Internal Thoughts

Recently I was asked to critique mss written by two new writers. In both cases, the writers were/are struggling with how to indicate a character’s thoughts. They knew the thoughts weren’t supposed to be placed within quote marks, but they also knew they couldn’t put all of the character’s thoughts in italics. So how to do it?


My P.J. Benson Mysteries are written in first person, so most of the narrative in those books is P.J.’s thoughts, so at one point, I, too, had to learn how to do that. My teachers became other writers. By studying how other writers indicated a character’s thoughts, I learned how to show them in my books.

Primarily what I learned was about the only time italics are used is when I want to emphasize something the character is thinking, often an expletive or sudden “light bulb” realization. Oh my god, he means me.

I also discovered it helps to occasionally add a tag such as she thought, but most of the time that’s not necessary. If you are in a character’s point-of-view (pov), the reader will assume (if there are no quotes) that it’s what the character is thinking.

The other difficulty these two new writers have/had is what tense to use. Present tense? Past tense? And should it be I/me or she (or he)?

The answer comes back to how immediate you want the thought to appear. You could write: She could do it, she knew she could. Or you could write: I can do it. I know I can.

Italics, because they are different from normal type, stand out. Use too many and they can actually slow the pace of the story. We’re trained to pay attention to italicized words. If an entire page or portion of the page is in italics, we slow our reading. Rather than focusing on the story, the reader begins to focus on the presentation. For that reason, it’s best to write internal thoughts as one would normal narrative.

The thing is you must remember to keep those thoughts in the character’s pov. (In other words, the wording of the thoughts would fit what the character knows, the character’s educational level, sex, occupation, beliefs, etc.) You can convey information through internal thoughts, but it must seem natural (not the writer trying to tell the reader something).

For example, this is something I recently read.
Here I am, a very successful 52-year-old man at the height of my career; yet, I’m miserable.

Normally a man wouldn’t think 52-year-old man. He would probably think something like: Here I am, in my fifties, successful, at the height of my career, and miserable.

Here are the internal thoughts from a couple well-known writers.

James Patterson, 2nd Chance
 I found myself nodding. Back to square one. Hate groups. Maybe even the Templars. Once Mercer found out, we’d be busting the doors down on every hate group we could find. But how the hell could the killer be black? It didn’t make sense to me.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Mermaid Chair
As I said the word, I was filled with relief. Not that I would be going home to Egret Island and dealing with this grotesque situation—there was no relief in that, only a great amount of trepidation. No, this remarkable sense of relief was coming, I realized, from the fact I would be going away period.

I sat on the bed holding the phone, surprised at myself, and ashamed. Because as awful as this situation with Mother was, I was almost glad for it. It was affording me something I hadn’t known until this moment that I desperately wanted: a reason to leave. A good, proper, even noble reason to leave my beautiful pasture.

And from my newest P.J. Benson Mystery, Eat Crow and Die
Here it was one o’clock in the afternoon. That meant I couldn’t be suffering from morning sickness. Right? It had to be a bug. Something I ate. A germ. The stomach flu.

I couldn’t be pregnant. I was on the pill.

If you’re struggling with internal thoughts, take some time and look at how some of your favorite authors handle it. Writers don’t copy, we emulate.

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13 Responses to Internal Thoughts

  1. Sue Myers says:

    Thank you Maris, for your helpful information on “thoughts”. I printed up the info, and I’m keeping it right by my computer as I write. I enjoy all your posts!

  2. Kristen says:

    I found this really helpful and well-written. Shared on Twitter! 🙂

  3. Thanks Maris. I’ve been struggling with the nuances of how thoughts are written in my manuscript.

    All the best, Annette

  4. paula geister says:

    I read the blog knowing she would give good advice. That’s Maris–always helping others.

  5. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful post! It was very helpful. It’s something that I struggle with and your blog made it clearer.

  6. Teresa Blue says:

    Many, many thanks, Maris! I found this very helpful and was just wondering about this very thing last week. Good to know, a few thoughts can be used for emphasis, but not to go overboard.
    : )

  7. As usual good, useful information. Thanks, Maris.

  8. Lucy Kubash says:

    I guess it’s something many of us struggle with, as well as what is deep point of view. I do like to use italics but you’re right that use it too much and it loses effect. I think I need to do some “mindful reading” to get a better idea of how it’s done well.

  9. Very helpful post, Maris. Writing internal thoughts is difficult. I like deep POV; it eliminates an overload of italics. One thing that I find very distracting is when a character’s internal thoughts contain question after question that she asks herself. It makes the character seem very insecure, but that’s just me.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I agree, Jolana. Yes, I can see if a character is trying to make a decision, the internal thoughts might be in the form of questions, and there might be several, but like anything in our writing, to do it too often becomes distracting or irritating.

  10. Lee Taylor Franke says:

    Great post, Maris. As usual, you have a gift for taking the difficult and obscure things many of us struggle with and making them easier to comprehend. A light came on . . . finally. Thank you for always sharing yourself so selflessly.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thank you, Lee Taylor. I was being lazy and used part of what I gave you for this blog. You’re learning (and as Roger said, improving with everything you write). Most of us, myself included, started out as you are. It is a craft, and we’re constantly learning.