit you did for me. I like the way it looks. Certain lines are double spaced to separate a paragraph. Like the, “I’m proud too, Lee.” But we’re not allowed to do that in a MS, can we do it after?
      Also, I had reworked the first chapter. When I decided to move my prologue to chapter 12, I realized there was information that had to be told sooner. So I moved it while I was waiting to hear from you. I wasn’t expecting, what you did for me. I combine it all and rewrote it. I think I have something now. YOU ARE THE BEST.

  54. Gene, you wouldn’t have to change all said he to he said, but I’d recommend changing most.

    There are all sorts of books and articles that talk about words to use or not use, but I’m not sure which you’re referring to. I’d check the Internet, see if you can’t find a couple of good lists.

    As for format, there is a standard manuscript format, with first lines indented and no line spaces between paragraphs, so my presentation for your text wouldn’t be the way you’d format a ms. for submission. But the format I used is much easier on the eyes for online readers. Besides, it’s near impossible to indent with blog posts and comments.

    I’m glad to have been of help. One other change you might consider is removing some instances of Buck’s name. He doesn’t need to be named so many times in those opening paragraphs.

  55. James Kelley says:

    Supposing you are writing 1st person narrative and your pov character relates what another character is thinking? How would you punctuate that? For example:

    I didn’t move or say a word, knowing the cop was thinking, Just give me an excuse, please, and I’ll gladly rid this world of your worthless punk ass.

    Would you use a comma just before the thought quote? Capitalize the first letter of the thought, as I did here? Use italics for the thought? Thanks.

  56. James, I would suggest using italics for this. The comma is good, as is the capital J.

    Or you could add the word what and use a colon or dash to introduce the cop’s supposed thought—

    I didn’t move or say a word, knowing what the cop was thinking: Just give me an excuse . . .

    You could italicize or not in this case; the colon or dash should serve as a strong enough indicator that this is the thought of another character, so italics are not required, though you may want to use them. Just be consistent with your choice.

    Thanks for the question; it’s one that needed to be addressed. And it points out the fluidity of our options; there’s a lot that isn’t set in stone, and a writer can create different effects and a personal style with his choices.

  57. Tasha says:

    Hi,
    I would just like to ask about the dialogue of a machine or computer.
    In my writing I have written:

    My name and photo appear as a robotic female voice says access granted.

    Do I need to use italics or commas or speech marks anywhere in the last bit of the sentence ?
    If you could help me that would be great!!
    Thanks

  58. Tasha, typically you’d use quotation marks, just as for normal speech. Yet if you want to highlight that it’s not human speech, you could italicize; that would be a style decision. Will the computer talk a lot? Is she a character? If so, quotation marks might be your best option. They are the least confusing option.

    So, yes, if you are actually quoting what the computer says, you will want formatting to make the quoted text stand out.

    My name and photo appear as a robotic female voice says, “Access granted.”

    My name and photo appear as a robotic female voice reports access granted.

    You wouldn’t need quotation marks or italics if you wrote—My name and photo appear as a robotic female voice tells me access is granted.

    Quotation marks for spoken speech is the best choice. But you do have options.

  59. Kim Dixon says:

    This was a very useful guide for me, thanks very much, now I feel happy entering a flash fiction competition.

  60. Kim, you’re welcome. Good luck with your flash fiction.

  61. haydee says:

    Beth,

    I just wanted to say: You’re soooo helpful… Thanks!

  62. Louise says:

    Hi, I wonder if you could help me. My character is telling her story directly, and keeps jumping from past to present. How should I punctuate the past? Italics, or trust the reader to use their heads… I just feel it could get confusing for the reader without clear indication as it does jump back and fourth. (don’t judge all my punctuation and spelling this is purely a rough draft!)

