Formatting internal dialogue: quotation marks or italics?

Knowing how to punctuate or format your character’s thoughts can be difficult. Should you use italics? Quotation marks? Underlining. What is the best way to show that a character is thinking within a given sentence or paragraph?

When the protagonist of your story pauses to think something, you need to set it apart somehow from the regular text and dialogue. There are a few different ways of formatting characters’ thoughts.

The most straightforward way to do this is to paraphrase the characters’ thoughts into the narrative.Formatting Internal Dialogue: Quotation Marks or Italics?

Methods for formatting characters’ thoughts:

1. Sometimes, you don’t need to do anything to make it clear that a character is thinking, because the character’s thoughts will appear as if they are a part of the narrative—so that the line between the character and the “narrator” is thinned nearly to invisibility.

Example:

When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. Why hadn’t they gone home first to change into play clothes? Oh well, they were already in trouble for being late for dinner, and they might as well get it over with. The trio trudged home reluctantly.

2. Another useful technique is to use italics to format thoughts, which is an effective tool when thoughts and spoken dialogue are interspersed. This technique is becoming standard practice among publishers—and for good reason. The different type style makes it quite clear when a person is thinking versus speaking aloud.

Example:

When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. Why didn’t we go home first to change into play clothes? Roger thought. “We’re already in trouble for being late for dinner, so we might as well get it over with,” he told his brothers, and the trio trudged home reluctantly.

This style is also popular with science fiction and horror writers, who use italics to show telepathic communication between characters.

3. Some writers use quotation marks to set off thoughts, but this can get complicated, especially when thoughts and spoken dialogue are mixed.

Example:

When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. “Why didn’t we go home first to change into play clothes?” Roger thought. “We’re already in trouble for being late for dinner, so we might as well get it over with,” he told his brothers, and the trio trudged home reluctantly.

As you can see, there is nothing to differentiate between the spoken sentence and the thought.

4. The problem caused by using double quotation marks can be avoided by using single quotation marks around the thought, but this is an awkward fix, and we don’t recommend it. You’ll see that the example of how to format characters’ thoughts below is difficult to read.

Example:

When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. ‘Why didn’t we go home first to change into play clothes?’ Roger thought. “We’re already in trouble for being late for dinner, so we might as well get it over with,” he told his brothers, and the trio trudged home reluctantly.

  • A few more notes:
  • If your character is thinking something to him or herself, it is redundant to say so.
  • Wow, that sure is a small car, the large man thought to himself.
  • But if he is thinking out loud, tell this to your reader.
  • “Wow, that sure is a small car,” the large man thought aloud.
  • Finally, whichever style you choose to follow, make sure it stays consistent throughout your work, and make it easy for your reader to follow what your characters are thinking, as well as saying.

Have you mastered the best way to show what your character is thinking within a paragraph? Writer’s Relief helps creative writers publish their stories, poems, and essays in literary magazines. We also help book authors submit their writing to literary agents. Learn how we can help you.Formatting Internal Dialogue: Quotation Marks or Italics?

Formatting Internal Dialogue: Quotation Marks or Italics?

Dialogue in fiction: Part V – Writing your characters’ thoughts

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

Formatting Internal Dialogue: Quotation Marks or Italics?

Revealing your characters’ deepest thoughts will help make your fiction unforgettable.

Overview
In my final article on how to write effective dialogue for fiction, we’ll move from dialogue—a conversation between two or more people—to monologue—a conversation a character has in his or her mind; unspoken thoughts that are conveyed to the reader using several methods.

This is variously referred to as interior monologue, internal monologue, inner dialogue, internal thought, or internal speech. I use the terms interchangeably, while being aware that internal thought is a somewhat redundant phrase.

While we explore these methods in today’s post, be prepared for a little technical talk about tenses and first- and third-person point of views.

Outside of Shakespearean soliloquy (which is spoken thought), written fiction is the only art form that allows its audience to know a character’s internal, unspoken thoughts. Only in novels can a reader delve into a stranger’s mind and learn of his fears, his insecurities, his motivations, his rationale for planning a proposal of marriage or an affair or a murder.

