The “Rules” on Writing Inner Thoughts in Books

writing inner dialog human-1138002_640 courtesy Pixabay.comSometimes a disagreement gives me pause to explore how I see a certain style of writing and why. In this case, a member of my critique group and I differed on the use of italics for inner dialogue, or thoughts. He hates them. I use them. It has caused some strong discussion. (Yes, we remain good friends.)

I know what I like, how I write and what I like to see when I read. Still, in the interest of fairness and to educate myself further I did a little research.

Inner dialogue and thought reveal truths that may not be immediately obvious to the reader. They reveal emotions the character may not be willing to show outwardly or beliefs our character is not in a position to make open in the moment. They reveal the innermost heart or spirit – but only to the reader. They can heighten the emotional tension of a scene, or betray conflicts with what a character is saying outwardly with his or her true intentions.

A character may ask, “Did you sleep with her?”

“Of course not.” You’ll believe anything.

That the reader needs to see these thoughts is not in question. It is how we reveal them to our readers that is. It is a highly charged situation that would be slowed down if I “explained” his reaction, rather than simply showed it.

Writers Digest says it all in their title, There Are No Rules. This articles leans toward several ways of using italics.

Yet, according to The Editor’s Blog, “writing thoughts without italics, makes for the least intrusive read and is likely the best choice for most of today’s writers and for most genres.” This aligns with my friend’s take.

On the other hand, the same article states, “Use of italics allows the writer to treat thoughts as if the words are dialogue, as if the character is speaking to himself.” This is how I tend to use them. Here is an example from the novel I am currently writing.

Bain took the proffered hand and shook it warmly. “Ah, our ally to the north. I thank you, sir.” Being tested by Garent was a piece of luck. I have risen in the estimation of some.

We can see what is happening, how Bain is responding, but also his inner reaction to what is happening. It reveals important information. And it helps to develop greater understanding of the character.

The question seems to be whether we can achieve the same results better with or without the italics. What would this look like without them?

Bain took the proffered hand and shook it warmly. It occurred to him that being tested by Garent was a piece of luck and that he had risen in the estimation of some. “Ah. Our ally to the north. I thank you sir.”


Bain took the proffered hand and shook it warmly. “Ah. Our ally to the north. I thank you sir.” It occurred to him that being tested by Garent was a piece of luck. It seemed he had risen in the estimation of some.

All three versions would be technically correct. Yet, to me, the latter two lack the immediacy that the italicized thought imparts. They take too long, feel awkward, and seem too analytical in this situation. It loses something. In this scene Bain has to think on his feet. He has no time for internal analysis, yet the quick thought intrudes, if only for a spit second. The italics allow for the reaction without the analysis.

There are other instances where I reveal internal thoughts as part of the narrative. In these instances they tend to be longer, more reflective. I may still use italics here, though not always. Often the choice comes down to what reveals the information in the clearest way for the reader.

In some instances, such as when my character is asking himself questions that require deeper insight, I will forgo italics for a more in depth approach.

In my opinion, a strong case can be made for both methods. Nor do they need to be used exclusively in the same work, though again, there are writers with differing opinions. I know some authors use only italics, others none at all and insist on consistency. I use both, depending on the particular situation and what I believe reveals my intention best. In the end, it appears to be a matter of preference.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

23 thoughts on “The “Rules” on Writing Inner Thoughts in Books”

  1. “A strong case” can also be made for limiting internal dialogue. I recently read a romance novel with so many inner thoughts that I felt no mystery. I knew X loved Y and what would happen next.

    Imagination and suspense deepen the reading experience.

  2. I use italics for a character’s innermost thoughts. An overused technique, however, loses impact. If we practice moderation, we can follow common-sense guidelines without subjecting ourselves to “rules.” Writing is an exploration of creativity and characterization. We need every literary device at hand to accomplish the end result: Telling a believable story that offers emotional satisfaction.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Yvonne.

