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March 31, 2020

Character Internalization: To Italicize or Not to Italicize?

Xray of a human skull with text: Formatting Character Thoughts

A few years ago, Marcy Kennedy guest posted here to share three writing problems we can solve by understanding internal dialogue. At the time, I gushed about her book on the topic, Internal Dialogue (Busy Writer’s Guides Book 7), and that book is still the best resource I know of for really understanding how to make our characters’ thoughts work for our story.

As Marcy says in her book, internal monologue (also known as internal/interior/inner monologue or dialogue, or just plain internalization) is:

“Internal dialogue is the conversation we have with ourselves, the running commentary inside our heads about our day.”

Internal monologue is a powerful technique to establish the story’s emotions, characterizations, motivations, story arc, etc. But many writers struggle with knowing how to use this technique.

In fact, one of the most common questions I see in various writing forums—about any topic—asks when we should italicize a character’s thoughts. The guidelines have shifted on this topic over the years, especially as more authors write in deep point of view (POV).

So let’s take a look at our options for how to format our characters’ internalizations

Direct vs. Indirect Internalizations

One of the first aspects of our characters’ internal thoughts that creates confusion is the difference between direct vs. indirect internalizations. They follow different formatting rules, so it’s important to understand what sets them apart:

  • Direct Internal Monologue:
    Shares the character’s exact internal words.
  • Indirect Internal Monologue:
    Readers get a good sense of the character’s internal thoughts, but it’s not an exact quote from inside their head.

We’ll get more into those different formatting rules below, but for now, just be aware that we’ll often use both techniques in our stories, and one style isn’t necessarily better than the other. That said, they both have their pros and cons:

  • Direct—because of its formatting—makes a statement. So it’s a good technique for when we want to emphasize a character’s thoughts, but we also need to watch out for overdoing it. If we emphasize everything, we end up emphasizing nothing.
  • Indirect doesn’t emphasize ideas because it doesn’t use special formatting, but we do have to watch out for a tendency to use the technique to tell instead of show our story.

Example of Direct and Indirect Internalizations:

As the clueless guy ambled past, she plastered herself against the grocery store shelves, keeping as far from him as possible. Way to take up the whole aisle, jerk. Why were some people so bad with the social distancing idea?

In this example, we have one sentence of action narrative (As the clueless guy…). One sentence of direct internalization (Way to take up…). And one sentence of indirect internalization (Why were some people…).

How should we format our characters' thoughts? When should we italicize them? Click To TweetThe line of her direct thoughts is a quote from inside her head using the actual words formed in her brain during her conversation with herself. The following indirect line is close to her actual thoughts, but it’s not quite an exact quote.

Obviously, there’s a lot of gray area between what counts as direct vs. indirect, and which technique we decide to use is often determined by how we want to format the line. Do we want to give it emphasis or not? We’ll get more into making that choice below.

The Role of POV with Internalization Formatting

The second aspect of internalizations that can create confusion is understanding how POV plays a role. How we handle—and format—our character’s internal conversation greatly depends on what POV we use:

  • Omniscient Third Person POV:
    The omniscient/narrator’s POV can share internal thoughts from any of the characters, but the thoughts would usually be worded distantly. For direct quotes, thoughts are tagged with “she thought” or other similar dialogue-style tag, and depending on the author/publisher style sheet, they might also be italicized.
  • Limited (Shallow or Normal) Third Person POV:
    The narrative is limited to revealing one character’s experience, but not every line is considered to be in their voice. Only the viewpoint character for the scene may share their internal thoughts with the reader. Direct thoughts might be italicized, or they might be tagged similar to dialogue with words like thought, wondered, hoped, realized, etc. depending on how much distance the author wants to create for the reader.
  • Deep Third Person POV:
    The narrative is from one character’s POV, and every line (other than other characters’ dialogue) is assumed to be their perspective and/or voice. Only the viewpoint character for the scene may share their internal thoughts with the reader. No thought tags are used to avoid distancing the reader. Because most sentences are indirect thoughts (or near-indirect thoughts, i.e., using their voice), internalizations are italicized only when using I/me and/or present tense for direct quotes and/or for emphasis.
  • First Person POV:
    Similar to Deep Third Person POV. Every sentence is in their voice, so thought tags aren’t needed, but they can be used (without adding distance). Internalizations are italicized only with a tense change (such as switching to present tense in a literary past tense story) and/or for emphasis.