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Because of this, it’s possible to develop a far more intimate relationship with characters in fiction than it is with those in film or on TV.

Throughout the history of literature, authors have used the unique platform of the novel to reveal to readers their heroes’ and villains’ innermost thoughts, such as stream-of-consciousness (half thoughts, impressions, subconscious associations) or conscious inner talk.

And we readers gobble it up.

Most fiction is character driven, and I’m convinced that readers’ most-loved fiction is that which allows us to delve into the innermost thoughts of its characters, in the process finding moments of recognition—the chance to recognize ourselves in fictional characters and identify with them on multiple levels—and discovering more about ourselves. We read fiction to see ourselves reflected back, both the good and the bad, and we’re able to do that when authors allow us into the deepest recesses of their characters’ minds.

And so, if you think it’s not important to reveal your characters’ deep thoughts, you’re missing out on an opportunity unique among all the art forms to connect deeply with your audience, your readers. The success of your book will hinge on connecting with your readers, and writing meaningful inner monologue will be one of the most important things you can do to ensure this connection is made.

The fundamentals
• 
Allow your characters to think deeply. To do this, it will help to explore your own deep thoughts as well as what you perceive to be the thoughts, intentions, and motivations of people around you.

Novice writers are sometimes hesitant to explore their characters’ thoughts, possibly because they aren’t used to examining their own. Good fiction writers delve deep into their own selves to examine all their flaws, fears, and foibles, at the same time as studying others’.

The human condition is of infinite interest to them, and they never stop their quest to understand it—with the goal of transferring what they learn to their fiction characters.

• Restrict internal thoughts to your point-of-view character. Most fiction these days employs deep POV with just one or two main characters (and of course, only one POV character per scene).

Unless you’re writing omniscient POV, which is difficult to write and uncommon today, make sure only your POV characters have internal thoughts.

Avoid suddenly jumping into a non-POV character’s thoughts in the middle of a scene—that’s considered head-hopping and a big taboo in fiction writing. (For more on writing deep POV, see my blog post on the subject here.)

• Interior monologue must advance the plot or build character. In real life, we might go a bit crazy if we knew every tiny thought in the heads of everyone around us. In fiction, we don’t need to know a character’s every tiny thought either.

Just as most dialogue and narrative must propel the plot forward or deepen readers’ understanding of your characters, make sure every sentence of your characters’ internal monologue makes a meaningful contribution to advancing the plot or developing your characters.

And don’t be afraid that your readers will find interior monologue boring compared with action (narrative), description (exposition), and dialogue. A compelling story needs all four, and of the four, inner thoughts may be considered the heartbeat of most successful fiction.

When to use interior monologue
To show emotional vulnerability.

How to Format Internal Dialogue

Formatting Internal Dialogue: Quotation Marks or Italics?By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome to the next installment in my series on inner dialogue. If you missed the earlier post on Inner Dialogue in Your Fiction: What It Is and How to Tell Good from Bad, make sure you take the time to read it as well. (And my apologies for such a long gap between them. I’ve been sick, and the blog here suffered right along with me.)

As you might have noticed from the comments last time, when it comes to internal dialogue, the most common question is “how do I format it?” It’s easier than you think.

The answer depends on what point of view you’re writing in.

In Omniscient POV Use Italics and a Tag

Because omniscient POV maintains some distance from each character and the author’s voice is dominant, it’s the time when you need to make sure you’ve clearly attributed the thoughts.

If you don’t, you risk the reader not knowing whose thoughts they’re listening to. (Please remember that in these examples I’m not trying to illustrate how the POVs are different.

I’m only trying to show you how to format your internal dialogue.)

Ronald took Melody’s hand and flashed her a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Liar, she thought. Where’s the $1000 you still owe me? “I’m maxed out this month.”