    Belmont, California: April 2008

    I still believe he visited me that day with the intention of killing me in cold blood. My memory of it is so blurry yet so clear. Almost surreal. I am sure the figure behind him had been holding a gun as he had walked out of the room when the ringmaster had dismissed him. Then again it could have been the radiant artificial glare blinding me, playing tricks on my mind. An illusion to suit the story. If he had entered that day to assassinate me, then he had been right. I will regret spitting at him forever. It would have been the kindest mercy to have killed me so painlessly that day. But my emotions had got in the way. I allowed my anger to dictate my fate. Allowed my pride to take precedence. I was a fool. I fought them every step of the way. Believing somehow that I would conquer. I had starved myself for those several days of solitude. Attacked anyone who tried to come near me. It didn’t matter that I was shackled to the wall. What leeway I had was enough to kick scratch and bite. I was a wild animal in a cage. I may have been contained physically but emotionally I was completely unrestrained. That was at least until they changed me, or tried to. They had offered me an alternative.
    ‘Kuthi, are you aware what bribery is?’ The ringmaster chided from a safe distance, as I pulled at the chains to get at him. I wanted to beat him. Punch, scratch, spit – any physical abuse would have sufficed. I knew I was wasting energy, but I could not restrain my desire to physically assault anyone who threatened my freedom. Perhaps I believed they would let me go in defeat. Give up on trying to tame me. I had been so wrong. ‘If you are a good doggie I would listen very carefully… If you do not start to co-operate with us we will have to take matters a step further. We know where you live and we know who your family are.You have one warning’ He ended sounding so sure of himself. Despite his dark and evil threat I had laughed at him, looked him in the eye and laughed.
    ‘You have NO idea who my family are! Nor where they live. If you did, you wouldn’t have DARED treat me like an animal’ I threatened back with a menacing triumph, still yanking at my chains to get at him.
    ‘Believe what you will…. but I have every idea of who they are and where they live and I do dare to treat you however I see fit Kuthi. And if you do not learn to co-operate you will get your answer shortly’ He sounded almost sad for me as he closed his statement with a pained sigh and locked the door behind himself, leaving me with my own tortured thoughts again.
    Oh I had convinced myself they had no idea. How could they? Afterall I was really Audrina Grace Todd, not the Audrina Mary Fynn they would have found me to be on the passport in my bag. I thought back to the few other items I had packed and what they might have found. I had cautiously stored the photo’s and letters in America, in fear of being connected to the Todds in anyway. There was nothing sentimental in that bag, I had made sure of that. It was just clothes and about a thousand dollars to get me started. The rest of the money had been thrown at a get rich quick investment before I had left. Which, at the time, I had ciphered would have been complete flop – how wrong I had been. I poured a glass of amber liquid, what was it Scotch? I slugged it back thirstily – Rum, my own stamina surprised me as I replaced the empty glass back onto the table. I felt a slight dizzying warmth wash over my chilled bones as I tried to remember and forget how that week had ended.
    ‘I blame myself – entirely’ I looked at the camera to confirm my guilt. ‘This is something that could have been avoided… If only-’ I sniffed back my hurt and huffed amusement ‘I promised I wouldn’t use those words “if only” – then again I promised myself I wouldn’t feel, yet here I am crying and smiling all within the same moment.’ I shook my head in disbelief at it all. Another glass of the golden nectar was required. I took another large glass in a single go. ‘This is the part where I killed my father…’

    at this point I would jump back into india 2006 (when and where is happened) and let loose with the story in its ”present” form….

    Greatly appreciate your input.

    Thanks

    Louise

  63. Christina says:

    I’m writing in Deep POV and would like to limit the use of italics as much as possible.

    Regarding inner dialogue: Is it the use of I/me that dictates use of italics? Or is it the use of a present tense verb? What about inner dialogue that has an understood “I”?

    For example: Lab today. Need to move.

    Does the above example of inner dialogue need to be italicized?

    Many thanks, Christina

    • Christina, you’ve hit the major reasons for using italics for a character’s inner dialogue—using I in a third-person narration and using present tense in a past tense story.

      Cutting down on italics is great, because they can be bothersome for readers, but you also don’t want to throw readers by switching from third person to first or from past to present tense.

      Without knowing the surrounding text, it’s difficult to give you an absolute answer, but if you read this as the character saying I need to move, you’d probably want to go with italics, even though the I is only implied.

      Even if the character is instead talking to herself the way she would to another character—That’s it, that’s it. Focus, Libby. You need to move—italics are still probably necessary. (Though not in all instances.)

      You can easily stay in deep POV using third person—Lab started in ten minutes, so she needed to get her butt in gear. But she’d much rather help herself to another cup of coffee.

      The thing is, the rules are sliding a bit regarding this issue. The trend is toward fewer intrusions into the text, including italics and commas. I’ve read published works that switched from third person to first in thoughts and didn’t use italics to do so. It was noticeable, but not awful.

      So nothing is set in stone, yet until it is, you may want to stick with the tried and true. If there’s any chance of a reader becoming confused, you want to prevent that. If there’s any chance you’ll annoy the reader with too much use of italics, you’ll want to prevent that too.

      Short answer? I’d go with italics for now.

  64. febe says:

    This is the best blog post! I’ve been struggling with how to properly punctuate for two characters who are having a telepathic conversation. They can channel each other. Often their conversations are brief. But it’s mixed with the MC’s actions while in a telepathic conversation with a character in another place. I’ve been using italics for the non-mc telepathic comments and not for my MC’s. However its still confusing my readers. What if I bolded or off set the non-mc telepathic comments and italicized the MC’s comments? Or would that be overkill?

