Be Your Own Copy Editor #2: When and How to Use Italics for Inner Monologue

Something genre fiction writers often need to think about during both writing and self-editing is how to style inner monologue. I’m going to talk specifically here about what we can call ‘direct thought’. I’m using that label, since what I’m referring to is the interior-world equivalent of direct speech. Here’s an example of direct thought at the end of a passage of narration written using third-person POV (point of view), with Gary, a disaffected office worker, as our protagonist:

Gary looked up and saw that his boss, Andrew, was leaning back against Rita’s desk, arms folded, no doubt telling her another of his pathetic little anecdotes about the time he was backstage at the X Factor and got to hang out with Simon Cowell and a performing dog called Twinkles or Twoddles or something like that. Gary didn’t remember the name exactly. He tended to switch off when Andrew was telling one of his stories. Now Rita was laughing at something Andrew had said. Andrew looked over at Gary, saw him looking his way and smiled that smarmy smile of his. Gary grinned.
            One day I’m going to kill you, but not before first scooping out your kidneys with a sharpened dessert spoon.

That last sentence is an example of direct thought, and the convention in genre fiction is to place it in italics. By using italics, the author – that would be me – is telling the reader that Gary actually ‘said’ those exact words to himself in his head. Notice how strong and effective the line is, partly because the thought itself is so macabre and unexpected, jolting the reader out of the everyday, ho-hum setting and into the depraved inner world of our protagonist, Gary, but also because the styling gives the line extra punch. It’s a technique often seen in genre fiction in general and in thrillers in particular. If you read Tess Gerritsen’s books, for instance, you may have noticed that she uses it a lot.

By placing the inner monologue in italics and putting it on a fresh line, we spotlight it and put lead in its gloves. Did you notice the change in tense and POV in the line of direct thought? We went from past tense in the narration to a future form (going to) for the inner monologue, and from third-person POV to first person. That sudden shift of gear is another reason why the line packs a lot of power. Direct thought operates with a larger verb-tense palette than is possible in narration. In the above example, the narration is past tense, yet in direct thought I can use past, present and future tenses. Switches in tense and POV are common in direct thought, just as they are characteristic of direct speech. Let’s use a line of dialogue to illustrate the parallel:

‘I hate Andrew,’ Gary told his therapist. ‘Sometimes I fantasise about executing him slowly with cutlery.’

In that sentence, the dialogue is first person and present tense, while the narration (‘Gary told his therapist’) is written in third-person POV, using the past tense. When direct thought is italicised, it’s the equivalent of placing dialogue in inverted commas (quotation marks in US money).

Here’s another way of styling the first example of inner monologue:

Gary looked up and saw that his boss, Andrew, was leaning back against Rita’s desk, arms folded, no doubt telling her another of his pathetic little anecdotes about the time he was backstage at the X Factor and got to hang out with Simon Cowell and a performing dog called Twinkles or Twoddles or something like that. Gary didn’t remember the name exactly. He tended to switch off when Andrew was telling one of his stories. Now Rita was laughing at something Andrew had said. Andrew looked over at Gary, saw him looking his way and smiled that smarmy smile of his. Gary grinned. One day I’m going to kill you, he thought, but not before first scooping out your kidneys with a sharpened dessert spoon.

I see this style used a lot in manuscripts. As you’ve no doubt noticed, the difference between this and the first example is that here the line of direct thought follows on in the text, plus it has a thinker tag (‘he thought’). Speaking as both a reader and an editor, I prefer the first style – and I don’t like to see either used too much, since italicised direct thought can quickly begin to come across as a slightly artificial attempt to create drama and tension, like placing three exclamation marks (exclamation points) at the end of a sentence. You probably know the type of thing I mean from Facebook updates: ‘Ate a fabulous Cajun-style chicken ciabatta for lunch!!!’ Also – and I’d be interested to hear if this is true for you, too – because italics are often used for stress, whenever they’re used for direct thought, I read those italicised lines in a heightened, slightly melodramatic way, which has the effect of bringing forward the moment at which I’m going to tire of the stylistic device.