  • As you might have guessed, this clarity and ability to put thoughts in present tense while writing in past tense is one of the often overlooked advantages of writing in omniscient POV.
  • In Regular Third Person POV Use Only Italics…Or Don’t Use Anything
  • You have options if you’re writing third person point of view but aren’t bringing it to the intimate level of deep POV.
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Ronald took Melody’s hand and flashed her a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Liar. Where’s the $1000 you still owe me? “I’m maxed out this month.”

Because we’re in third person point of view, we’ll already know that any thoughts are Melody’s so we don’t need the “she thought” of omniscient POV. The italics clue the reader in that we’re now hearing Melody’s exact thoughts.

The italics also allow you to use present tense thoughts in an otherwise past tense story if you want, without jarring the reader. If you choose to give the thoughts in present tense, just remember to be consistent throughout and, whenever possible, set them off in their own paragraph in the same way that you would dialogue.

You could also write this as…

Ronald took Melody’s hand and flashed her a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Melody yanked her hand away. Liar. Where was the $1000 he still owed her? “I’m maxed out this month.”

You don’t have to add the action beat in front of the internal dialogue to make it work without italics, but I wanted to show you that it sometimes helps to ground the reader. Also, if you don’t use italics, you should keep it in past tense (assuming the rest of the story is in past tense).

For First Person or Deep POV (Third Person) Don’t Use Italics or Tags

You don’t need italics or any other signal. You’re deep inside your character’s head, and your reader will understand that what they’re reading is what the character is thinking.

The trick with this is that, to maintain consistency and keep from jarring the reader, you must maintain a consistent tense. You can’t be switching to present tense in your internal dialogue if you’re otherwise writing in past tense.

Ronald took my hand and flashed me a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Liar. Where was the $1000 he still owed me? “I’m maxed out this month.”

No matter what point of view you’re writing in, never, ever use quotation marks for internal dialogue. Quotation marks signal spoken dialogue.

  1. What do I do if I’m writing a paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction story and people can speak telepathically?
  2. This is actually the trickiest of all because now you’re juggling externally spoken dialogue, internal dialogue where the character is thinking to herself, and head speak where two characters are speaking privately in their minds.
  3. Here’s what I recommend to keep it all straight.
  • Use quotation marks for normal dialogue spoken out loud.  
  • For inner dialogue where the character is thinking to herself, don’t use italics or tags. Keep the tense consistent, and format it the way I showed you above for deep POV (third person).
  • For head speak, use italics. The first time this happens, you’ll need to use a tag or signal to the reader somehow that they’re talking in their heads. Once you establish that italics mean “we’re talking telepathically,” the reader will assume that’s the case every time they see italics. This is why you can’t then also use italics for inner dialogue where the character is thinking to herself.

So for the sake of demonstration, let’s assume Ronald and Melody from our example are telepaths now, and they’ve met up with a third character named Edgar who owns a classic space cruiser that Ronald desperately wants to buy.

“Sorry, bro.” Edgar rolled his three eyes. “I need cash now, not someday after you’ve been flying her for months.”
Ronald took my hand. Loan me the money? he asked telepathically. I’ll pay you back.
Liar. Where was the $1000 he still owed me? I’m maxed out this month. You’ll have to ask your sister.

Not the best written example, but it gives you an idea of how it would look.

Do you have any more questions about internal dialogue? Do you prefer to see it with or without italics?

Want to learn more? Check out my book Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide!

(You might also be interested in checking out Deep Point of View, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

Formatting Character Thoughts

It’s the rare book that doesn’t have character thoughts narrated. Indeed, one of the main differences between film and books is the fact that books render interiority in more detail and more frequently.

Yes, some books do more with interiority than others, but nearly all of them narrate thought. Should you do anything special to format character thoughts?

Some people advise using quotation marks; some advise italics.

I advise neither.

The Problem with Quotation Marks

How to Punctuate and Format Inner Dialogue

Inner dialogue is an excellent way to give your readers a peek inside the heart and mind of your characters. Readers can’t get this depth of character strictly from the actions you include in your story. You should give them inner thoughts to create 3-D characters with which your readers will fall in love.

