On italicizing thoughts

The field of creative writing has several oft-repeated bits of advice which shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Show, don’t tell. Kill your darlings. Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Write what you know.

These rules are like a sign posted by the door of an airplane advising passengers not to jump out while the plane is in flight. A very good idea for your beginning passenger, but not a universal rule. You can have fun jumping out if you have a parachute and know how to use it.

In fact, in writing there are no rules. Anything that you can get away with, is legitimate. The secret is knowing what you can get away with. So all of these short bits of writing advice should be followed up by the proviso, “until you understand why I’m telling you this.”

The latest principle for novice writers that I’ve heard suggested is, don’t report your characters’ literal thoughts in italics in the text (or with tags such as “he thought”). I’ve been doing some thinking about the reasoning behind this (proposed) rule to decide whether I agree with it and to know when it’s appropriate to break it.

First, what is this intended to prevent? I’ve read a lot of amateur prose and I can tell you that it’s often painful to see italicized thoughts. Things like this:

Randy entered the bedroom and closed the door softly behind him. What the hell? Where is my dachshund? he thought, flipping the covers back. I’m sure I left him here and he’s too fat to move on his own. Has somebody stolen him? “Jingles?” he called. “Where are you, boy?”

Let’s assume that we’ve met Jingles previously and we know Randy carries him around everywhere. But wait, I hear you arguing, why should we assume that? Might this not be how the author tells us these things?

Well, yes, it might, but the downside to introducing the information this way, is that Randy comes off looking like even more of a putz than the average person who doesn’t realize that his dog is way too fat. The use of italics and “he thought” suggests to the reader that these literal words are going through the character’s mind, that they’re sub-vocalizing them. And for the most part, people don’t do that. They don’t narrate their lives, they just experience them. The odd word may cross their awareness, but if you ask someone to express what they’ve just been thinking, almost never are fully formed sentences at the tip of their tongue. They have to think how to put it into words.

Maybe, for instance, Ted was thinking that the blouse you are wearing, is an unfortunate color that makes your face look even more like a beet-root than it normally does. But unless he was consciously planning to make a derisive (and unwise) remark about it, he hasn’t been putting those words together in his head in just that way. He might have envisioned a beet-root and noticed the similarity. He might have winced internally at the jarring color combination. A word or three — “blouse”, “chartreuse”, “kill me now” — might have entered his awareness, but not the whole sentence with syntax and all.

So what I’m asserting, is that putting thoughts into italics, or saying “blah blah, she thought,” signals to the reader that the character is really hearing those exact words in her head, just like following something with “she said” means that was her literal utterance. It follows that the times you want to do this is when that’s what did in fact happen. So, for instance:

  • It’s a short interjection, like, “Holy cow!” or “Hot damn!”. For example, here’s a quote from Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, very near the beginning (you can see this in context in the preview on Amazon.com):

As if, she thought.

Kingsolver is a master, and we’d do well to learn from her. The character is expressing skepticism, and does it in four short words. The choice of those words tells us something about the character. This is how you can tell someone knows what they’re doing; the words do double duty (or more).

  • The words really are something this character would at least sort of say to themselves, silently. Later in that same scene of Flight Behavior, we get this from the same character:

Trysting place, she thought, words from a storybook. And: No sense prettying up dirt, words from a mother-in-law.

This character likes storybooks well enough to see things and think about how a storybook would describe them. She likes words. And in the next sentence we learn not only her opinion, but its source, and that various sayings of her mother-in-law come involuntarily to mind in an appropriate situation. In two short sentences we’re learning a lot about this character. And it’s plausible that she would think those words.

  • There’s no other way to make it clear what’s going on. Here’s an example from Charles de Lint, from his story “The Big Sky” (in the collection Moonlight and Vines). The character has been experiencing some weird shit, and:

I’m dreaming, he thought.

Would a person in such a situation actually think out loud, I’m dreaming? Very possibly. Plus, consider some alternatives. If you’re not reporting the character’s thoughts verbatim, you summarize them.

He thought he must be dreaming.

Not as good. It took more words, and the distance from the character is greater. It would be nice to get rid of the filter words “he thought”. It’s not as good to say,

I’m dreaming.

because that’s a jarring shift of point of view.

He must be dreaming.

That’s not bad, and I think it’s an acceptable alternative to what de Lint did write. The word “must,” or expressing something as a question, is usually a clue that this is the character thinking, not the author telling us something. It would obviously be wrong to say,

He was dreaming.

That doesn’t convey the same meaning at all.

  • The character is telepathic (or the technological equivalent) and is reading or transmitting thoughts.
  • The character is figuring out a tricky problem and sub-vocalizes to organize her thoughts. (but that might be boring to read).
  • The character is schizophrenic and hears voices.
  • The character has something important/witty to say and is practicing it or restraining themselves from actually saying it. They may or may not end up saying it (probably not, because you usually want to avoid repeating information in adjacent sentences).

When purple pigs fly out of my butt, she thought. “We’ll see,” she said.

All those examples were in third person. In first person, italicized or tagged thoughts tend to seem even more unnatural, because when a person is telling about their own experiences, they rarely express themselves in this way unless they’re doing formal storytelling, as opposed to the informal narrative most common to, say, a detective novel.

The thug’s car looked familiar. Where had I seen it before?


That thug’s car looks familiar, I thought. Where did I see it before?

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