How to Convey Thoughts

Kristin paused in her writing to contemplate the paragraph she’d just completed:

His father’s wrath now made sense. So this was why everyone in the country knew about his “secret” engagement. He had thought the engagement was conditional; Cole gave his support, and if Albert’s patent succeeded, Albert would marry Becky. But apparently the true condition had been giving Cole the upper hand over Albert’s father. Now Cole could still decline to wed Becky to Albert if his patent didn’t succeed, and that would give him yet another means to subtly humiliate his patron’s family. More pressure now on Albert’s presentations, on the device. Excellent. Another reason for his father to disown him.

How do other writers convey thoughts? she wondered. It’s not really all that normal to present them right there in the narrative like I just did. But writing them in italics feels really artificial to me.

Yes, today’s topic is all about thoughts. There seem to be three camps when it comes to conveying a character’s thoughts: those who love italics, those who disdain italics, and those who use italics just for emphasis, or for thoughts that don’t easily convert directly into the narrative. Which do you prefer, both for to read and to write?

Click to read more. Warning: examples and tinkering ahead.

Let’s look at a couple of examples, found at random in books from my shelves.

Brandon Sanderson likes italics. Here’s an example from Mistborn:

It isn’t like anyone is asking me to dance, she thought. And I’ve done what Kelsier wanted. I’ve been seen by the nobility.

A character’s thought, just floating out in its own paragraph. It works, but I hate writing stuff like that. (Maybe I’m wrong! she thought. Sanderson’s awesome and a bestseller. Maybe he’s onto something!)

Now George R. R. Martin, who, full disclosure here, is someone whose writing I’ve consciously imitated. Italics are few and far between in A Game of Thrones, but the thoughts are there:

Catelyn was shaking. It was the grief, the cold, the howling of the direwolves. Night after night, the howling and the cold wind and the grey empty castle, on and on they went, never changing, and her boy lying there broken, the sweetest of her children, the gentlest, Bran who loved to laugh and climb and dream of knighthood, all gone now, and she would never hear him laugh again. Sobbing, she pulled her hands free…

And now, Robert Jordan, whose paragraph below from Eye of the World is, I think, a pretty good example of blending the two styles:

Rand wished the Ogier would stop doing that. He was well aware that Loial knew more about the Blight than any of them except Lan, even if it was from reading books in the safety of a stedding. But why does he have to keep reminding me that there’s worse yet than we’ve seen?

There are also good examples of that third method in Sanderson’s book, but I think we’re all a little exampled out. Instead, let’s turn back to my paragraph. It’s pretty clear that Albert, the POV character in this scene is thinking. However, that lone, “Excellent,” floating there troubles me. Would it be better written, “Excellent, Albert thought. Yet another reason for Father to disown me.” ?

I honestly don’t know. I prefer to avoid italics at all costs. Like I’ve said in other posts, I strongly believe the POV character’s personality and thoughts should shade the entire scene, so italics are redundant. But am I overthinking this? How do you like to read thoughts?

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3 thoughts on “How to Convey Thoughts

  1. Personally, I like the direct thoughts in italics. It’s more of an aside, something they say only to the audeience. Mainly, I think of it along the lines of Pulp Crime Narrations, where the detective narrates everything. Now, no italics is alright for 1st person POV. But in third person, if your character thinks something that could be narrated by a 1st person narrator (the character), then you can use italics.

    I hope I’ve confused you as much as I’ve confused myself. I swear this made sense in my brain…

  2. The italics are definitely the more commonly favored, traditional method. But I think that the way I write (often I imagine in first person and then translate it to third person), the italics often stick out like a sore thumb. The whole passage reflects the character’s thoughts, not just the italics.

    Unfortunately, I have the feeling that style will have to go, should it ever see the light of day.

  3. Found this post through a reddit search for “character’s thoughts” in r/writing. It’s not how the thoughts are conveyed (I prefer no italics, like George R. R. Martin) that’s problematic for me, but how much or how little of the character’s inner-dialogue should be included.

    Do you follow any guidelines when writing? I find myself either neglecting thoughts or getting carried away with them.

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