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.

 

Do You Need a Question Mark at the End of That Sentence?

Sometimes writers find it difficult to tell whether they’ve written a direct question or not, with the result that they are unsure if a question mark should be placed at the end of a sentence. They might write something like this:

Kevin asked me whether Sons of Anarchy is still on TV?

Most people who read that sentence will say that the question mark is incorrect – and they are right. The reason? Because it’s an indirect question is the explanation commonly given. That’s true; it is an indirect question. Kevin didn’t say those exact words. The direct question, the question Kevin did ask, which does require a question mark, would have been something like this:

Is Sons of Anarchy still on TV?

But it’s not always easy to determine whether a question you’ve written is a direct one requiring a question mark – unless you know a little about how questions are formed in English. Then it becomes a lot easier. Here’s the positive statement created by moving the words in the direct question above around:

Sons of Anarchy is still on TV.

Here’s the question again:

Is Sons of Anarchy still on TV?

Now let’s compare the two sentences side by side:

Sons of Anarchy is still on TV.

Is Sons of Anarchy still on TV?

The subject of both sentences is Sons of Anarchy and the verb is is. Do you see what happens to the subject and verb in the second sentence? They exchange places. The subject now comes after the verb, not before. And that exchanging of positions is all you need to look for in order to correctly identify direct questions in a lot of cases.

I’ve used the verb to be in this example, and to be has a few unique characteristics, one of which is that it doesn’t use forms of the auxiliary verb to do (do, does, did) when making direct questions. Almost all other verbs do, though (the exception is modal verbs – can, could, might, should, must, etc), so often the verb we’re looking out for is going to be a form of to do. In the next example, we’re going to use the verb to like as the main verb.

Positive statement: Kevin liked the first series of Sons of Anarchy.

                                subject + verb

Question form: Did Kevin like the first series of Sons of Anarchy?

                         verb + subject

As you can see, again we go from subject first, verb second to verb first, subject second. Often we begin a question with an interrogative pronoun, such as which, what or why. For example:

What did Kevin like about the first series of Sons of Anarchy?

But that essential form of verb first (did in this case), subject second (Kevin) is still often embedded in questions with interrogatives. (I’ll come to the exception to the rule in a bit.)

So if you write a sentence that looks like a direct question but you’re not sure, and you can see a verb coming before the subject, go ahead and hit that question mark key with the full might of your little finger. Let’s take another look at our original example and see why it fails the test.

Kevin asked me whether Sons of Anarchy is still on TV?

                                         subject                verb

It’s not a direct question, because the subject comes first, the verb second.

However, as is often the case with the English language, all too often you’re cruising along, happily obeying one rule when you’re T-boned by another rule coming out of a grammar side street. There is an exception to our rule: polite requests. These are requests, such as ‘Could you get me another doughnut from the bakery,’ in which a verb (could in this instance) and subject (you) have exchanged places, yet they are sometimes treated as statements rather than questions. I say ‘sometimes’, because it’s up to you, as the writer, to decide upon the degree of politeness with which a line like the example I’ve given is said and to punctuate it accordingly. If the person making the request is being really polite, then a question mark would be appropriate; if they’re being neither impolite nor polite, then a full stop (‘period’ in US money) is correct.

There’s also a group of direct questions in which the subject and verb don’t switch positions: subject questions. Here’s an example of a subject question:

Who killed President Kennedy?

In the example above, we have an interrogative pronoun (who) functioning as the subject, followed by a verb (killed). If you’re unsure whether the interrogative is the subject, try answering the question. (If you’re unsure of the real answer to the question, as you may be in this case, it doesn’t matter – make one up.) If the answer is the subject, then it’s a subject question:

Who killed President Kennedy? The Mafia killed President Kennedy.

                                                    subject

Frankly, if English is your mother tongue, you’re unlikely to fail to identify that a subject question like this one is a direct question requiring the appropriate punctuation, because it will have ‘question mark’ written all over it as lucidly as it’s written over the Riddler’s outfit in Batman. But bear in mind that subject questions can retain their subject first, verb second structure when they are reported questions, but reported questions don’t take a question mark. Here’s an example of a reported subject question:

Ed asked his conspiracy theorist neighbour who killed President Kennedy.

                                                                       subject + verb

So, next time you’re wondering whether you’ve written a direct question requiring a question mark, follow this two-part procedure:

1. Look further back in the sentence and see which way round the subject and verb is. If the verb comes first and the subject second, then yes, it’s a direct question and a question mark is needed – unless the sentence is a request that’s being made in a way that’s not particularly polite (your choice).

2. If the subject comes before the verb and is an interrogative (what, which, why, when, where, who, how) and the question is not a reported one, you can also hit the question mark key with confidence.

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