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This is a sample of something I wrote:

Erin watched Ruth as she disappeared between the cars and the multitude of people crossing the street. She stood there for a moment, staring at the city scene in front of her. A strange feeling of loneliness and alienation invaded her. Not long ago, there was someone here, and now that person isn't here anymore. It was a simple and obvious fact. And even though Erin had experienced it a thousand of times before, she felt as if it were the first. She shook her head. I drank too much. The alcohol is doing funny stuff to my brain. She turned around, let out a sigh, then went down the escalator.

I was wondering if it is a bad practice to combine third-person narration with first-person narration without using he/she thought, she/he wondered, etc (and just using italics instead)?

(Of course, I will do this in moderation).

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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The italics indicate that the words are the person's thoughts, so it's almost the same as speech. It's entirely fine. I agree with Joel, however, in reminding you not to overdo it (or any given technique).

(On an entirely separate note, why is she walking down an escalator? Escalators move. Is it broken or does she want to go faster than it's carrying her?)

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Oh, you're right, thanks for pointing it out. –  Alexandro Chen Dec 29 '12 at 13:21
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I walk down escalators all the time. –  Joe Z. Jan 5 '13 at 2:39
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I would add the following point of view. Using italics to indicate a different narrator draws attention to the writer and to a technique, a writerly artifice. If you're already removing speech tags in an attempt to streamline your writing--a technique that your audience will have to adapt to--why not drop the italics too and insert the character's thoughts into the narrative. Your readers will have to learn adapt to it, but it's not unprecedented (Joyce employed it (most readably) in A Portrait Of the Artist As A Young Man) and it removes the ostensible intrusion of the writer caused by the italics.

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I agree with the others, but would encourage you to think about why you are adopting this technique, and to consider taking it even further. Consider describing the whole scene from your main character's point of view, with the goal of obliterating the (quasi-)omniscient narrator:

Ruth disappeared between the cars and the multitude of people crossing the street. [Erin is able to see this; no further explanation is necessary, since she could only know it by seeing.] Erin stood for a moment, staring at the city scene in front of her. A strange feeling of loneliness and alienation invaded her. [This is a show-don't-tell "violation"; instead of telling, find some way with perception/thought/action to show that she's lonely and on the brink of despair. You know, the usual suspects--empty-feeling stomachs and all that; maybe she's alone among cultural strangers to boot. Just stay away from observations of her facial expression; she can't see her own eyes, though she can know that she's narrowing them, tearing up, etc.] Not long ago, there was someone here, and now that person isn't here anymore. It was a simple and obvious fact. ["That person had gone, leaving the absence of that person behind" etc. feels tautological and bloaty.]Even though Erin had experienced goodbyes a thousand of times before, she felt as if this were the first. [This is a trite way of trying to intensify her apparent loneliness. Show, don't tell! If she had experienced a thousand goodbyes, either they occurred earlier in the story and could be better explained there, or will be relevant later, in which case it can be explored then. In any event don't try to squeeze more out of this walking-away with a few phrases than is humanly possible. Sometimes a goodbye must be just a goodbye; otherwise you risk melodrama.] She shook her head. I drank too much. The alcohol is doing funny stuff to my brain. She turned with a sigh and stepped onto the escalator, just a lonesome Goth girl in a cruel, cruel world. [Just kidding.]

Here are a few ideas that may help:

Don't simply name emotions. Describe them and their impact through context, using perceptions, thoughts and actions-in-response of the main character.

Eliminate as many he-saws and she-thoughts as possible, and just describe the action directly, as the main character would naturally perceive it.

Don't overdo the Public Displays of Emotion. It can be melodramatic, and readers may feel insulted and bored.

Just use italics to indicate thoughts.
(Good going!)

Another technique which is starting to grow on me is to strip the italics from around thoughts and describe the main character's mental state directly, which might seem counterintuitive. I picked this up from a writing manual a while back, and it is useful in some situations more than others. A quick snippet, from a hypothetical novel that will by the grace of God never be written:

Erin slammed the receiver into the cradle. How dare Chumpster pretend that he hadn't lied? She inserted the magazine into the AK-47. Time to pay, hamburger creep.

This sort of approach keeps things direct. It's interesting because you're peering into the character's head, without the need for setting off thoughts with any sort of quotations or formatting, or even indicating what is thought and what is description of her state.

Regarding showing loneliness, since Frankie and Johnny has been on my mind so much lately, I will give an example from that movie. Frankie is of course intensely lonely until the end, and loneliness in general is a theme explored with wonderful humanity and subtlety throughout the movie. At one point Frankie, eating her dinner at home alone, begins to choke and administers the Heimlich maneuver to herself. The resigned way in which she does it, quickly and with a total lack of panic, shows that she has had to do it before. That's loneliness, shown in a way that a person can vitally understand without being beaten over the head. Obviously the movie equivalent of telling emotions directly is a little different (softball facial expressions), but hopefully you get the point. If I had a literary example ready at hand, I'd give it.

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Thanks for the feedback! (Man, writing is harder than I imagined). –  Alexandro Chen Dec 30 '12 at 3:49
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You're welcome. Take everything anyone says with a grain of salt. I'm glad to have helped you as you are seeking to define your personal style. –  Iucounu Dec 30 '12 at 19:56
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Strong analysis. I would disagree, though, about your edits to sentence one. The important thing isn't that Ruth disappears between the cars, but that Erin sees her disappear. This is an example of showing, showing that Erin is watching someone disappear from her, which is a lonely image. –  tylerharms Dec 31 '12 at 0:40
    
@tylerharms, I see your point of view. The worst complaint I could make on that score would be a fairly minor redundancy. Thanks for your thoughts. –  Iucounu Dec 31 '12 at 1:21
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It can be a bit jarring at first. That said, the italics are a good signpost that something has happened, that the read needs to assess this sentence differently. As long as the first couple times you use it, it's evident what you are doing (this will probably be the hardest part), then I don't see any real reason you couldn't use it as a device.

As with most things in writing, it's about your usage of it and how well you personally pull it off rather than the device itself.

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