#amwriting: Thoughts on Italics, revisited

Once again real life has interfered with my blogging life, so today, we’re revisiting a post that was originally published in May of 2016. This is a post that evolved out of a conversation with author Lee French. One of the virtues of being a part of a group of writers is that you can bounce questions and ideas off them. And, one thing the authors I hang out with all agree on is that italics are the devil.


Italics are hard on the eyes, daunting, and difficult to read in large chunks when the main character is waxing internally poetic. Also, many readers subconsciously skip them, and so they have missed important information you may have imparted there. Having not read the italicized information, they may think your book is confusing and disjointed.

Yet the standard practice in genre fantasy is to set internal dialogue off in italics. For this reason, I no longer give my characters a lot of time to think, as such. In my more recent work, only rarely do my characters think in italics. I believe thoughts occur as an organic part of the narrative as a whole and should be identified as if with a speech tag:

  • I wondered, why the red hat? Surely it meant something, as she was the second person I’d seen with a red hat. But perhaps I saw what I wanted, a conspiracy where none existed.
  • The flash of a purple stocking covering a shapely ankle, quickly hidden by her skirts, caught his attention. Was she a whore? He wondered. Some women working the streets wore red to advertise their profession, but she didn’t have the look of disillusionment the others wore beneath their masks of false desire. Why did she wear purple stockings?
  • His sword belt hung on the chair just as he’d left it the night before. But while the scabbard had been left behind, Caliburn was gone. His heart sank, and he cast his mind back, picturing his room before he’d gone down to breakfast. Nothing had seemed out of place, but had he seen the grip sticking out of sheath? He couldn’t recall.

Most thoughts don’t have to be italicized. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the reader’s interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters.

The exception to this is if the person who is thinking is also speaking with other people, and his thought could be mistaken as dialogue spoken aloud.

Other, equally insidious reasons exist as to why authors may choose to use italics, most of which I think should be formatted in a better, easier to read style that still sets them off:

  • Mental telepathy, which is technically spoken dialogue
  • Letters, which are the written thoughts of people from far away
  • Emails, which are electronic letters
  • Text messages

Let’s consider correspondence between characters: some work is written in an epistolatory style. The entire narrative is told in the form of letters exchanged between the characters, as in the case of the brilliant steampunk Dawn of Steam series by Jeffrey Cook with Sarah Symonds. In that case, with each exchange of letters, the speaking character/author is made clear.

However, correspondences inserted into the body of a narrative should be formatted to set them apart, but not to throw the reader out of the story. For that passage, add an extra space both before and after, and inset both left and right margins by one-half inch (.5).

He looked at the missive from Father Rall, wondering how his day could get any worse.

Cayne,

I understand you are too unwell to duel lately. Your students’ health is at risk if you have a contagious disease. You must go to the infirmary today. If your illness is treatable, you should be back to dueling soon. If you are suffering from the prolonged use of magic, many treatments are now available that will help you live a long and productive life. Either way, Darlen is expecting to see you today.

Rall

Cursing, he wadded the note and threw it in the wastebasket.

To inset the margin in Microsoft Word: Highlight the section you want to inset. On the ribbon, go to the home tab. On the paragraph menu, click the little grey square on the lower right-hand corner to open the menu. Then on the indentation menu set both right and left to 1”. Click okay

Emails should also be represented this way, set in 1/2″ (.5), as they are the most common form of modern correspondence, but you want to show they are emails:

To: Ima.Fool@maildelivery.com

From:M.Jones@buenavuecorps.com

We regret to inform you that your manuscript “Under the Grandstand” is not what we are looking for at this time.

Good luck in your future endeavors,

Maurice Jones

Editor, Buenavue Magazine

And what about text messages? They can be inset too.

Helen:

Hi. R U on ur way?

************************

Joe:

What? I only speak English. I’m on my way.

So that leaves us with mental telepathy. Mental telepathy is a commonly used trope in genre fantasy, and I have one series where it figures prominently. In writing groups, you will hear a variety of ways to deal with that.

Some authors will use italics.

  • I am always with you. Zan’s smile and supportive thought warmed her

Some authors use parentheses:

  • (I am always with you.) Zan’s smile and supportive thought warmed her.

Some authors will preface mental communication with a colon:

  • : I am always with you.: Zan’s smile and supportive thought warmed her.

When a story is mental-telepathy heavy, I personally will do anything to avoid throwing the reader out of the story.

  • Through their link, Zan said, “I am always with you.” His smile and supportive thought warmed her.

How you choose to portray thoughts and mental telepathy is purely your choice, and reflects what you see as your style. I was not always a purist—this lack of enthusiasm for italics has evolved along with other aspects of writing. But as an editor, when I am faced with large blocks of italics, I find them difficult to read. And frankly, some authors use internal monologues as a way to dump large amounts of background info.

When you have a thought-heavy narrative, I would suggest you find an alternative way to phrase your characters’ ruminations, making them an active part of the story. Avoiding italics will force you to write a stronger narrative, and your readers will thank you.


Thoughts on Italics by Connie J. Jasperson was originally published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on May 11, 2016.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “#amwriting: Thoughts on Italics, revisited

  1. Stephen Swartz

    I thought only Italians could use Italics.
    But then again, I also thought only Romans could be Romantics.
    (Now that I no longer need to switch out character set balls for a Selectric typewriter each time I dared write a word in that slanted script, I rather enjoy the Italicization of thoughts, Romantic or not.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Connie,
    I understand your point that long thoughts by the character where Italics is used could be difficult. I also like your work around. Perhaps I’m missing the point, but I just finished reading another post that was dealing with deep POV. She used Italics when the reader is hearing the character’s thoughts. I do not remember that we covered this in the writing courses I took. Therefore, I’m confused on how I should identify the character’s thoughts for the reader. In my manuscript, I often go from dialogue to my character’s thoughts about what had been said, or what he wanted to say but couldn’t. I found it awkward to keep writing, “I thought…,etc.” to identify thoughts from dialogue. I often wrote some type of emotion he was feeling and then followed it with his thoughts. In those cases, I did not set off the thoughts with anything.
    Can you help me clarify what I should be doing? Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chuck – What do you feel most comfortable doing? If italics is your style, then you should go with it. Each author has to write the way they feel the most creative.

      As to speech tags, (or thought tags) they are for the benefit of the reader. I offer one per paragraph, or none IF it is absolutly clear who is speaking or thinking.

      More than anything, we want the reader to remain in the narrative. If our reader loses track of who is talking or speaking, we run the risk of them putting the book down without finishing it.

      With Amazon constantly soliciting reviews for every product a consumer purchases, this raises the possibility of a 1star “did not finish” review.

      I hope this was what you were looking for!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I had the feeling it was a style choice. As a novice writter, I have so much to learn and jump on every opportunity I can to enhance my skills. Thank your your help.

        Liked by 1 person

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