Monday, May 16, 2011

What to Do With Thoughts

This particular question has come and gone over the years, and lately it’s been coming back. I think it’s partly because of a new (and popular) style of writing conflicting with the standard rules. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard it in the last few months: Should direct thoughts and/or internal monologue be italicized?

Short answer: Technically, yes. That’s the rule for distinguishing between prose and thoughts.

Long answer: Not necessarily. This is one rule that can easily and effectively be bent, but it all depends on your story (and, yes, I realize this is an oft repeated mantra of mine).

First, let’s take a look at a couple styles.

If you switch from third to first person to show your character's thoughts, then you need to use italics. If you switch from past tense to present tense to show your character’s thoughts, then you should use italics (though this can get a bit tricky). After all, the rule clearly states that thoughts should be italicized in these instances.

But what if we don’t switch? What if we stay in third person, or stay in past tense? That would mean we’re also staying in the narrative, right? But does that mean we can’t convey thoughts?

Not at all. It's certainly possible to convey thoughts and ideas as a part of the narrative, without italics, as long as you keep things consistent. That means two things. 1) The entire narrative turns into the character’s thoughts, and the whole story is written from his/her bias. 2) You can’t switch from third to first person, or from past to present tense (except, of course, when you can). If you do, it’ll make the prose inconsistent and will likely jar the reader.

To me, not using italics makes the narration seamless because I feel like I am the character. When thoughts are put in italics, there's a subtle reminder that we're going deeper into the main character's head—implying that we weren't there a second ago. If there are no italics, then I feel like I’ve been there all along. I find this style far more effective, even in third person.

As a result, the story’s voice tends to be stronger because the whole narration is the character's playground for thoughts and opinions and his/her personality has more opportunities to show through.

But what about direct thoughts vs. internal monologue? Shouldn’t direct thoughts be italicized no matter what? Again, technically, yes. But I don't actually see them as being that different. They're both thoughts, really, where one is put in italics and the other isn't. You can still effectively convey the necessary emotions and such by turning the internal monologue into something like direct thoughts. Hence, no italics necessary.

There are plenty of successful first and third person stories that don't italicize internal monologue. The 'thoughts' are simply a part of the narrative, and it matches the POV, tense, and voice. But the information is most definitely the character's opinions, or it at least has that character's bias and perspective.

That said, it all depends on the story, and what kind of style that story demands. The only way to figure out what you, the author, should do is to experiment and see what works best for your story.


Kelly Hashway said...

I typically write in first person, which makes thoughts so much easier. When I write in third person (mostly for short stories) I do use italics for thoughts.

Beth said...

When I edited my ms, I struggled with whether or not to italicize thoughts. But it was first person, so I eventually decided the whole story was her thoughts and left it at that. Great post though, you pointed out some good things.

Lena Coakley said...

Thanks for this post because it's been something I've been thinking about lately. I usually find italics distracting but there are definitely times when they are necessary.

In my book I put a long memory in italics because I didn't want to move from past tense to past perfect. I think it works.

I find it especially distracting when authors use quotation marks for thought, which is the style in older books.

Catherine Stine said...

When there are too many passages in italics I find it really distracting and annoying. In first person you don't need them, as everything is assumed to be in that narrator's voice. In third person, you can get around them by putting in "he decided" or "she thought" or a variation thereof. I only use them in the occasional line that needs to be emphasized for dramatic purposes.

Tabitha said...

Kelly - it sure does. Then the whole narrative is the MC's thoughts. :) I haven't written in third person for a while, so I'm not sure what I'd do. I'll have to explore that...

Beth - thanks! First person makes it easier to bypass italics, doesn't it? :)

Lena - it makes perfect sense to use italics for flashbacks or long memories, because it's a visual cue to the reader that we're not in the regular story. That makes the transition back much easier.

Catherine - there are definitely ways around using italics in third person! That's my post for next week. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm with Kelly on writing in first person. But I have wondered about this before, should I ever write in third person, so thanks for writing this up!

Marcia said...

Totally agree. I now use italics only for occasional short, punchy thoughts that indicate some change in the depth of thought in the character herself. For example, she suddenly has an "aha" moment or something horrible occurs to her. It's like a mental scream, kind of. And stuff like "she thought" is almost never necessary, except in very rare cases (but I bet that'll be in your next post, won't it?).:)

Mel Chesley said...

Good post! It seems there is always a new trend in writing that I seem to miss. I suppose I am old school, but I follow these rules with thoughts all the time. I was recently told (like in the past 6 months) that the only good descriptive to put at the end of sentence anymore is 'said'. I tend to be descriptive and say 'snarled' or 'snorted indelicately'...things to that effect. Who knew? I stick with what I am used to, though and if that means agents pass me over, oh well.

Tabitha said...

Wosushi - glad you found this helpful!!

Marcia - yep, that's next week's topic. :) It's like you read my mind or something. Imagine that! :)

Caledonia - as long as it's effective, any style will work, including old school. :) It all depends on the story and the author's strengths. Play to them, and you'll have a great story no matter how you tell it.

JeanK said...

I recall an old Smothers Brothers' Song--do I need another apostrophe?--One is singing, "I fell into a pool of chocolate." the other, "What did you do?" The answer, "I yelled FIRE!" "Why?" "Do you think anyone would have come if I had yelled Chocolate?" My point--italics, punctuation, whatever makes sense and says what you want to say in a way that your reader will understand is pretty much the way I believe one should write--but know the rules before you break them and be consistent.

Lena Coakley said...

If someone yelled chocolate, I'd come.

Tabitha said...

So would I! :)

Anonymous said...

Love this post! My current WIP is third person and I've been thinking about this a lot too. I agree with some of the others that too much is distracting, and consistency is important.

On a side note, hey! I am passing the "Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award" on to you this week! Not sure if you've had it before, but feel free to take it again!

Tabitha said...

Thank you!! And what a delicious award! I'll proudly post it in my side bar. :)