Tag Archives: over use of italics in writing

Crafting Interior Monologues #amwriting

In writers’ forums, you will find a great deal of discussion regarding interior monologues, or how writers express their characters’ thoughts. It’s true that beginning authors can rely too heavily on them as an easy way to dump blocks of information into a narrative, instead of deploying it. A few people will even tell you they despise interior monologues, and while I disagree with them, I do see their point.

For the genres of Sci-fi, Fantasy, and in most YA novels, it is an accepted practice to italicize a protagonist’s thoughts, and readers expect to see them presented in italics. However, we need to be aware of how daunting it is for a reader to be faced with a wall of italics.

A rather vocal contingent at any gathering of authors will say thoughts should not be italicized, that it creates a greater narrative distance, setting readers outside of the character and the events of the scene.

As an avid reader, I disagree with that statement if it is applied broadly, and will argue the point, although more than a sentence or two does exactly that. This is a personal style choice that you, as an author, must make for yourself, based on the genre you are writing in and the preferences of the intended audience for your work.

If we choose to omit dialogue tags for these internal conversations and don’t set them off with italics, it becomes confusing. The finished book ends up looking like a bunch of closed quotes were left out, and gives the impression of an unedited manuscript, even if the publisher has subtly changed the font just for thoughts.

So what, in my opinion, is the best way to indicate that a sentence or two of interior monologue in the middle of a scene is the viewpoint character’s thoughts (and not the narrator narrating)?

I found a wonderful, highly detailed article on crafting Interior Monologues, written by Harvey Chapman, for the website, Novel Writing Help. The following quote pertains to my post today:

Here are the possibilities open to you…

  1. Writing the thought in first person, present tense (which is the way we actually think them) vs. writing it in third person, past tense (so that they blend in with the rest of the text).
  2. Using italics vs. using normal text.
  3. Using a “he thought” tag vs. not using one.
  4. Wrapping the thought in quotation marks (either single or double) vs. not using quotation marks.

We can dispense with the final option straight away: Never use quotation marks around a character’s thoughts. Why?

Because the reader will assume the words are being said out loud, and will then have to make an awkward mental shift when they see a “he thought” interior monologue tag, rather than a “he said” dialogue tag, at the end.

We can also dispense with using italicized text when the thought is translated into third person past tense.

The only point of italics is to make a different voice and tense stand out from the regular voice and tense being used. When both the thought and the text surrounding it are in the same voice and tense there is no need for italics.

The following excerpt from Benny’s Gambit, a short fiction work-in-progress, illustrates how I write interior monologues. They must be natural, and organic to the flow of the narrative. Thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. 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:

Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she came from a wealthy family. The gold watch, the sleek sports car she drove could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.

You could verbalize all that information in Benny’s interior monologue, but why? This way, the reader is shown all they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to an info dump, and we aren’t faced with a wall of italics.

Some things work well when expressed as an interior monologue, especially if you want the reader in your protagonist’s head, as in the next paragraph of Benny’s story:

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot. He dipped the mop in the bucket and wrung it out, unobtrusively watching the elevator doors as they glided closed.

The first sentence is in the third person, past tense, as is the third sentence. The thought is italicized because it is in the first person present tense, showing his real-time experience. In those two paragraphs, the reader has also gained a whole lot of information.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is that Benny is actually a detective working undercover, and Charlotte is the secretary of his quarry. I could easily have have written it all in third person past tense but I chose not to, for a specific reason: I want you in Benny’s head.

Interior monologues are crucial to the flow of novels in which the author wants the reader planted firmly in the protagonist’s mind. However, these are tools we must use sparingly. The majority of thoughts should be shown through actions or external observations.

Those external observations are a subtle part of worldbuilding when you are writing a narrative that is an intimate portrait of your protagonist.

So, to wind this up, I feel that:

    1. Interior monologues are an organic part of some kinds of narratives, but not necessarily all narratives.
    2. When they are done well and sparingly, interior monologues can create an intimate connection with the protagonist.
    3. If an interior monologue is used in most speculative fiction, it should be short and set off by italics, and only rarely with the speech tag ‘thought.’
  • Italics should never be used for long passages.

Credits and Attributions:

Novel Writing Help, The Complete Guide to Interior Monologue, by Harvey Chapman, © Novel Writing Help, 2008-2017 https://www.novel-writing-help.com/interior-monologue.html#more-78, Accessed Oct 1, 2017

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#amwriting: Thoughts on Italics

strange thoughts 2One 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.

We don’t like them because they 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 it, 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 readers’ 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.

Many 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 toward 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

inset_margin_how_to_printscreen_LIRF_cjj

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 of 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.

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