Thursday, August 27, 2020

Dear O'Abby: How Do I Write Thoughts?

Dear O'Abby,

I have a technical question I hope you can help me with.

When I'm writing a character's thoughts, do I need to write them like this?

She's a fox, thought Ted, before chastising himself, Shouldn't be objectifying her like that, dude.

One of my CPs said this is the correct way to present thoughts, but it looks weird when I have so many itallics scattered across the page.

What is correct?

Sincerely, Thoughtless

Dear Thoughtless,

I agree with you.  It does look weird if you have a lot of italics on a single page.  Personally, I don't tend to write thoughts in italics for just this reason.  But like so much of writing, there isn't actually a hard and fast rule.  The main thing to be aware of is to use italics sparingly as they do really stand out on a page.

My suggestions would be to use them to draw attention to things that you believe are important.  Not every thought is important, but some need some additional emphasis because they're imparting something key to the plot or revealing something special about a character.  In that case, italicize.

If you're writing in a more distant third person POV, you would use italics to show that a specific character had this thought.  Think of it like the narrator just dipped into the character's head and took a peek at what they were thinking.  It's not 100% necessary to use italics in this scenario, but it is something you see often.

When writing in third person and a character is talking to themselves, italics can be used to show this.  Often the thoughts are interspersed with action that can show the conflict the character is dealing with.  This is effective because there is a distinct contrast between the action that is not in italics and the inner monologue which is.

Another place you might use italics in thought is where a character is remembering something that was said in the past.  Again, you wouldn't do it for every memory, but if the words spoken were important, then they should be in italics.

Basically, using italics is a way to draw attention to something or emphasize something significant.  If you italicize all thoughts, you're giving every passing whim equal significance and this leaves you with nothing to use when you need to really hammer something home.

But don't sweat it too much.  There really are no hard and fast rules here, so if you think something deserves to be in italics, go for it.

X O'Abby


  1. Dear Thoughtless:

    Figured I'd chime in as well.

    My book, Fractions of Existence, has a lot of italic thoughts. Because it's written in third-person omniscient, using italics for thoughts created a way for them to become more active.

    "You could be standing outside with me, if you wanted." Wend typed before she gave it any thought. "And be my date to the reception."
    Xavier read and reread the words on the page. Did she really just ask me out?

    ((The sentence between the is in italics.))
    The first draft didn't have italics. It was written as:
    Xavier wondered if she had just asked him out.

    Wondered. Thought. Contemplated.
    Without italics for thoughts, words like this can become overused. Worse still, it puts the thoughts in the past tense.

    As Kate said, it depends on how often you'll use it. You have to do what works best for your story.

    Another side to this debate comes from mind-readers. Twilight fans (Twihards) who read Midnight Sun saw quite a few italics on the pages as a result of Edward's mind reading. (You may or may not like the author, but Midnight Sun sold a million copies across all formats in its first week of sales in North America.) The alternative could have been for thoughts to be in quotes, and always tied to tags labeling them as such. This slows the reader down though, as they have to wait for the tag to find out if the words can be heard. Italics, though they may look jarring at first, do solve this problem.

    The one solution I would STRONGLY DISCOURAGE is writing thoughts using a different font. It confuses readers. And ebooks will convert it all to one font, so you're locking yourself out of those sales.

    Hope all of this helps! Good luck out there.

    1. Ha ha. TIL that our comments have hypertext, so using the html for italics worked. I wasn't expecting that. Cool.

  2. Thanks for clarifying! I've had the same question regarding formatting thoughts in the past.

  3. It's also worth noting if you use italics, you don't need "He/she thought." Fiction readers will understand what's in italics is a thought. That can help you cut words!


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