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I've seen the thoughts of a character written in a few different ways:

Example 1: Indirect

Ender liked it better, though, when two boys played against each other. Then they had to use each other's tunnels, and it quickly became clear which of them was worth anything at the strategy of it.


Example 2: Direct, in italics

It has to be Hawat, she thought. Suspicion such as this could come from no other source without being discarded immediately.


There may be more formal terms for these that I don't know. In the first example, the thoughts of the character are simply stated, without any explicit "he thought" tag. In the second example, the thoughts are in italics and they are attributed to the thinker.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using one or the other of these? Are there situations where it is better to use a particular one? Are there any other ways of expressing a character's thoughts that I've missed?

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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Don't use italics

One thing I was taught as a writing student was to avoid italics for direct internal monologue, and simply let the "he thought" or "she thought" or other similar clues in the text alert the reader to the originator of the monologue. When we as writers start using punctuation like italics to do our work for us, it can tend (though this is not always the case) to cause us to be lazier with our words themselves. We should be able to convey a thought to our readers without the extra punctuation in the form of italics.

It's going to depend on narrative POV

When expressing a characters thoughts, some of how the expression is formulated will be based on point of view. In the first person singular point of view you are always expressing the thoughts of your narrator and never directly expressing the thoughts of other characters (although your narrator may guess at them). A first person plural point of view wouldn't necessarily ever get to direct thoughts of an individual, as it would be expressing what a group thinks. A second person point of view also wouldn't show direct thought, unless it purports to show the reader's thoughts. This contributes to it's rare use in storytelling. A third person omniscient or limited narrator can dive into heads (depending on which heads the narrator is allowed to dive into) with impunity. This contributes to the popularity of the third person narrator.

Use indirect internal monologue for longer thoughts

Direct internal monologues in a third person point of view should be used only for short statements. To try and use them for long descriptions of a character's thoughts will require either over-using he/she thought and similar phrases or allow for the reader to get lost as to who is thinking. On the other hand an indirect form of internal monologue can span paragraphs because it weaves into the storyline better.

Use direct internal monologue for emotional impact

What indirect internal monologue lacks is a really strong connection to the character who originates the thought. For situations where you want to strongly associate a particular thought - especially the emotions and volition that goes with it - with a character, go direct. Just don't do this too often, or it will lose its force.

Note for those who enjoy defying rules amongst us - these are simply guidelines of what I believe each form is likely to do to a reader, rather than hard and fast rules that I am attempting to impose

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You make several excellent points, but I don't completely agree with your first paragraph. To me, italics for thoughts are similar to quotation marks for speech, and can be an aid to the reader – especially if the "he thought" is at the end or middle of the thought, rather than up front. –  sjohnston Jan 18 '11 at 15:37
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+1 for the "don't use italics" -- it really is a lazy way of writing. I think most "thinker attributions" are needless, too. –  Slick23 Jan 18 '11 at 21:57
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@sjohnston - here's a challenge for you: take a piece of writing that's been done with italics for thoughts. Try and remove the italics while making it clear to the reader who is thinking what when. Read both pieces to yourself. Read them out loud. Figure out what you like better. It's what made me give up italics for thoughts forever. –  justkt Jan 19 '11 at 14:48
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In a lot of ways, it depends on the narrative distance of the narrator. I would say, though, your goal should be to get out of the reader's way as much as possible. Adding italics and using thinker attributions excessively (ie, she thought) only draw attention to the writing and take the reader out of the story. I'd avoid it and go with option 1, almost always.

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