Dealing With A Character’s Internal Thoughts
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.
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.
Browse all articles on the Fiction Writing category or check the recommended content for you below:
Improve your English in 5 minutes a day! Subscribe to our Writing Tips and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!