• Melanie Kirk

How to Format Thoughts in Fiction


How to format thoughts in fiction writing

If you’re writing a novel or short story, it’s highly likely you’ll have included your characters’ thoughts at some point. There are lots of good reasons for doing so, including:


· To give the reader access to information that only the main character knows

· To highlight an inner conflict – is your character saying one thing but thinking another?

· To reveal character motivation

· To gain insight into a character’s mental state

· To further character development


There are many ways to showcase a character’s thoughts in fiction and there is no right or wrong style, although there are a few accepted conventions, so it ultimately comes down to author’s choice.


There is, however, one method which I – and most other editors – would counsel against, and that is:


Quotation marks


This is by far the least popular method, since it can easily lead to reader confusion, but it’s useful to mention it here anyway just so you can be aware of the pitfalls.


Consider the following example:


A shadow-like shape appeared on the wall. Sheila turned, but there was no one there. ‘Am I going mad?’ she thought.


‘Hello?’ she said in a shaky voice. There was no answer.


‘Get a hold of yourself,’ she thought.


Anyone reading the above passage would assume the thought ‘Am I going mad’ and ‘Get a hold of yourself’ were spoken aloud until they got to the thought tag afterwards. The problem gets even worse when you start using tags other than ‘thought’:


A shadow-like shape appeared on the wall. Sheila turned, but there was no one there. ‘Am I going mad?’ she wondered.


‘Hello?’ she said in a shaky voice. There was no answer.


‘Get a hold of yourself,’ she thought.


In this version, it’s even less clear that the first thought is internal rather than spoken aloud.


The ambiguity of this method also means that you have to include thought tags for every single thought your character has, which, if a character is prone to introspection, will get old very quickly.

Since there’s so much room for ambiguity using this method, as an editor, I’d always counsel an author to steer well clear of it.

Now, we’ve covered what not to do, let’s go into what to do.


Simple thought tags


You’ve probably heard of dialogue tags (he said, she said, etc.). Thought tags are exactly the same concept, just applied to internal dialogue, and follow the same punctuation rules.


A shadow-like shape appeared on the wall. Sheila turned, but there was no one there. Am I going mad? she thought.


‘Hello?’ she said in a shaky voice. There was no answer.


Get a hold of yourself, she thought.


The benefits of this method are that it looks cleaner on the page and is easy to read. The drawbacks are that if your manuscript is written in third person and past tense (as my examples here are), then you risk potentially jarring the reader with a sudden switch in tense and POV. It’s not a reason never to use this style, just something to be mindful of.


Italics


By far the most popular method for indicating speech is to use italics. Consider the following example:


A shadow-like shape appeared on the wall. Sheila turned, but there was no one there. Am I going mad? she thought.


‘Hello?’ she said in a shaky voice. There was no answer.


Get a hold of yourself.


The benefits of this style are that it is unambiguous; no reader is going to think Sheila spoke those words out loud, since the italics themselves are a signal of internal dialogue that readers will be well familiar with.


It’s a method that works particularly well for short thoughts. You may want to be a little cautious of using this approach for longer internal monologues, since prolonged italicised passages can be a strain on the eye for some readers.


To tag or not to tag?


Whether you want to include a thought tag alongside italics is a judgment call and will depend on the situation. One of the benefits of the italics approach is that they often render thought tags unnecessary.


Too many thought tags can clutter the page and may drag the reader out of the story, but there are plenty of reasons you might want to include a tag even with italics: for flow reasons, for instance, or to break up long italicised passages that might be tiring to the eye.


Free Indirect Style


First, let’s distinguish between direct and indirect thoughts.


Direct thoughts are presented exactly as they run through the character’s head. Often they will be in present tense, but not always, for example, “I’m so hungry”, “I wonder how much longer he’s going to be?”, “What the hell was that creepy noise?” All of the examples given so far in this post have been examples of direct thoughts.


In contrast, indirect thoughts are thoughts which contain all the content of the pure thought, but which have been blended into the narration, so that the writing flows seamlessly between action and internal dialogue.


If you were using a free indirect style, therefore, the above example could look something like:


A shadow-like shape appeared on the wall. Sheila turned, but there was no one there. Was she going mad?


‘Hello?’ she said in a shaky voice. There was no answer.


She needed to get a hold of herself.


Here, Sheila’s direct thought (Am I going mad?) has been translated (notice the change in tense and viewpoint) and embedded into the narration. There is no tag needed or italics to tell the reader Sheila is thinking, instead Sheila’s thoughts have become part of the narration itself.


This method results in a cleaner style that avoids potentially jarring italics or thought tags, and keeps the thought in the same tense as the main text.


Takeaways


Now you’re aware of the different methods for rendering thoughts, don’t feel as though you have to choose one style and stick to it for the whole of your book. In fact, you’ll probably want to use different styles for different parts of your story.


For instance, in a high stakes fight-to-the-death action scene where holding the reader’s attention is the main goal, inserting a block of italicised text would likely be jarring and pull the reader out of the story, where a free indirect style would help to retain the pace and urgency. In contrast, italics may work better for a gentler, contemplative scene.


 

Melanie Kirk is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader and an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). If you are interested in her editing services, you can get in touch with her at www.melaniekirkeditor.com or connect with her on Twitter @MelanieJEditor

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