    • Febe,

      You’ve got two sets of telepathic communications going on at the same time and one person is part of both of them, is that correct? You’ll want to treat all telepathic communication the same way. Just as we use quotation marks for all spoken words, you’ll want to use something identifiable for thought speech.

      You won’t want to use bold—it’ll prove too distracting for readers. Can you use italics for all thought-talk? As long as you identify who is speaking to whom, you should be okay.

      This need for additional ways to show communicating is an important issue. I’m not sure that I have an answer for you at this time, not one that will satisfy every consideration. Italics may be your best choice at this time.

  65. Jess says:

    do you use italics when writing about a dream

    • mar says:

      I’d say it depends. If the character describes the dream… “I had a dream. I was walking…” I wouldn’t put it in italics. If I were to have it as a scene and want to make sure the reader knows it’s a dream, I use italics. It’s also about style. I’ve read books were they don’t italicise dream scenes, and I still get it. Personally, I’d prefer italics.

      • Jess, Mar has some good advice.

        If you’re only talking about the dream, not showing it, no italics are necessary.

        If you show a dream playing out, you could use italics, but keep in mind that italics can be hard to read. How long is this dream? If it’s long or you’ll be showing several dreams, consider setting the dreams off as scenes of their own. You wouldn’t need the italics with the scene breaks. Do be sure, however, to note when the dream begins and when it ends.

  66. Lyn says:

    Thank you Beth, this article is exactly what I’ve been looking for (smiley face…happy dance).

  67. Dale Nall says:

    I know you that know how terrific you are, but it can’t be said enough. I wonder if you can give advice on how to introduce a bit of history into or after a scene. The characters are commenting on a certain fashion and political climate that was going on when the story takes place. The location is another country, thirty years in the past, and without this history knowledge, the reader wouldn’t get a full understanding of what the characters are talking about.

  68. Renee says:

    Hi,
    i have read your blog and found it really helpful, but i have flashbacks in my narrative as well as the character’s thoughts.
    would you have the thoughts in Italics and singluar quotation marks ‘ ‘ or would you have them in “.
    Thanks

    • Renee, we typically use italics for character thought, but not in all circumstances. If the thoughts are first person in a third-person story, then italics are probably what you want. You don’t want thoughts in quotation marks—save that for spoken words. For American English rules, the only time single quotation marks are used is inside double quotation marks, when someone is speaking quoted material (or something else that gets quotation marks). For British English rules, you can use single quotation marks rather than doubles, but reserve them for spoken words and some other rare uses.

  69. Cyndi Varady says:

    Thank you so much for this! Very clear and concise.

  70. Miranda says:

    Thanks so much for this great post! I am still a bit confused…
    I am writing in first person POV with lots of inner dialogue sprinkled throughout. However, each chapter jumps between past and present. I understand all spoken dialogue needs to be in present tense. But for the chapters written in past tense what is the best way to add inner monologue. For example:
    in a convesation between the POV and her father:
    “So, what are your plans now,” Dad asked.
    “Not sure. Was thinking I could start photography classes. They were always too expensive in LA.”
    I’d love to be a wedding photographer. Maybe I could be good enough for people to pay my way to Bali or Hawaii. All the great destination wedding spots. But then again I’d always have to work Saturday nights. So maybe not. Maybe a baby photographer. Or maybe I should just open a bakery.

    What do you think is the preferred method for this? I would appreciate any and all help!

  71. Miranda, if the scene is past tense, that means a character’s thoughts should also be in past tense, unless she’s talking directly to herself (and only briefly to herself). Yet for first-person narration, since the character is already the one doing the talking and thinking, there’d be no reason to switch tenses for her to talk to herself. In this case her thoughts and the narration are the same thing and should be consistent.

    The narrator is either in the past or the present as she narrates the story, and verb tenses should reflect that. (Keep in mind that some of your verbs will be in the same form whether the story is past or present.)

    Two examples, past first—

    I ran into the room, eager to talk to Dad.

    “So what are you plans now?” he asked.

    I wanted to be a wedding photographer, one good enough that customers would pay my way to Bali or Hawaii.

    ————–

    I run into the room, eager to talk to Dad.

    “So what are you plans now?” he asks.

    I want to be a wedding photographer, one good enough that customers will pay my way to Bali or Hawaii.
    ———

    You’d maintain past or present in both action and thought unless your character, in her present, is reflecting on something that happened at another time and she interjects her present thoughts into her narration of past events. I don’t think that’s what you intended with this example, but I want to be sure, just in case.

    The way your narrator’s thoughts are written here, they’re present tense, which doesn’t go with a past-tense narration for other events. Is she narrating the story as it happens or telling us what has already happened? Once you decide that, the choices for actions and thoughts should fall into place.

    I hope this helps but if not, let me know.

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