Dealing With A Character’s Internal Thoughts

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Suzanne Ouimet writes:

I have written several books which are ‘dialogue driven’. What I am wondering is how to express my characters’ thoughts.

It gets a bit tiresome to keep saying something like ‘he thought to himself’. (who else would he be talking to anyway?)

I have also tried putting the character’s thoughts in italics or some other font. That too may be disruptive.

Any suggestions?

Anyone who writes fiction wrestles with the problem of how to convey a character’s inner dialogue without distracting from the flow of the story.

How not to do it
Setting off a character’s thoughts in quotation marks is a definite no-no. Such a technique is confusing to the reader. When we see quotation marks, we have the expectation that a character is speaking the words aloud.

Some writers and writer’s guides do use or recommend italics to designate thoughts, but the device is distracting to many readers.

Using a different font would make things worse.

As Suzanne points out, adding to himself to he thought is redundant.

How to do it
Sometimes it is necessary to use “he thought,” or “she wondered” to avoid confusion, but such tags can be used sparingly.

Here are some illustrations from Ellizabeth George’s mystery Deception on His Mind.

In an early scene, in which Rachel and Shalah are together, Rachel’s thoughts are conveyed without any tags through four paragraphs. Then, as Rachel watches Shalah, a tag becomes necessary:

Shalah made two more folds in the nappie and placed it on the pile at the end of the ironing board. She walked to the window and checked on her nephews. It seemed a needless thing to do, Rachel thought. They were sleeping like the dead.

When a character is alone, no tags are needed to convey unspoken thoughts.

Chapter 10 of George’s novel begins with internal dialog:

When she’d first made her escape from the jewellery shop, Rachel had only one destination in mind. She knew that she had to do something to mitigate the uneasy situation in which her actions had placed Sahlah, not to mention herself. The problem was that she wasn’t sure what that something might be. She knew only that she had to act at once.

This internal dialog continues without tags for about five pages before another character appears. In one place in her internal musings, Rachel recalls the words of a salesman. George puts the recalled words in quotation marks:

She didn’t want to think of the flat. “Our very last one,” the salesman had called it…

The Marshall Plan
In his writing guide, Evan Marshall does recommend using italics to convey thought. I don’t agree with this particular piece of advice, but overall, Marshall’s guide is one of my writing bibles.

If you’re not familiar with The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, check it out. The cover copy bills it as “a 16-step program guaranteed to take you from idea to completed manuscript.”

In “Step 11,” Marshall talks about how to convey feelings, thoughts, and back story without slowing down the reader.

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23 thoughts on “Dealing With A Character’s Internal Thoughts”

  1. We’re with you on this one, Maeve. We have seen both the quotation marks and the italics in rough drafts. Some clients have insisted that they be there, though we have advised them against these tricks.

    If the reader’s attention is on a particular character, text that expresses thoughts will be attributed to that character, and these gimmicks will become unnecessary.

    Usually, if the reader has difficulty understanding that words are the thoughts of a particular character, it is because the text has a more serious problem, one of perspective.

    Each scene in a story should focus on one, and only one, character. This way, the reader knows which character is the focus of attention, i.e., which character is being used to experience the events in the scene. The reader will visualize the scene from that character’s perspective.

    With this focus, the reader will understand which words are description, which are dialogue, and which are thoughts–without resorting to “he thought,” quotation marks, or italics.

  2. I thought that the short story “2 AM and Counting” for the contest did a great job of expressing the main character’s thoughts, without having to resort to quotation marks or italics.

  3. I use italics, but I am now beginning to reconsider that thought…
    Maybe I have that perspective problem PreciseEdit spoke of. Oh welll, that’s what revision is for.

  4. Question: What if a character has his thoughts invaded by an artificial intelligence? How would one represent the dialogue between the thought life conversation? Or how would one represent the diaplogue of two characters reading each other’s thoughts in question and answer dialogue?


  5. Don,

    If your story includes multiple personalities using the same brain, such as an artificial intelligence or insane individual you may have no choice but to use italics. It is the clearest manner in which you can convey which of the two is speaking.

  6. I’m sorry, I’m maybe missing something here, but none of the examples quoted in this article actually ARE internal thoughts. For a start they are in the past tense. No-one thinks in the past tense. If you are alive and breathing you are thinking in the now.

    What is the point in an article on dealing with internal thoughts which misses the point entirely?

  7. Chancery, I think the point of the article was to advocate an entirely different way of phrasing a character’s thoughts – namely, reporting them in third-person rather than transcribing them as something akin to mono/dialogue.

    I have a feeling that sci-fi/fantasy writers like me would quickly run up against the weaknesses of this system. As Alexandra notes above, psychics, gargoyles mind-controlled assassins and such are probably edging into “italics or bust” territory.

