How Do I…? Thoughts

Originally Published: September 14, 2018

It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these craft posts. This time, I want to answer a question I’ve encountered numerous times. How do you format a characters’ thoughts? How do you incorporate them into your story?

Image by Stefan Schweihofer from Pixabay

If you’re describing a character’s emotional or mental state, no special formatting is necessary. Just weave that description into the narration you’re already writing.

He looked around the grand, white room, wondering where he was and how he got there.

If you’re quoting the words running through a character’s head, put the quote in italics. As far as grammar and punctuation go, follow the rules for dialogue.

He looked around the grand, white room. Where am I? he wondered. How did I get here?

You can think of the example above as the character talking to himself. This is fine for thoughts in the moment, but what about memories? What if the character is remembering something, like words a different character said? For this scenario, you treat the quote like any other piece of dialogue, but you put it in italics instead of quotation marks. The italics will signal to the reader that the words are thought rather than spoken.

Rhys’s eyes grew wide as he read the telegram. Why was his best friend among the list of names? Then Rhys remembered. I am not merely studying abroad, Ashe told him once. There’s another reason why I must go to London. An extremely important reason. Was that other reason why Ashe’s name was written in this telegram?

Before we wrap up, I should mention that the guidelines I laid out aren’t the only way to format thoughts. In her book Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin urges her readers to put a character’s thoughts in quotation marks or do nothing special at all. “Editors are likely to put thoughts into italics if you don’t stop them.” And they should be stopped?

Personally, I’ve always preferred using italics, and I believe it’s a more flexible standard than what Le Guin advises. Let me show you why.

The main reason I (and many other writers) like italics is because there’s no way for the reader to confuse thoughts with dialogue. Take this example:

“Of course, Your Ladyship,” Edmund answered. You heartless witch.

The italics make it clear that Edmund is saying one thing but thinking another. What happens when the italics are removed?

“Of course, Your Ladyship,” Edmund answered. You heartless witch.

Who’s calling the lady a witch? Edmund? The character telling the story? The author’s persona? Even if this hypothetical story is being told in “deep POV”, that doesn’t automatically attribute the heartless witch bit to Edmund. (I talk more about this technique in my post on third person point of view.) My point is that doing nothing creates doubt about who feels this way about our noble lady.

But what if we follow Le Guin’s suggestion and put the thought in quotation marks?

“Of course, Your Ladyship,” Edmund answered. “You heartless witch.”

Well… that changes the scene entirely.

There are ways around these problems, ways to make our intentions clearer.

“Of course, Your Ladyship,” Edmund answered. You heartless witch, he added in his mind.

“Of course, Your Ladyship,” Edmund answered. In his mind, he added, “You heartless witch.”

I understand that this is a matter of taste, but there’s an elegant conciseness to calling the noblewoman a heartless witch without any explanation or introduction. And using italics allows me to have that.

To be fair to Le Guin, though, none of this addresses the problem she had with italics.

“… I think using italics or any typographical device overemphasizes the material.”

I see how this might have been an issue back in the 60s, when Le Guin started writing, and even in 1998, when the book I’ve been quoting from was published. It used to be that italics were only used for emphasis. But within the past couple of decades, that’s changed. Italics are used far more widely than they used to and for different reasons. Now, the writer has the freedom to decide what italics mean in his story.

Which method do you prefer? Italics? Or incorporating thoughts into narration? Leave your thoughts and any suggestions for future craft posts in the comments below.


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