Saturday, December 13, 2008

A question of style

By Pat Browning

As if it weren’t enough to be creative in writing, there are pesky little style rules to observe. I write in first person POV and can never decide the best way to handle internal dialogue. To the rescue comes Vickie Britton, in an article at Suite 101. I have her permission to reprint it here.

Vickie and her sister, Loretta Jackson, have co-authored more than 30 novels.

Handling Internal Dialogue
By Vickie Britton
Suite 101

Sometimes it is necessary to have a character’s innermost thoughts revealed to the reader. There are several correct ways to indicate that a character is thinking something to himself instead of speaking aloud.

Using Quotation Marks to Indicate Direct Character Thought

Quotation marks are used when a character has a direct thought. The fact that the passage below has not been spoken aloud is indicated by the words “John thought.” Both statements and questions are put into quotes if the word “thought” or a similar word is used in place of “said”. It is punctuated exactly like a spoken sentence.

Example: "I lost the game,” John thought, “but I might win tomorrow.”
Example: George mused, “Why don’t I ever get a break?”

Internal Dialogue-No Quotation Marks Needed
When a character expresses a thought in third person, italics or quotation marks are not necessary.

Example: John lost the game but believed that he might win tomorrow.
Example: George wondered why he never got a break.

Use of Italics
Italics used to be indicated in a rough draft by the tedious process of underlining. Because word processors can form italics easily, it has become more and more acceptable to substitute italics for quotation marks. However, it is not acceptable to use both italics and quotation marks for the same passage.

Traditionally acceptable: “I lost the game,” John thought, “but I might win tomorrow.”
Also acceptable: I lost the game, John thought, but I might win tomorrow.
Wrong: “I lost the game,” John thought, “but I might win tomorrow.”

In some instances, it is also acceptable to use italics to express a character's internal musings without using a tag such as "John thought" after the passage. Italics used in this way can be very effective for expressing a sudden, random emotion. In the example below no qualifier is needed to explain who is afraid because the sentence in between the italics indicates who is the thought is coming from.

I’m afraid. The realization came to Mary slowly. Very afraid.
Though all of these are correct, the example above sounds much more dramatic than these two examples below:
“I’m afraid,” Mary realized slowly. “Very afraid.”
Mary slowly realized that she was very afraid.

Placing an emotion in italics works best when used sparingly, perhaps for a random thought here and there. You don’t want your entire book set in italics.

Three Ways to Express Internal Thoughts
All of the examples below are correct ways to indicate internal thought.

“I can’t believe my good fortune,” Joe thought. “I’ve won the lottery again!”
Joe couldn't believe his good fortune at winning the lottery not once, but twice.
A winner. Joe stared at his second lottery ticket. A two-time winner!

There is more than one correct way to indicate a main character’s internal thoughts. Publishers and editors may have different guidelines that they go by. The key is to be consistent. If you decide to use italics rather than quotation marks to indicate thought, use them throughout rather than switching back and forth.

For more helpful articles on writing go to:


Unknown said...

Thank you, Pat. I've been troubled by this issue also.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'll be darned. I've seen never thoughts enclosed in quotation marks. It's always been italics. (Catching up here since my computer crashed.)