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.