Fiction Q&A: Using italics for character thoughts

Hey Kristen —

Sorry to pester you, but I didn’t know who else to ask. I was going over a critique someone gave me, and they mentioned that top editors teach to never use italics, even with internal thought. Some say never to use italics at all.

question answer

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Here’s my concern. Almost everyone else I’ve run into says italics should be used for internal thoughts that would normally be spoken as words.

For example:

His eyes surveyed the plain below, then turned back to Albione. “That’s not good, brother.”

No, it wasn’t. His older brother didn’t complicate matters with fancy words. That only made the pit in his stomach emptier. If anyone in the temple finds out what happened here, I’ll be in a lot of trouble.

One editor said it’s perfectly fine to use first-person internal monologue without italics. As a reader, this doesn’t bother me at all. But I don’t want to look like a hack when I send my stuff to an editor without italics, because they might think I have no clue about Point of View.

—Will

Will, there’s still some disagreement on this.

The editor you mention is in line with The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, which says:

We no longer recommend that a person’s thoughts, imagined words, and unspoken prayers (called unspoken discourse), when expressed in the first person, always be set in italics.

I tend to agree that you don’t need italics for internal monologue because in deep POV everything is in the main character’s head. Where we run into problems is when the narrative is in third person past tense (as yours is) and the internal monologue is in first person present tense (as yours is). Some, like the editor you mention, think it’s OK to leave it all in Roman, but others disagree. CWMS doesn’t recommend italics, but they don’t prohibit italics, either. Which is why you still see a lot of published books in which the internal monologue is in italics, just as you have it above. There are still plenty of editors who like it that way. But the trend seems to be away from that.

When the interior monologue changes person and tense, the italics provide a kind of “I meant to do this” visual cue to the reader signaling the change. But if the monologue is in the same person and tense as the rest of the narrative, there’s no need. So what most editors advise is to keep everything in deep POV and in the same voice and typeface. This is what I recommend. So your example would look like this:

That only made the pit in his stomach emptier. If anyone in the temple found out what happened there, he’d be in a lot of trouble.

One place where many publishers still use italics is in what CWMS calls “unspoken discourse” and I call “silent dialog.” This includes prayer, God talking to the POV character, and, for those of us who write speculative fiction, telepathy. A lot of publishers still put those in italics, although The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style says it’s not necessary for prayer. CWMS, oddly enough, does not directly address the issue of telepathy.

In your manuscript, I’d do it the way that makes the most sense to you. Of all the things that might make you look like a hack, this is the least of them, because it’s a matter of style, not of right or wrong. Ultimately, whether italics are banned or encouraged depends on the publisher.

And you can pester me with questions any time. I use them as blog fodder.

This post originally appeared at The Factotum’s Rostrum.

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About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

One thought on “Fiction Q&A: Using italics for character thoughts

  1. […] dialog, stuff that’s said aloud goes in quotation marks. “I can’t believe she said that.” (Stuff that’s not said aloud is sometimes set in italics.) Simple enough. Few writers struggle with […]

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