  8. I appreciate, Herm, that this is the way ‘George’ has chosen to do internal thoughts, but as an example of should you use italics or not it is less than useless. Sometimes an author might want the immediacy of thoughts as they occur, which to use the George passage, would look like this, for example:

    Making her escape from the jewellery shop, Rachel had only one destination in mind. I have to do something to fix this. Sahlah’s in the shit because of me. Hell, I’m in the shit. Only what the hell am I going to do? God, I’ve got to do something and I’ve got to do it now.

    As you can see it is much more vital than the George style, but it doesn’t address the problem of the transition from the narrative of the first sentence followed by the internal thoughts. In other words, you are still left with the quandary of italics or no. Which, I can only repeat, this article definitely does not address, just avoids by recommending you put your story into a passive voice. I don’t consider that a good trade-off.

  9. I’m a novice, but I think Chancery is right that the examples were not internal thoughts. She/he may have made the observations more gently, but the article and all comments have been helpful to me. Thank you.

  10. ‘Gentle’ is required when you are talking to the ignorant or a child. When someone is holding forth on how things should be done, and therefore putting themselves up as an expert, and they offer something as badly done as the above, I think they are doing well not to have tomatoes thrown at them.

  11. @Chancery
    Your objections to the information given in this article seem to be based on an idiosyncratic notion of narrative style.

    When a narrative is written in past tense, a character’s internal thoughts will be expressed in past tense. You needn’t take my word for it; do a Google search for “internal dialogue in fiction” and you will find a great many more examples of the kind I have used in this article.

    Re: “Which, I can only repeat, this article definitely does not address, just avoids by recommending you put your story into a passive voice.”

    Past tense is not the same thing as “passive voice.”

  12. If the character’s thoughts are in the past tense they would, in general, be in the passive voice. If you would care to show us some internal dialogue written in the past tense that has the vitality of the active voice……..?

  13. My high school and college English teachers taught me to italicize a character’s thought; some websites advise against it. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Do you leave out “he/she thought?” Does it really matter? It’s very confusing.

  14. I am writing a novel that includes two people who read each others’ minds—i.e., telepathic people. I use italics when the thoughts are given like spoken words would be, and none when they are part of the character’s inner dialogue.

    When I’m going back and forth between the two characters during a conversation, it gets tricky to make sure that one person’s telepathic thoughts are separated from the other person’s, because both are in italics. As with regular dialogue, changing paragraphs is necessary to distinguish when changing characters, and I throw in the occasional dialogue tag using “thought” instead of “said” to keep who is saying what straight.

    I am sorely tempted to use both italics and quotation marks for long stretches of dialogue, but I haven’t seen an authority voice anywhere (yet) that says it is the right way to handle it. One website asks writers to put telepathic communications like this: “/telepathic dialogue/”. But they’re the only ones I’ve seen do this technique. So for now, I simply use italics and paragraph breaks and dialogue tags for telepathic conversations.

  15. If you want to see author who uses italics in thoughts and flashbabacks without disturbing the flow, read Lili st crow’s Strange Angels.

  16. I agree with some of the other comments posted regarding the fact that the above examples do not convey a characters inner dialogue at all. When people use italics, it is usually so they can make first person statements in an otherwise third person point of view. I’m not saying that is right or wrong, but simply saying “he thought” or “she thought” is not internal dialogue.

  17. I’m with Benjamin on this.

    The issue I’m interested in involves 1st person internal dialogue couched within a 3rd person POV. My goal is to have the *punch* of those inner thoughts. The examples in the OP don’t address this. In fact, they feel very empty and devoid of emotion, imho.

    The internet is a big ol’ place. I’ll keep searching.

  18. Chancery – “If the character’s thoughts are in the past tense they would, in general, be in the passive voice. If you would care to show us some internal dialogue written in the past tense that has the vitality of the active voice……..?”

    Here’re examples, direct from the post:

    “She didn’t want to think of the flat. ‘Our very last one,’ the salesman had called it…” (3rd person thoughts, active voice)

    “She knew only that she had to act at once.” (3rd person, past tense, active voice)

    I think there may be some confusion as to what passive voice is, so: in passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed. In the quoted examples, the subject is doing, therefore is active, making them active voice.

  19. I am writing a fantasy novel at the moment. Yup magic stuff.

    My main character can speak to other characters within the mind so thought is well used throughout the story . I am toying with using the format of single quotation marks – ‘thoughts’ – as I really don’t like the look of italics scattered through the page, but then the Editor want’s italics.

    Would the reader find single quotation marks a larger or smaller hindrance than the italics, even though only one character can communicate in this fashion with whoever he chooses?


  20. I use the italics approach. However, only for a sentence or two at a time. I prefer indirect reporting of a character’s thoughts for longer passages.

    This works: Aaron sighed. The sins of the fathers always return to haunt their children. His fist drove into the wall and created a gaping hole.

    But so does this: Aaron sighed. The sins of the fathers always returned to haunt their children. His fist drove into the wall and created a gaping hole.

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