Author: Sandy Vaile
First published in Hearts Talk ezine in August 2023
How to write character thoughts without irritating readers
One way to bring readers closer to fictional characters is to get inside their heads and show their thoughts, to provide intimacy and insight to readers. But is the only way to do this to italicise them? If not, what other options are available to authors?
Formatting internal thoughts in fiction is a subject that causes a great deal of confusion.
It raises so many questions like: Should you differentiate thoughts from the rest of the narrative? If so, how? And if you don’t use direct thoughts, will it distance readers?
In this article we’re going to explore:
What are internal thoughts?
Internal* thoughts in fiction = The Point of View character’s subconscious commentary.
These include opinions, feelings, judgements, beliefs, contemplations, self-assessments and ideas other characters can’t hear.
They do not include spoken words (dialogue).
[*Note: Yes, I realise ‘internal’ is a redundant word, but it’s important to clearly separate what’s going on inside a character’s mind from what is spoken, which is why I’m not a fan of calling thoughts ‘internal dialogue’; however, ‘inner monologue’ is a good alternative.]
The emotional impact of character thoughts
We all think things we’d never say aloud, so including these insights in our stories is a great way to heighten the impact of conflict.
Revealing a character’s private thoughts adds depth to a story because it enables readers to gain insight into how that character’s mind works and why they make certain decisions. They get information other characters don’t have, giving them a unique perspective of what’s really going on in the character’s life.
Internal thoughts are valuable for letting readers know where the character stands emotionally. Emotional impact is what leaves a lasting impression, so we want to make the most of it and explore each aspect of their emotional journey thoroughly, expose their past traumas, false beliefs and fears, wringing out every bit of suffering and indecision.
Without any character thoughts, authors would need to rely on dialogue and body language — both of which are awesome — but may result in a more distant experience of the conflicts in the story.
Let’s take a look at these examples from Inheriting Fear by Sandy Vaile.
Example without the character’s thoughts:With her eyes ahead and ears trained on his retreating footsteps, she breathed easier as each second passed. Walking the bike track at night certainly had its hazards, but it just wasn’t worth getting the motorbike out of the shed and donning all the gear to go a few hundred metres.
Example with the character’s thoughts:With her eyes ahead and ears trained on his retreating footsteps, she breathed easier as each second passed. Walking the bike track at night certainly had its hazards, but it just wasn’t worth getting the motorbike out of the shed and donning all the gear to go a few hundred metres.
Besides, she had as much right as anyone to be there, and she’d made herself a promise a long time ago to never let anything or anyone stop her from doing what she wanted. Fear was just an emotion and she could overcome those with steely resolve.
How to format internal thoughts in fiction
The way thoughts are formatted in fiction can be the difference between an annoying add-on and being immersed in the character’s life.
When done poorly, it can result in psychic distance between readers and the Point of View (POV) character, which means the reader is no longer immersed in the story world and experiencing the action personally, but is focusing on being told a story by the author, or trying to figure out why the format of the text has changed.
Luckily there are multiple options available to authors.
You may have noticed I didn’t include First Person POV here, and that’s because there is no need to distinguish thoughts in this case, because all of the narrative is within the POV character’s mind, so there is no need to differentiate.
As with most things, once you choose the format you are going to use, be consistent throughout the book.
Now, let’s explore each option in more detail.
This is used when writing in Third Person POV to physically show readers that the character is a separate entity from the narrator.
It’s a mistake to assume that showing direct thoughts this way automatically closes the distance between the reader and character. It’s more complicated than that and requires an active style of storytelling as well. Less is often best, so save it for dramatic moments when there is no other way to get that deep connection with the character’s mind.
When using this format, the italicised thought is treated similarly to dialogue in that it is written in present tense, first person, regardless of the tense and POV of the surrounding narrative. It is also usually put on a new line, unless there it’s very short (in which case I question whether it’s needed).
Sally drew in a startled gasp. Should I admit my deceit or continue the charade? Either way we’ll still be in this predicament, so no point in making the boss furious.
Adding thought tags
A thought tag is very much like a dialogue tag in the way it is used and punctuated, but the text isn’t spoken aloud so it isn’t encased in quotation marks. Writing ‘he/she/they thought’ is a way to clarify which text is a direct thought when writing in Third Person Omniscient POV.
Using the above example, I’ve limited the thought to one sentence and left the rest as narrative.
Sally drew in a startled gasp. Should I admit my deceit or continue the charade, she thought? Either way they would still be in this predicament, so there wasn’t any point in making the boss furious.
You can also italicise the direct thought to avoid the confusion of readers not realising it’s a thought until they get to the end of the sentence; however, I feel this makes the thought tag redundant.
Sally drew in a startled gasp. Should I admit my deceit or continue the charade? she thought. Either way they would still be in this predicament, so there wasn’t any point in making the boss furious.
Integrating thoughts with the narrative
While none of the above-mentioned ways of formatting thoughts are wrong, integrating them with the narrative is (I believe) the most unobtrusive when writing in Third Person Limited POV. The author is still telling the story, but doesn’t get in the way of readers experiencing what characters experience. It doesn’t look different to the surrounding text or remind readers a narrator is telling the story.
Some of the tentativeness around this format stems from the belief that it breaks protocol in some way. However, the beauty of writing in Third Person POV is the flexibility to move from a distant to a close perspective. It’s called Deep POV when an author eliminates anything the character can’t see, hear, feel, know or taste, so readers experience the story world as though they are the character.
Continuing with the above example, the information revealed here isn’t something we desperately need to get inside the character’s mind for to increase the dramatic impact. So, I would rewrite it as part of the Third Person POV narrative.
Sally drew in a startled gasp. Should she admit her deceit or continue the charade? Either way they would still be in this predicament, so there was no point in making the boss furious.
Can you use two formats in one story?
You can use two different styles of formatting thoughts in one book, but be clear about when you are going to use each one, so you can be consistent.
Hazards of writing internal thoughts
Wielding italicised thoughts can be addictive, but when short sentences are peppered throughout the manuscript it can have the opposite effect to what was intended. Instead of bringing readers closer to the characters, it can make pages look disjointed and pull readers out of an immersive experience. Once you master Deep POV, you will be able to create that close connection without italics.
When delving into a character’s mind, avoid relying on labelling emotions. Where possible, go to the extra effort of creating a situation and tone where readers understand what the character is feeling without the label.
It takes time for people to move past strong emotions and have the self-awareness to analyse them. So, if something happened in our distant past we might have the personal insight to say we were angry or sad back then. However, in the heat of the moment when intense feelings are flooding our body, we are more likely to focus on the manifestation of those feelings and react with a physical expression or negative and repetitive thoughts.
Over Reliance on Internal Thoughts
As with any part of writing, how much of your character’s thought to include is a delicate balance. It is more common in some genres. If you find you’re using a lot, consider other ways to reveal the same information, e.g. discovery or another character having a conversation with them.
The last word
Internal thoughts are a powerful device for authors to convey character emotions and motivations, which can be wielded to create a multifaceted person readers will want to spend time with. Character’s minds hold a treasure trove of unspoken desires and inner conflicts, which, when revealed, enables readers to experience a deep connection with what is driving the character and why. The unfiltered consciousness offers a glimpse into their hearts and minds, adding a valuable level of emotive drama to the narrative.
Ultimately, it’s your prerogative to choose the style of formatting internal thoughts that suits your story, but aim to make the reader experience effortless and immersive.
If you enjoyed learning new ways to format character thoughts in your manuscript and would like to delve deeper, grab Sandy Vaile's free Character Profile templates for main characters, secondary characters and world building.
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