Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.
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.