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Character’s Thoughts: Punctuating and Formatting

Knowing how to punctuate or format your character’s thoughts can be difficult. Should you use italics? Quotation marks? Underlining. What is the best way to show that a character is thinking within a given sentence or paragraph?

When the protagonist of your story pauses to think something, you need to set it apart somehow from the regular text and dialogue. There are a few different ways of formatting characters’ thoughts.

The most straightforward way to do this is to paraphrase the characters’ thoughts into the narrative.

Methods for formatting characters’ thoughts:

1. Sometimes, you don’t need to do anything to make it clear that a character is thinking, because the character’s thoughts will appear as if they are a part of the narrative—so that the line between the character and the “narrator” is thinned nearly to invisibility.

Example:

When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. Why hadn’t they gone home first to change into play clothes? Oh well, they were already in trouble for being late for dinner, and they might as well get it over with. The trio trudged home reluctantly.

2. Another useful technique is to use italics to format thoughts, which is an effective tool when thoughts and spoken dialogue are interspersed. This technique is becoming standard practice among publishers—and for good reason. The different type style makes it quite clear when a person is thinking versus speaking aloud.

Example:

When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. Why didn’t we go home first to change into play clothes? Roger thought. “We’re already in trouble for being late for dinner, so we might as well get it over with,” he told his brothers, and the trio trudged home reluctantly.

This style is also popular with science fiction and horror writers, who use italics to show telepathic communication between characters.

3. Some writers use quotation marks to set off thoughts, but this can get complicated, especially when thoughts and spoken dialogue are mixed.

Example:

When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. “Why didn’t we go home first to change into play clothes?” Roger thought. “We’re already in trouble for being late for dinner, so we might as well get it over with,” he told his brothers, and the trio trudged home reluctantly.

As you can see, there is nothing to differentiate between the spoken sentence and the thought.

4. The problem caused by using double quotation marks can be avoided by using single quotation marks around the thought, but this is an awkward fix, and we don’t recommend it. You’ll see that the example of how to format characters’ thoughts below is difficult to read.

Example:

When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. ‘Why didn’t we go home first to change into play clothes?’ Roger thought. “We’re already in trouble for being late for dinner, so we might as well get it over with,” he told his brothers, and the trio trudged home reluctantly.

A few more notes:

If your character is thinking something to him or herself, it is redundant to say so.

Wow, that sure is a small car, the large man thought to himself.

But if he is thinking out loud, tell this to your reader.

“Wow, that sure is a small car,” the large man thought aloud.

Finally, whichever style you choose to follow, make sure it stays consistent throughout your work, and make it easy for your reader to follow what your characters are thinking, as well as saying.

Have you mastered the best way to show what your character is thinking within a paragraph? Writer’s Relief helps creative writers publish their stories, poems, and essays in literary magazines. We also help book authors submit their writing to literary agents. Learn how we can help you.

4 Responses to Character’s Thoughts: Punctuating and Formatting

  1. I almost always like to choose the first option of just placing the character’s thoughts into the narrative. If you are doing your job as a writer, the reader will know who’s head they are in during that scene, so no need to add anything else.

  2. I prefer the italics for direct quotes of thought; although, generally, it seems more polished if the thought can be blended into the narrative.

  3. I prefer italics for inner thoughts, and I use double quotation marks for verbal conversation.

    In Fantasy/Science Fiction, I’ve used single quotation marks with italics for telepathic communication.

    If there’s a better way of separating forms of communication, I’m open to ideas.

  4. I’ve used italics to set off highly emotional internal dialogue. I reluctantly gave up that usage. It was textually distracting and it continually posed the question of consistency, I could not establish which emotion earned italics and which didn’t. I’ve concluded that integration into the narrative is best.

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