Q&A: Do I Need Italics for Flashbacks?

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Q: I used italics in a scene with a flashback, but my critique partner said I should never use italics. Here’s the part I put in italics:

He sat in the cold hospital waiting room, feeling numb. This was just like when Mom died. We did all we could, the doctor had said. 

I thought characters’ memories were supposed to be italicized. Now I’m confused. What’s the right way to do this?

A: Confusion is understandable, for a several reasons.

First, you’re not the only one who’s confused. Your critique partner is—I’ll be generous and say “overstating the case.” Whenever someone gives you a never in regards to writing, your inner warning klaxon should go off. Writing is an art, and cannot be governed by rules involving always or never.

For example, we italicize words when they are used as words.

Second, you are only partly correct about characters’ memories. The practice you’re thinking of is to put remembered dialogue in italics. But this only applies to dialogue. We use italics instead of quotation marks so the reader won’t mistake it for something being spoken aloud at the moment.

But the rest of the character’s memory does not need to be in italics, because it’s interior monologue. It could be italicized, but it doesn’t have to be.

Fiction Q&A: Using italics for character thoughts

Here’s how I’d set your sample:

He sat in the cold hospital waiting room, feeling numb. This was just like when Mom died. We did all we could, the doctor had said.

So the only italicized words are the ones the doctor spoke.

The difference between memory and flashback

The last point of confusion has to do with defining a flashback. What you have is not a flashback. It’s a character memory. The character is thinking about what happened in the past—that information is his interior monologue.

A flashback is a fully formed scene set in an earlier time. So it should be typeset like any other scene. In fact, in the flashback, you would not set the dialogue in italics. You’d put it in quotation marks, just as in any other scene.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Rescuing Olivia by Julie Compton. At the start of the story, Olivia is comatose after an accident. The story is told in a set of flashbacks alternating with present-day scenes in the hospital. The story is told from the viewpoint of Olivia’s boyfriend, Anders.

The day before had started pretty much like many of the others they’d spent together.… She reached for him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him close. “Let’s go for a ride today. A long ride.” She gave him a peck on the lips. “Take me somewhere I’ve never been.”

The time cue “day before” lets us know when the flashback takes place, and this is emphasized by the use of the past perfect tense (“had started.”) Olivia’s dialogue is in regular quotation marks.

Later, Anders is sitting in the hospital and remembers the conversation.

The doctors and nurses stood in stark contrast to the family and friends of patients, whose hollow eyes and weary efforts to smile at strangers gave them away. They were like the walking dead, and Anders wondered how in the short span of twenty-four hours he’d managed to become one of them.

Take me somewhere I’ve never been. 

The irony of Olivia’s request was that it seemed to Anders she’d been everywhere, and he’d never left Florida.

A flashback, like any other scene, can run as long as necessary to show what’s needed. A character memory should last only a couple of lines, as you have done.

If you find that a character is spending a lot of time thinking or talking about the past, consider whether it’s all really needed to move the story forward. If it is, consider rewriting those parts as flashbacks rather than character thoughts. Because a flashback is—or should be–characters doing things. Which is usually more interesting than characters thinking about things.

I know flashback and memory sound like the same thing, but they’re not. A flashback takes the reader into the story’s past. A memory keeps the reader in the story present, but the viewpoint character is thinking about the past. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.

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.

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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. Continue reading