Formatting Character Internalizations

Basic formatting rules for internalizations, no matter the POV:

  • Don’t use quote marks around our characters’ internal thoughts because they’re not actually speaking the words aloud.
  • Don’t use italics or thought tags for indirect internalizations.

Easy so far, right? But let’s talk about italics and direct internalizations, as that’s where things get trickier.

  • For omniscient POV, we must use thought tags to specify which of the characters had the thought. Along with the thought tag, some authors/publishers also use italics to confirm for readers that the thoughts are a direct quote and not just the omniscient narrator’s opinion of what the character was thinking.
  • For limited third person POV, authors could italicize direct internal thoughts whenever they wanted to leave off a thought tag. Thought tags add distance for a shallower POV, and italicizing goes deeper. Use what makes sense for the story, as some genres use shallower POVs than others.
  • For deep third person or first person POV, the whole story is not just from that character’s perspective, but it’s also in their voice. So every sentence is worded how they would word it, not how the author would word the idea.

When every sentence matches the character’s thoughts or perspective, the line between indirect and direct thoughts is much grayer. We obviously don’t want to italicize the whole story, so how do we decide what to italicize?

Knowing When to Italicize in Deep Third Person POV (or First Person POV)

As the most common POV in modern writing is deep third person, with first person POV as a close runner-up, let’s take a closer look at how we can know when to italicize our characters’ internalizations in these styles.

Use these three decision points (or the latter two for first person POV):

  • What pronoun do we want to use? In a deep third person POV, the pronoun would usually be she/her, etc. That means for a direct quote, the pronoun would change to an I/me.
  • What verb tense do we want to use? Although some authors like to write in present tense, most stories are still written in literary past tense. That means for a direct quote, the verb tense would change to present tense.
  • How much do we want to emphasize the line? If we want to emphasize the line with italics, we should ensure it follows the pronoun and verb tense rules of a direct quote. If we don’t want to emphasize the line, we shouldn’t use the pronouns or verb tenses of a direct quote.

In other words, if our character’s thoughts are worded as such an exact quote that it uses I/me pronouns and/or present tense, we should italicize the sentence. Otherwise, the change of POV and verb tense will just look like sloppy writing.

What 3 questions can help us know when to italicize our characters' thoughts? Click To TweetOn the other hand, if we want to italicize a sentence for emphasis, we should change pronouns and/or verb tense to make it an exact quote of their direct thoughts. That said, some direct-quote sentences won’t include either a verb or pronoun, and that’s okay. (For example, think of short interjections like Ugh.) We can italicize for emphasis regardless.

On the other other hand, if we don’t want to emphasize our character’s thoughts by using italics, we should ensure we’re using third person pronouns and/or following the verb tense of the rest of the story, such as literary past tense. That will keep the line as an indirect internalization and be formatted normally.

Going back to the example I included above:

  • Way to take up the whole aisle, jerk.
    Even though no pronoun is included, present tense is used because it’s a direct quote, so the line is italicized.
  • Why were some people so bad with the social distancing idea?
    This indirect internalization line doesn’t include a pronoun, and it uses past tense, so it’s not a direct quote and therefore not italicized. If we wanted to emphasize this line with italics, we’d need to change the tense: Why are some people…

The Case of Too Many Italics: Telepathy

As a paranormal romance author, I know that some of our stories include tricky dialogue situations. For example, our characters might be telepathic.

The normal formatting method to show telepathic conversation is to use italics. In those cases, we can create extra confusion for readers, so we need to keep in mind a couple of tips…

Telepathy Tip #1: Be Consistent

Some authors use italics along with quotation marks for telepathic exchanges to differentiate from direct internal thoughts. Some use italics, no quotation marks, and telepathy-specific dialogue tags (she asked telepathically…). In my Stone-Cold Heart novel, I used italics, no quotation marks, and small caps for the telepathic “language” of boulders.

