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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I prefer the italics for direct quotes of thought; although, generally, it seems more polished if the thought can be blended into the narrative.
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.
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.
I recently read that using italics for the characters thoughts is soemthing that will indicate you are an amateur writer. And wouldn’t the words “Roger Thought” and “he told his brothers” make it clear. Also, when you begin dialogue I believe the correct format is to start a new paragraph so this would also make the dialogue vs thought moreclear.
To Lily VP
Yes but only if you’re including ‘he thought, she thought’
If it were more:
Max lay on the sofa, feeling ill and very sorry for himself, he decided to call the doctor. Scanning the room he discovered the phone was no-where to be seen. [Italics] Damn it all!
Then I think italics are quite useful
How do you format when a character is reading aloud from a book?
Diana, It depends on how much text is being read. If the character is reading a short passage, then the passage should be in single quotes surrounded by the quotation marks of the character that’s speaking aloud. Example: Dave said, “It says here, ‘Always look both ways before crossing the street.'” If it’s a longer passage, say a paragraph or two, it would need it’s own separate block text, indented twice in the center of the page, and most likely italicized.
I use italics for my characters internal thinking. Blending into the narrative is great, but I always mess up and the one time I tried quotation marks my friend thought the character was a chatter-box.
Sooo, what about if the sentence is something like:
He kept hearing him say, I will kill you, you’d better not tell anyone. (italics I will…tell anyone)
is the comma before the italic fine?
Yes, Andrea. Keep that comma.
How do you punctuate this internal monologue where the character thinks about saying something? Should the dialogue be in quotation marks to show that it’s something she would say? Should italics be used for the internal monologue part? Help, I’m so confused. MM
Could she call him? And say what?
She could try, “You know, there’s no criminal code for finding out someone’s shoe size.” Hmmm. Maybe there was.
What about, “You should be flattered. Your sperm was in the top two”?
Thank you, MM Pollard
MM, internal monologue is in italics.
What if it is my character’s P.O.V and I usually use italic when it is a flashback or reading a book, my story is in the past tense but I do want her to think in the present tense of course! So what should I do?
WOW! This really helps me! Thanks for this, and it makes a lot more sense to me now then it ever has before! I really appreciate it! 😛
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I believe a question mark should never be used in narrative and often not when writing dialogue. First of all, if you ask the question to someone reading your book, You know you aren’t going to get an answer so the question mark is unnecessary. You also might lose the reader because they could be thinking, why is the author asking me this?
Also, when I considering my dialogue being used in a play or in film, one of the characters might not want an answer. Actors in plays and movies can better communicate their lines if they have the freedom to extend pauses and a question mark almost always overwhelms an extra pause in timing.
Lightbulb flash!! OH! This: ” 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.”
Sometimes. I had it in my head that it had to be always and was twisting my brain into knots trying to make the inner thoughts flow with the narration and it just wouldn’t. I thought I was messing up again and still couldn’t do it right.
@James That’s great advice and also something to think about.
I’m writing a memoir and I’ve been given the great suggestion of placing a ‘sub-narrative’ within some of the chapters – sort of, what was going on with me in the grand scheme of things.
I was wondering how to format this so that it is very obvious we are stepping out the of story.
Firstly is a change in font from Serif to Sans workable? I also use dashes for a scene change. Was thinking of using a different scene-changer too.
Here’s a (shortened) example:
UNIVERSITY – OR WHAT’S known as ‘Uni’ in Australia – were some of the best days of my life. Where else do you get to potter around in a great location, have very little responsibility, learn lots of things, do lots of things and walk out four years later with a bonus – a degree!
With my university years I had immersed myself into community of intelligent ambitious people. Generally everyone had a confidence about themselves. They knew where they were going in life and weren’t threatened by others.
Next normal paragraph continues here…
(Sorry couldn’t show the fonts in this comment field)
Some editor’s think using italics is amateurish. What italics do is notify the reader you are transitioning from third person to first person.
Another way to transition is to create a new paragraph and use only first person in the paragraph. This also means, if a paragraph contains dialog of the character whose point of view you are in, it can be tacked onto the dialog.