Using Italic Attribute in Fiction

Hi Folks,

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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13 thoughts on “Using Italic Attribute in Fiction”

  1. Okay, I understand what you’re saying, but I have two questions. How do you indicate when someone is thinking to herself, and, as in The Spirit Child, how do you indicate mind to mind thought?

    • As Dawn indicated, much is up to the reader. And as always, how each writer codes the page (regular fontface, italics, bold, all caps, no caps, etc.) is up to the writer. How I do it personally depends on whether I’m writing in first or third person. If I ever had a need to indicate mind-to-mind thought (an unspoken dialogue) I probably would set it up by making sure the reader knew that was possible in my fictional world and, more immediately, that it was about to happen. Then I’d write it in regular typeface and trust the reader to get it. But that’s just me. As I wrote in the article, I used to advocate the use of italics to indicate unspoken thought. I no longer do. And in my own reading of several extremely successful authors whose work I enjoy, I found no instances of unspoken thought being indicated with italics. Italics were used, very sparingly, only for emphasis.

      • But… “trust the reader to get it” is equivalent to saying “the reader will know what I mean” in this instance.

        Alison, the books I read that include telepathy, either italicize that text or use around the text. Both are great cues for readers like me who are very literal. If such text isn’t offset in some obvious fashion, I read it as narrative or simple deep POV instead of how the author intends it.

        • Ack. WordPress removed part of the first sentence in the second paragraph. The “or use around the text” included the arrow brackets between “use” and “around”. Those are on the same keys as the comma and period. One of my favorite authors uses those around telepathic communication. She’s with one of the big 5 publishers, whom I’d never seen that with before, so I’m guessing it’s just her style and she sells well enough that they give her the freedom to do it her way. It works beautifully. She even uses when posting to her Facebook wall, and all of her fans readily recognize it for what it is. The rest of the authors I read who have telepathic communication just use italicized text within quotation marks to denote mind-to-mind dialogue. Works great for readers like me to know exactly what’s going on without causing confusion.

          • If I (personally, as a reader) saw those arrow brackets around a group of words, I would wonder what they mean. 🙂

        • I disagree. When I’ve heard “the writer will know what I mean” it’s the result of the writer being lazy, like writing “her eyes shot across the room” when what the writer meant to write was something like “she gazed across the room.” If I copyedited for you, I would not change your PREFERENCE, which obviously is to italicize unspoken thought.

          But as I mentioned a little while ago to another writer, I’m a person to whom writers have looked for instruction for a very long time. For that reason, when I DO learn something new or “realize” something new or come to understand something for the first time, I feel honor-bound to pass it along.

          HOWEVER, the value of any advice I give on writing or anything else is always assigned by the recipient. As the writer, only you are responsible for what is put on the page in your stories, whether words or how those words are formatted. And however you choose to do that is fine with me.

          As I said in the article, I was so distracted by Stephen King’s personal formatting choices that I was unable to read his story. Shrug. I’m sure he would look me in the eye and say, “So?” and that’s fine.

          I didn’t post this to give everyone something to argue about. If you want to use italics to indicate unspoken thought, that’s your personal preference as a writer and that’s fine. I have zero problem with it. But I can’t advocate it personally anymore.

  2. I’m guessing this is a reader preference thing – the mentality of “italics are cockroaches” vs those of us who enjoy the different levels presented when parts of a story are PROPERLY italicized. When I read a third-person past-tense story with direct thoughts (first-person present-tense) in normal font, I find the switch from first to third and back again jarring and disruptive to the story flow. Italicizing is a visual cue that first-person is coming, and smooths the flow beautifully for me. On the other side, when thoughts are italicized and the author writes “he thought” after it, I find myself thinking, “Duh, I kinda figured that, or you wouldn’t have used italics.” Basically, there’s no need for BOTH.

    As a reader, I key in on italics as visual cues to show me thoughts, prayers, and emphasized words. In this sense, I’m a very literal reader. I read it exactly as written, with or without visual differences. For instance, if thoughts and prayers aren’t italicized, I read them as no different from regular narrative or standard deep POV. If words the author means to be emphasized aren’t italicized, I read them normally, i.e. without emphasis. As a reader, I most enjoy stories that include all three levels of story – narrative, deep POV, and italicized direct thoughts/prayers. If any of those are missing, the story lacks depth for me as a reader, and I find myself losing interest. Took me a while and analyzing the books I’ve enjoyed and the ones I haven’t to figure out the various elements that ensure I either love or hate a book, and this is a key one for me. It must have all three levels shown right, or it’s a no-go for me.

    I’ve heard authors who refuse to use italics even when they mean for a word to be emphasized say, “The reader will know what I mean.” Um, no, literal readers like me don’t. If you write it without visual emphasis, I read it as such, and the story flattens.

    Basically, I’ll continue writing for literal readers like me who enjoy the three levels shown by proper use of italicized text. If readers fall into the “italics are cockroaches” mentality, they’re definitely not my target audience, and I’m okay with them finding other books to read. There are a lot of authors out there, and an even greater pool of readers. None of us will appeal to every reader. Our writing styles, voices, or choice of formatting are very different, and there will be readers who hate our work regardless of whether or not we use italics. 😉

    • Just a few things: First, I’m not in the “italics are cockroaches” mentality. (Reminds me of “kill all adverbs” mentality, and I don’t ascribe to that either.) In fact, I don’t care for most blanket characterizations. Second, I’m really tempted to ask you to define “proper use of italicized text” (but I’m not asking). For many years I actively taught my version of “proper use.” Now, today, my version of “proper use” is for emphasis only, and sparingly even then. Third, story trumps everything else. The cardinal rule of writing (IMO) is to strive to never put anything on the page that will distract a reader from the story. Of course, you can’t possibly know what every reader wants or even attempt to please every reader. But if the emphasis is on Story, you’ll come a lot closer than if your emphasis is on formatting. *g*

      • By “proper”, I mean first-person direct thoughts are italicized when thrown into a third-person story. Unfortunately, I’ve seen books lately wherein authors are needlessly italicizing “thoughts” written in third person past-tense when the rest of the story is written in third-person past-tense.

        Anyway, I’ll err on the side of distracting anti-italic readers (he he) instead of leaving literal readers like me with a story that reads flat. So far, I’ve had zero complaints about it, so my books appear to be finding their target audience. 🙂

        • I understand. I was merely attempting to point out that each writer defines the “proper” use of italics (and everything else) for him- or herself. To use your own example, those authors who “needlessly” (your word) italicized thoughts written in third person past tense obviously thought that usage was proper and, for them, not “needless” at all.

  3. Hey everybody, I’m not telling you what you “have” to do or even “ought” to do. I’m just telling you that, as a trusted writing instructor and the author of this blog, I personally no longer advocate the use of italics to indicate unspoken thought. I suspect its use is more distracting than useful.

    I am aware that you might disagree. You might believe it’s more useful than distracting, or that it isn’t distracting at all. I might even have taught you that in the first place. That’s all well and good.

    When I learn something new or “realize” something new or come to understand something for the first time, I feel a responsibility to pass it along. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with me. Your only responsibility is to yourself.

  4. Harvey — Interesting chat you and Dawn Turner had. I, too, like King. It answers some of the questions i had, because King has recently broken the alleged italics rule. Cheers and semper fi.

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