The Use of Italics, Revisited

Hi Folks,

For a very long time, I used italics to indicate unspoken thought and anything that was being read (still unspoken thought) like signs, short notes, etc. (Note: what I accurately call  “uspoken thought” is what others refer to as “internal monologue.”)

One day I sent an assignment in to the instructor in a workshop I was taking online. He enjoyed the story, with one caveat. Each time he encountered italics, he said, it jerked him out of the story.

Well, that’s not good. As a reader, I’ve been interrupted, my suspension of disbelief shattered, by various problems. Often those were formatting issues, usually either ALL CAPS or BOLD CAPS or just bold print. Sometimes, though rarely, it was what I saw as overuse of italics.

Other times it was some technical error that screamed the writer’s inexperience or lack of knowledge, something as simple as Marine being spelled in all lowercase (when talking of a member of the Marine Corps) or the writer using “clip” to mean “magazine.” (They are not the same thing.) As one example, I found mistakes like this regularly in James Patterson’s books; as a result, I no longer even try to read them.

Each time I encountered any of the problems mentioned above, I was shoved out of the story. Understand, this was not my choice. I didn’t go looking for something to annoy me. I was just reading, attempting to be entertained. But when something pops out and shoves you out of the story… well, as I say, this isn’t something the reader chooses.

Sometimes, if the story itself was very good, I muddled through, re-established myself in the depth of the story, and kept reading. Other times, I put the book down and never returned to it. I’m an avid fan of Stephen King, but that even happened with one of his books. The story was very good, but not quite good enough to enable me to ignore the formatting uglies.

Make no mistake: your number one priority as a writer is to not interrupt the reading of your work. Everything you put on the page should advance the story, pull the reader in, and keep him reading.

Of course, you can’t please every reader. No worries. But you’ll please most of them if you remain mindful of things that have jerked you, as a reader, out of a story.

Consequently, I can say without reservation that you should never use ALL CAPS  unless you’re using an acronym (like LAX for Los Angeles Interational Airport) or BOLD CAPS or bold font. Likewise, you should never use exclamation points unless their in dialogue and the character is yelling or screaming. Things like that.

Okay, so back to the use of italics.

After being chastised by my instructor (I’ve read his note several times over the past few months), I unserstood what he was saying. I glanced through several novels by various writers and found that most of them used italics only very sparingly. However, I’ve come to believe he went overboard when he said to “never” use them.

Several months later, I now (again) advocate using italics to indicate unspoken thought, but sparingly.

In my own novels and short stories, I use a combination of methods.

Sparingly, I use italics to indicate unspoken thought when it feels right to allow the reader to “hear” the character’s unspoken thought directly. Of course, that’s always presented in first-person present tense because, well, that’s how it come out when we think. I also sometimes use third-person past tense on occasion, mostly so I don’t overdo it with italics. Look at this example:

   Standing on his porch, he glanced up the street to his left and frowned. No, that isn’t right.

   He looked back to the right. That way. It was only twelve or thirteen blocks—he forgot which, but it wasn’t important—and then a left turn at a particular corner where the main drag sliced through the middle of town. Probably he would pause on that corner, look back and say a final goodbye to his old life. The corner would serve as a final threshold of sorts. He grinned and stepped off the porch.

In this example from my current WIP, No, that isn’t right and That way is his unspoken thought. And notice that I never use “He thought” as a tag line.

Most of the rest of the example is still his unspoken thought, but presented by the narrator:

It was only twelve or thirteen blocks—he forgot which, but it wasn’t important—and then a left turn at a particular corner where the main drag sliced through the middle of town. Probably he would pause on that corner, look back and say a final goodbye to his old life. The corner would serve as a final threshold of sorts.

I could have done it all with italics, but to me that seemed unnecessary and a bit of overkill:

   Standing on his porch, he glanced up the street to his left and frowned. No, that isn’t right.

