This is a bit of an embarrassment for me.
I used to actively teach that the writer should use italics to indicate the characters’ unspoken thoughts.
When I was actively editing for other writers, I applied that erroneous rule. One time, I even passed up doing an edit for one writer because she adamantly refused to allow me to change characters’ unspoken thoughts from normal typeface to italics. I felt like she was paying me to not do my job, and I’ve never been bent that direction.
At any rate, I was wrong.
I sent a short story to Dean Wesley Smith one time as an assignment for one of the online workshops I took.
He wrote back that he very much enjoyed the story, but had two complaints.
“Why the italics?” he wrote. “And what’s with the ‘he thought’ tags?”
I explained to him that I use italics to indicate unspoken thought. Sentences contained within quotation marks were spoken thought (dialogue or monologue) and any text that was not either contained within quotation marks or set in italics was narrative.
His only response was, “Well, do what you want, but the italics jerk me right out of the story.”
Wow. The one big overall major concept I’ve always talked about — the one concept that underlies all other writing concepts — is that the writer must never do ANYthing to interrupt the reading of his or her own work.
And here was a writer I highly respect telling me that my use of italics pulled him out of the story.
Now Dean has well over 200 traditionally published novels and around a hundred independently published NEW novels (in other words, not including older novels on which rights have reverted and he’s now republishing as an indie publisher). Oh, and several hundred short stories.
I mean WOW.
And an epiphany hit:
Whether or not you use italics attribute (other than for emphasis) has absolutely no effect on the story itself. So it can’t help, but by disrupting the READING of the story, it can do great harm.
Now I had already decided to trust DWS. He wasn’t trying to convince me of anything. He just wrote, “[T]he italics jerk me right out of the story.” The day after he wrote that, I stopped overusing italics.
But I started rummaging through the works of other writers I respect, both older and more recent.
In every book, I found italics used only sparingly, to indicate emphasis. Never—not one time—did I find a successful long-term writer using italics to indicate unspoken thought.
Then it happened.
In Under the Dome, a novel by arguably my favorite novelist, Stephen King, he uses italics not only to indicate unspoken thought, but also over-uses it to emphasize entire sentences of dialogue when the character is speaking in an excited tone.
For example, one of his characters might put his hands around his mouth and yell, “No! Get back! Don’t go over there! It’s electrified!”
The sentence would be italics AND he would use the exclamation points (arguably correctly to indicate, you know, exclamations).
And every time I encountered the overuse of italics, it pulled me out of the story.
Readers are intelligent enough to know, almost immediately, whether a sentence that is not contained within quotation marks is narrative or the characters’ unspoken thought. You don’t have to tell them with the use of italics. And you might run them off by using it.
While I’m on the topic of things that pull readers out of a story, S. King, at least in Under the Dome, also uses bold font attribute when he writes a single letter or when the narrator or character reads a sign.
For example, “The car approached the place where the road T‘ed” or “The sign read Dairyman’s Dry Cleaners.”
Not kidding. And that use of bold attribute also pulls me out of the story. It’s just distracting and annoying.
Does it make me stop reading? Well, yes, but only momentarily. The story is good enough that I doubt anything could cause me to stop reading completely. But it does make reading the story a lot more difficult. (UPDATE: I was wrong. After encountering several more examples of bold attribute and unnecessary italics, it was distracting enough that I finally gave up on trying to read the story.)
My point here, aside from explaining why I converted from Saul to Paul regarding the use of italics, is that some otherwise excellent writers will occasionally make a booboo.
So don’t take everything you see for gospel just because a famous (to you) writer does it.
I seriously hope this helps.
‘Til next time, happy writing!
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