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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