   He looked back to the right. That way. It’s only twelve or thirteen blocks—I forget which, but it isn’t important—and then a left turn at that corner where the main drag slices through the middle of town. Probably I’ll pause on that corner, look back and say a final goodbye to my old life. The corner will serve as a final threshold of sorts. He grinned and stepped off the porch.

Which version do you like better?

No matter how you present unspoken thought, remember that all description—whether directly from the character or through the narrator—must be filtered through the character’s physical and emotional senses. It is the character’s opinon of the setting that matters, not the narrator’s and not the writer’s.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

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6 thoughts on “The Use of Italics, Revisited

  1. Since you asked which version we like better, I would personally go for a third one, the one without any italics whatsoever. As a reader, the use of italics does also take me out of a story, unless they are used for a very specific reason.

    For instance, I’ve seen them used successfully when two characters were “speaking” with each other using telepathy, while also actually speaking with other people around the two of them (who weren’t hearing what they said telepathically). That was a good way to tell the difference between real dialogue and telepathic dialogue, but of course that’s a very specific example.

    Obviously that’s just my opinion as a reader, and you should do as you feel right. But I guess when in doubt, it’s probably better to omit italics than to risk overusing them.

    • Thanks for the input, but in a way you made my point. After all, telepathic dialogue (or monologue) is unspoken thought. 🙂 I have to wonder how italicized unspoken thought pulls you out of a story, but italicized telepathic dialogue does not.

  2. It did take me out of the story at first, but then I figured that I couldn’t find any better way to express telepathic dialogue, especially to avoid confusion with spoken dialogue. So I accepted them as some sort of necessary evil if you wish, something that had to be there for a good reason, and then when I encountered them further away in the novel I just recognised them as telepathic dialogue and didn’t think any more about it.

    In your example above, if you hadn’t used any italics, I would probably have read through it without noticing the difference between what’s told in his point of view and what he thinks. And I would have happily continued reading, still immersed in the story.

    The fact that there was italics would make me stop and wonder what specific reason required those italics. But then of course, if I was immersed enough in the story, I would most likely just shrug it off as a specificity of the author or editor, and continue reading. Further occurrences wouldn’t stop me so much, once I have discovered that italics are used widely in that specific book.

    It’s probably a matter of personal taste, and some readers would be more sensitive to it than others (just like I wouldn’t have noticed the difference between clip and magazine, because I know next to nothing about guns).

    • Got it. Personal preference, of course. I’ve seen a lot of books in which major writers do not use italics except very sparingly and always to emphasize a particular word. I’ve also seen a lot of books in which major writer DO use italics to indicate unspoken thought, although as I said in the post, only sparingly. To do that, they keep the 1st person present tense personal unspoken thought to a minimum, often mixing it with 3rd person past tense. And of course, no writer can please every reader. The best we can do is write a story that’s simply too good to put down, and then do their level best not to interrupt the reading of their work.

  3. Harvey,
    A little beside the point perhaps, but what do you think about an author not using anything to indicate thought or speech, not even quotation marks? I’m reading such a book, a bestseller.

    • I don’t like it. Punctuation provides visual clues. The quotation mark tells the reader subliminally that what he’s about to hear is spoken aloud. When I was still teaching seminars, every so often, someone would quote ONE of Cormac McCarthy’s books in which he didn’t use quotation marks. If he did it, why couldn’t they? My argument was what about the MILLIONS of writers (bestsellers, etc.) who DO use quotation marks? Most often when a newby tries something like that, it doesn’t go well. There’s no reason to make things more difficult on the reader, period. When a writer intentionally does something that might interrupt the reading of his work, well, he has no one to blame but himself. I suggest you look at other books by the same author and see whether he or she was that lazy in all of them. And if we do away with quotation marks, why not also replace all periods with commas? Or write everything in lowercase like e.e. cummings did? But as Dean Wesley Smith is fond of saying, every writer is different. To each his or her own. I’ll continue doing what I do. 🙂

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