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We have an excellent article, What’s She Thinking? How to Use Inner Dialogue, that will give you a more in-depth understanding of the mechanics of using inner dialogue.

Now let’s talk about how to format inner dialogue.

The Bad News

There is no hard and fast rule about formatting inner dialogue. Depending on which author, editor, or publisher you talk to, there are as many ways to handle inner dialogue as there are people writing it.

The one thing that needs to be pointed out, however, is that you shouldn’t use quotation marks for inner dialogue. The majority of experts agree that punctuation should be reserved for regular dialogue because it would get too confusing for your reader to try to figure out if the character is thinking or actually saying it out loud.

The Good News

Formatting inner dialogue is a stylistic choice, for the most part. Here are 3 different ways you can handle it, depending on what you’re trying to do with the inner dialogue.

1) Use both italics and thought dialogue tags. Combining italics with thought tags is a clear and definite signal to your reader that your character is thinking something. Consider the following example:

  • Geneva bent down to pick up the sliver of metal. What could this possibly be from? she thought.

Your reader wouldn’t misconstrue what you have in mind here, so if you need it to be readily apparent that you’re inside a character’s head, this is the method to use.

2) Use italics without thought dialogue tags

Formatting Internal Dialogue: Quotation Marks or Italics?

The hardest part about deciding how to format internal dialogue is that there is no definitive answer. It’s a style choice, and you will find different credible websites that make different recommendations, sometimes in very strong tones.

One site will clearly state that you should use quotation marks, and the next will adamantly state that you should never use quotation marks. One will recommend italics, and another will recommend against italics. It’s enough to make you have some internal dialogue of your own.

I will make a few points, but the best advice is to take it all with a grain of salt, and if you have an editor or agent, see what he or she prefers.

Italics for Internal Dialogue

When I look through the published books that I’ve read recently, I regularly see italics being used for a character’s thoughts, so it’s certainly done, and it’s certainly a common style.

Quotation Marks for Internal Dialogue

After reading various sources and their recommendations, I come down on the side that says you shouldn’t use quotation marks for a character’s thoughts. Quotation marks denote speech, and using them for internal dialogue could confuse your readers.

Internal Dialogue Without Formatting

Finally, in many cases, you don’t need any special formatting. For example, when you’re writing in third person, the narrator can tell the reader what characters are thinking. 

  • Squiggly reminded himself that he had wanted to go on this nightmare of a fishing trip.
  • Aardvark could have told me we’d have to climb boulders, Squiggly thought, wondering whether Aardvark had withheld that information on purpose.
  • The same style can work in first person too:
  • Hurry up, I thought, shifting my bag and wishing the train would come.

Some writers would italicize “Hurry up” in that sentence, and although it would be fine, it’s also not necessary. Many of the books on my e-reader would have that italicized, but it’s simply your choice (or your editor’s choice).

One pet peeve in the redundancy department is to not write things such as “she thought to herself.” You don’t need the “to herself” part since the default state is that you’re the only one who can hear your thoughts. If you're writing about telepathy in science fiction, you may have more leeway.

I’ll also note that I did check the Chicago Manual of Style to see if it had an entry on this topic since it is the style guide used by many book editors.

I couldn’t find an entry, but in the website’s “Shop Talk” section, Carol Saller, an editor of the “Lingua Franca” blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education, noted that she “is constantly removing italics used for . . . internal dialogue.

” So, as tempting as it is to use italics, and as common as it is, remember that not everybody loves them. 

The best advice is to choose your style (with input from your editor if you have one), and then use that style consistently.

Additional Source

Hill, B. “Inner Dialogue—Writing Character Thoughts.” The Editor’s Blog. May 17, 2012. http://theeditorsblog.net/2012/02/28/inner-dialogue-writing-character-thoughts/ (accessed October 30, 2014).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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