Italics Part 2 - Using Italics to Show Thoughts


Way back in your early school years, you were probably taught to use the tag "he thought" in your stories, to tip readers off that someone was thinking. If you substituted something more innovative, like "he pondered" or "Harry deliberated", you might even have scored a big red tick.

If you liked to read as well as write, you probably cottoned on to the fact that there are other ways to indicate thoughts - such as using italics. (It's not likely that a teacher pointed this out to you. Usually, teachers considered their job done once they'd taught you about "he thought".)

Great! Off you went, liberally sprinkling italics all over your stories to show what was going on in your character's head. Occasionally you might have used italics AND "he thought". No way the reader could get confused then!

Neither of these two methods is the best way to show thoughts.

The single most effective way is to show what your characters are thinking is to blend their thoughts into the narrative flow. Instead of moving into the present tense, stay in the past tense. (Unless your entire story is in the present tense, of course.)

Let's use a few examples to show the difference.

Using The Present Tense To Indicate Thoughts

Chris slowly descended the stairs, all senses alert. What if someone attacks me? I won't be much use to Laura if I'm dead.

He stopped on the bottom tread, holding his breath and peering into the gloom. Over in the far corner, something moved... or was he imagining things? No, something did move. Chris was sure of it. He swallowed. I wish I had stayed at home.What's wrong with this? The constant switching from past to present tense and from third person to first person is annoying to the reader. The "flow" is much smoother if the tense and person remain the same - unless clear signals are given to the reader. In this example, the writer has not even used a simple tag, "he thought", to prepare the reader.

2. Using The Tag "He Thought"Chris slowly descended the stairs, all senses alert. What if someone attacks me? he thought. I won't be much use to Laura if I'm dead.

He stopped on the bottom tread, holding his breath and peering into the gloom. Over in the far corner, something moved... or was he imagining things? No, he thought, something did move. Chris was sure of it. He swallowed. I wish I had stayed at home.This is an improvement. Now that we've inserted "he thought", the reader has clear signals. They're prepared for the change in tense - they know that most thoughts are in the present tense.

Tip: When you use the tag "he thought", try to get it as close to the beginning of the thoughts as possible. Note in the example above, I've written:

No, he thought, something did move.

NOT

No, something did move, he thought.

This is because readers commonly take in chunks of text when they read, rather than reading one word at a time. The closer the words 'he thought' are to the beginning of the thought, the clearer the signal to the reader that things are changing.

3. Using ItalicsChris slowly descended the stairs, all senses alert. What if someone attacks me? I won't be much use to Laura if I'm dead.

He stopped on the bottom tread, holding his breath and peering into the gloom. Over in the far corner, something moved... or was he imagining things? No, something did move. Chris was sure of it. He swallowed. I wish I had stayed at home.The use of italics is another clear signal that we are reading someone's thoughts. They are a valuable tool - if they are not over-used. What you are reading here is just a small sample of text, but there are quite a few italics.

Imagine if the character did a lot of thinking. (Which is probable. Most of us are thinking all the time as we go about our daily business.) In every second paragraph there would be another sentence in italics.

So, some of you may be thinking... is there really a problem with that?

Yes, there is. Italics are used for other purposes apart from to show thoughts. Some authors write page after page of italics to show a dream, or put the whole prologue in italics. Italics are often used for emphasis, too (as we saw in Part #1 of this article). If your readers see italics, they may subconsciously give more emphasis to those thoughts than you'd intended.

A good rule of thumb is this: Use italics for thoughts that are especially significant in some way - or such strong thoughts that you want to see them emphasised in the mind of the reader. This might happen at times of great stress or fear for your character.

Now we'll move on to the best, least intrusive way to show a character's thoughts... blended into the natural flow of the text.

4. Blending Thoughts Into the Narrative

Chris slowly descended the stairs, all senses alert. What if someone attacked him? He wouldn't be much use to Laura if he were dead.

He stopped on the bottom tread, holding his breath and peering into the gloom. Over in the far corner, something moved... or was he imagining things? No, something had moved. Chris was sure of it. He swallowed. He wished he had stayed at home.As you can see, in the final example, the flow of the narrative is not interrupted by changes to tense or person, tags like 'he thought' or use of italics. The reader is not disturbed in any way... but we are well aware that we are deep in Chris's viewpoint, and we 'know' what he is thinking.

If you wanted to emphasise the fact that there was indeed something moving, and that Chris was scared, you could include italics for one sentence: No, something did move. You would keep it in the present tense, because it's almost like Chris vocalising a thought... as though he were talking to someone else. In this case, your final version would read:

Chris slowly descended the stairs, all senses alert. What if someone attacked him? He wouldn't be much use to Laura if he were dead.

He stopped on the bottom tread, holding his breath and peering into the gloom. Over in the far corner, something moved... or was he imagining things? No, something did move. Chris was sure of it. He swallowed. He wished he had stayed at home.In the end, it's up to you. You're the author. You know how you want the reader to interpret your words. Just keep telling yourself: "Make it smooth!"

(c) Copyright Marg McAlister

Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at http://www.writing4success.com/


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