In other words, there’s no one “right” way to indicate telepathy (and differentiate from direct internalizations) to readers, especially as each story might have special considerations. For example in my story, I used small caps to match the grating “voice” of stone, and I decided against quotation marks because boulders and rocks don’t actually think in words, so the telepathic sentences are more of approximations than direct quotes. *grin* In another (as yet unpublished) story, I used italics and quotation marks for telepathic conversation and italics and tags for secret telepathic eavesdropping/mind-reading.

The important thing is to make it clear the first time we use telepathy and then be consistent with whichever formatting we choose so that once readers understand our approach, they don’t have to re-figure it out every time telepathy occurs in our story.

Telepathy Tip #2: Use Direct Internalization Sparingly

When we’re using italics for telepathic conversations, we can easily have a story filled with more italics than usual. That means the italics of direct internal thoughts could be confused for telepathic thoughts or just overwhelm the page with yet more italics. So we’d want to limit the appearance of non-telepathic italics.

The easiest adjustment to make is to keep most of our POV character’s thoughts as indirect internalization rather than using direct internalization. That way we’re avoiding most italics when they’re not necessary for telepathy.

Some stories include a lot of telepathy, and some use only a bit. So how much we need to worry about confusion or an overwhelming amount of italics can vary from story to story. Feedback from beta readers and editors can help us figure out if we haven’t found the right balance or approach.

Again, for more about our options with internal dialogue, both as far as formatting and for using it to strengthen our story, I highly recommend Marcy Kennedy’s book, Internal Dialogue (Busy Writer’s Guides Book 7). Otherwise, let me know what questions you have! *smile*

Do you use character internalizations in your stories? Have you struggled with knowing how to format them? Do the explanations of direct vs. indirect make sense for knowing how to format each? Does your story have extra tricky considerations, such as telepathy? Have you read stories that were confusing due to how internalizations or telepathy were formatted or to how italics were used?

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SomebodyLost
SomebodyLost

Oh wow. I’m glad that my mostly gut-writing was correct! This issue is one I was always confused on. Glad to see it ‘officially’ addressed. 😀

There are lots of people confused with this. I’ve seen someone place other symbols just to signify thoughts. Takes me out of the flow of reading. 🙂

Thanks for these posts!

Sue Burke

I often see manuscripts with single quotes to indicate thoughts. I don’t think that’s right — but maybe you could provide more guidance. Thanks!

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

Hey Jami! Dialogue formatting — when to italicize — is a challenge in my writing group since we’re working in different genres. One person’s “omniscient” is another’s head-hopping, etc. One reader ‘gets’ the internalization and another is confused. Add in telepathy, flashbacks, dreams…. and confusion quickly becomes frustration.

For “First Mother”, I used double colons when Anubis had a dream-conversation with a Higher Power (spoken dialogue is Anubis):

“I see why First Mother has only Male Childs—”
:: sense :: correction ::
Children.
“— Children. There aren’t any other Male Children to become Male Adults.”
:: sense :: alien :: ++ :: sense :: confusion ::
I’ve discovered this means there is more to convey which I cannot comprehend.
:: sense :: time :: ++ :: sense :: motion ::
But I will eventually comprehend.

That scene is the only one in first person, present tense. The remainder is in third person, past tense. (I quickly googled “literary past tense” but most results were “literary present tense”, so I’m not sure if my novella is in “literary past tense” or not.)

As a reader, I prefer markers which begin/end the text (colons, double colons, brackets, angled brackets) when it is not an internalization (dream, flashback, telepathy, etc.). I have a horrible tendency to emphasize too many words. With telepathy and internalizations in my current project, I am trying to strangle that urge.

Dawn

Awesome! I wish I had read this post years ago. It took me a long time to figure this out, but I believe I’m on track now. Now when I read other people’s books, I get annoyed when thoughts are in quotes and when they use tags to say he or she thought. Thanks!

Amanda

This is so informative, thank you! I’d wondered about the italicize / don’t italicize for a while and have tried both but it’s good to have some guidelines.

Annabelle Franklin

Thanks for the telepathy tips – very useful, as it does crop up in my children’s stories.

Bill Cokas

This is extraordinarily helpful! If an italicized direct internalization includes a question mark, would the question mark be italicized also? Such as Why were some people so bad at social distancing? Is the punctuation PART of her thought, and therefore italicized? Thanks:)

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