The first way of styling direct thought hits harder than the second, and the line looks cleaner and tidier on the page to me than it does using the second style, which I find a tad ugly, combining, as it does, a lot of italicisation with roman in the same body of text. Plus it’s always good to avoid using thinker tags, as they inject just a tiny little bit of narrative distance, something fiction writers tend to want to avoid.

However, with my editor hat on – it’s a beanie, by the way, since it’s cold at this time of year in these old stone farmhouses on Gozo, the island where I live – I have to distinguish between subjective decisions and objective ones. The objective decisions I make, for example, can be about how to spell a word. If a writer writes ‘definately’, I change it to ‘definitely’, because that’s the correct spelling – unless, of course, the writer is misspelling the word intentionally. But the styling of inner monologue is purely subjective. It’s the author’s choice.

If an author favours the second style, then that’s his or her decision. But when I come across that style in a manuscript, I tend to leave a note in the margin that makes the case for the first – and I would recommend that when you’re self-editing a novel with italicised inner monologue, you might at least consider switching to the first style, too, if you’re currently using the second. Try it. See if it works better.

Whichever style authors use, though, I often find they haven’t noticed a few instances in which they’ve made the switch to direct thought. I frequently see passages like this, for example:

Andrew looked over at Gary, saw him looking his way and smiled that smarmy smile of his. Gary grinned. One day I’m going to kill you, he thought, but not before first scooping out your kidneys with a sharpened dessert spoon.

Leaving direct thought unitalicised like this is akin to failing to use inverted commas for dialogue. Incidentally, see what happens to the direct thought without the italicisation? It loses its power somewhat and seems flat – though that might also be because this is the third time you’ve read the line in the last minute or so, which means it’s bound to have lost some of its fizz. That last switch to direct thought is easy to spot, but it can sometimes be difficult to detect a change. Look at this:

Oh hell, Gary thought.

There’s no apparent switch of tense or POV there, which are often the giveaways that a line is direct thought, yet ‘Oh hell’ should definitely be italicized, since it’s without doubt direct thought. The author – I nearly forgot; that’s me – is telling us the exact words Gary ‘said’ to himself. The line should be styled like this:

Oh hell, Gary thought.

Or simply:

Oh hell.

What about the following?

Andrew should’ve been drowned at birth, Gary thought.

Does this sound like a paraphrasing or reporting of what Gary thought – in other words, indirect thought – or the exact words he ‘said’ to himself? It’s ambiguous, no? Again, there’s no switch of tense or POV to tip us off. If you’ve written a line like this, you need to decide whether it’s supposed to be direct or indirect thought, and you should style the line accordingly. Were I to come across a sentence like this one in a manuscript, my take would be that it’s going to be read as direct thought and should be italicised, but I wouldn’t feel totally confident in my diagnosis and would query it with the author, suggesting that he or she either makes it clear it’s direct thought by italicising it, or clarifies that it’s indirect thought through a little rewriting:

Gary thought Andrew should’ve been drowned at birth.

Or simply:

Andrew should’ve been drowned at birth.

Self-Editing Checklist
1. Review how you do inner monologue. If you switch to direct thought, styling it in italics is a powerful option and the convention for genre fiction. If you use the style given in the second version of the office scene, you might want to consider using the first.

2. Whichever style you choose, make sure you’ve used it consistently for every line of direct thought in your novel. To determine whether you’ve written a line of direct thought, ask yourself whether your character ‘says’ the exact words you’ve written in his or her head.

* Every post in this blog series deals with an issue I commonly see in manuscripts.

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About Marcus Trower

I'm a book editor, writer and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu addict.

Posted on December 19, 2012, in Be Your Own Copy Editor and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Excellent blog, Marcus. I’m going to have to review my ongoing manuscript for inner monologue. I am quite sure I’ve been guilty of not italicizing when needed. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I imagine that “Gary thought Andrew should’ve been drowned at birth” could also be interpreted as being what he used to think, versus him actually thinking it at the time that we’re reading about? That’s like . . . past tense versus past past tense. I’m guessing that it would all depend on context, or adding words like “used to think” instead of “thought”? I say this because I think some authors switch how they use these, and it gets very confusing rather quickly.

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