  3. Good post, Yvonne. I use italics, as well, and as in the scenes you mentioned, find them impactful and efficient. My general rule of thumb is that if the inner thoughts are in first person, italicize; if they’re in third person, as if there’s quite a lengthy process going on, no italics. However I have seen some writers use regular quotes for inner thoughts, which drives me crazy. All our choices of formatting are visual clues we give our readers, and if quotes are used for inner thoughts, how do we differentiate those from spoken words? Let’s hear it for italics.

    1. Yes! Italics provide an intuitive, visual cue that most readers instantly recognize. If they have to stop and re-read sections to work out what’s going on, the story suffers.

  4. Well said, Yvonne.
    Stopping to explain always slows the action. As a writing teacher with more than a quarter century of experience, I, too, believe Italics are more immediate. They eliminate the constant repetiton of “she” or “he thought” that appear in less careful prose than your examples, and prevent mistakes I’ve seen from past students whose characters “referred” instead of “inferred”in narrative, and one, alas, who said his character “inebriated” when he probably meant “intimated.”

  5. I like my characters to have quite a lot of inner life, hashing out puzzles, or trying to work through some inner conflict. So I used to be a big fan of italics to define thoughts. I think it has fallen out of fashion, and I don’t think I’ve used it in a long piece of work for some time. When I used to tutor creative writing some of my students were quite scathing about how out of date using italics for thoughts was. (As outdated as the two spaces after a period, the strident ones maintained!) I suspect I write differently as a result of consciously abandoning the technique.

    There are practical considerations too, of course – I have seen some horrid skinny italics (every font is different) and I have to say pages of italic often gives me a headache.

    There need be no rules. But however you do it, be consistent.

  6. Hello, Yvonne:

    Great post. You pretty much say it all for me here: ‘I use both, depending on the particular situation and what I believe reveals my intention best. In the end, it appears to be a matter of preference.’

    I prefer italics for the thoughts. I do so because I didn’t want to clutter up the story with ‘she thought’, ‘he thought to himself’, and so on. Also it was different.

    My italic thoughts can be a word or a bit longer as you illustrated in Garent and Bain.

    I try to keep the ‘thought’ to a maximum of two-three sentences and no more that three-four lines of type on a 6 x 9 page.


    – Paul Corrigan

  7. I always use italics for thoughts, too. As I read your three examples of how it could be done, I found the two without italics lacked a sense of reality. It was too much like telling rather than showing. It is also the simplest way to let the reader know what is going on in the character’s head.

  8. Great post, Yvonne. As mentioned previously, I use italics too but sparingly. Fashions and styles may come and go, but a good story is forever. 🙂

  9. Good thoughts. I use both. Which one depends on the situation. For inner dialogue I use italics. For conveying a character’s knowledge, hopes, fears, etc., I use narrative. The difference is that in the former the character is actually thinking the italicized words, whereas the latter may not represent anything that is actually verbalized in their mind. In both cases, of course, whatever is revealed needs to contribute to the story. One shouldn’t do either just for the sake of doing them.

  10. There are two arguments going on here. Do you tell inner thoughts? Do you use italics? The vote seems to be yes, use italics for inner thoughts, but don’t overuse inner thoughts.
    You think you’ve got problems; I’m doing a hard Sci-Fi novel right now, where people communicate mentally through augmented systems, and artificial intelligences talk by radio. In a paper book, different methods of speaking are easy, but in eBooks, where fonts and styles are limited, it’s a real headache. My main problem is teaching the reader quickly to distinguish what mode of communication is being used.

    1. That’s a tough situation, Gordon. Though I’m sure there are others in a similar position it is a more specialized way of looking at this. I know I had the choose to treat quick inner thoughts and dream scenes the same way because of a lack of options to show them differently. I ended up putting the dreams between lines of asterisks to set them apart. So I know what you mean.

  11. A useful article–thank you! One of the things your example points out is the immediacy of italics, which make them more useful in scene when you don’t want to slow down the action and interaction. The more indirect approach, however, could be used in a transition in which the protagonist reflects on the previous scene and there’s a passage of time you want to show.

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