Italics for Direct Thoughts – Love ’em or Hate ’em?


I know what I think. See if you can guess:D

What do you think of using italics to convey the direct thoughts of a character, you know, stuff like: ‘Why doesn’t he put that book down and come kiss me’ or ‘That was a close call’ ?

It is, ultimately, a style thing. Having said that, my thoughts on the subject are as follows:

Italics highlight something on the page. If you wish to highlight what a character is directly thinking at that point make sure it’s vitally important – i.e. something that wouldn’t work as well blended into the narrative (like an expletive e.g.), or something shocking so you want to jar the reader or something you want to emphasize for a very good reason – something the reader must know the character is thinking for character development, or a hint as to what the character might do in response so reader anticipation is heightened.

For me, on a practical level, italicized thoughts don’t work if they are frequent because:

a) I feel shoved further from the pov if I am told what the character is thinking since I would prefer to imagine my own direct thoughts, and
b) It disturbs my reading flow to continuously have the narrative interrupted by italics. It’s like being nudged continuously.

Another reason why italicized direct thoughts don’t work for me as a reader is because I feel it’s the author telling me what I should think about the situation, especially if the character is asking a question because I know, then, that it’s the author wanting me as the reader to pose that question, and that bugs me 🙂 as you can probably tell…

Another thought is that the italicized dialogue may echo what I am already thinking as a reader, and while some may think that’s positive, for me it’s a negative because while the situation was ongoing I would have had those thoughts for myself and to then read them from the character feels repetitive and boring. The reader reacts before the character usually.

Another thing to think about – italics usually denotes direct character thought. I know when I am in a situation or reading about a situation I have very few direct thoughts, they mostly come as a stream of consciousness. So, too, for your characters. Direct thoughts that bring nothing new or shocking are better blended in to create that stream of consciousness from the character, I think.

It’s to do with narrative distance as well. How much do you want your reader to feel as the character feels, and react as they react? Do you want your reader to interpret events as they wish, or do you want to tell them how they should feel and interpret? If you want your reader to be very close to the character then thoughts are much better blended in as narrative, like I said, it’s to do with stream of consciousness.

So by all means use italics, but, in my opinion (for what that’s worth), only when absolutely necessary. When I read most italicised thoughts I know most, if not all, can be blended into the narrative thus enhancing stream of consciousness.

Ultimately, as with every writing tool, make sure the reason for its use is very good. You wouldn’t use a screwdriver to drill a hole. Well, you might, but it wouldn’t work very well and might make the hole too big…

So – Italics for Direct Thoughts – Love ’em or Hate ’em?


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