Italics?!? Are you mad?
Italics?!? Are you mad?

Today I want to talk about italicizing internal dialogue. Because everyone seems to want me to do it, but I keep refusing.

Because…dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not a typesetter!

I should explain why I feel so strongly on this point. And I should also acknowledge that I’m expecting a lot of writers to disagree with me on this one. Hoping for it, actually.

It’s all good.

I’m calling this possibly controversial topic Italics-gateItalics-gate comes from some feedback I’ve been getting lately on my own writing and also a consistency I’ve been noticing in the writing I critique for other folks. Some writers – not all, certainly, but some – seem to adhere to an as far as I can determine unwritten rule that goes something like this:

(1) If a character is having an internal thought, it must be italicized.

(2) If you can’t italicize, you must include “I thought” (or similar) to make sure the reader knows it is a section of internal dialogue.

In fact this “rule” has been regurgitated to me in a critique group meeting recently, with a clear tone that said, “You’re doing it wrong.”

Respectfully, I disagree.

I haven’t been able to find a firm source for the internal-dialogue-needs-to-be-italicized rule. It seems to have taken hold over time. The result is lots of paragraphs that look like this:

Brett set the gun on the table. Where is Phil? Did he get pinched? He fidgeted in his chair before picking the gun up again.

From a technical standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with this paragraph. There are a TON of published books written this way. The italicized text tells the reader those two sentences are internal dialogue, whereas the other two are third-person external.

The reason I don’t like to write this way all comes down to DISTANCE. Regular readers of this blog may remember that I wrote an entire post on distance a little while ago.

My argument is this: if you have a strong point of view, you don’t need italics or “I thought” to tell the reader that they are now hearing your character’s thoughts. In fact, by providing them this visual cue (“Oh, now I’m in his head”), you give the impression that the rest of the time, the reader is not in the character’s head.

I don’t think this what you want.

It’s an unintended consequence.

It’s like negative space – by focusing the reader’s attention on those italics, you are giving them permission to view the non-italicized text in a different way. To, in a way, treat it as less important. To step back from it.

You’re creating a distance from your character you probably don’t want.

Using “thought” is even worse, because it’s a filter word. You’re careful to avoid filter words, right?

  • to feel
  • to see
  • to hear
  • to think
  • to wonder
  • to watch
  • to look
  • etc…

These words all create a distance between your character and the reader you usually don’t want. This post on PubCrawl does a great job of explaining the issue in more detail.

Before I wrote this post, I Googled this issue and found the following post on Grammar Girl: Formatting Internal Dialogue. Again I want to acknowledge that using italics in this way is perfectly correct from a grammar standpoint. I just choose not to do it because of the aforementioned reasons – all boiling down to my desire to avoid unintended distance in the non-italicized areas (which, if you think of it, are going to be a FAR greater percentage of your work).

Anyway, if you read that post on Grammar Girl, you’ll notice the following quote:

I’ll also note that I did check the Chicago Manual of Style to see if it had an entry on this topic since it is the style guide used by many book editors. I couldn’t find an entry, but in the website’s “Shop Talk” section, Carol Saller, an editor of the “Lingua Franca” blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education, noted that she “is constantly removing italics used for . . . internal dialogue.” So, as tempting as it is to use them, and as common as it is, remember that not everybody loves them.

– Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl

Me. I don’t love them. Stop trying to make me do it.

(He tried to think of an way to end his blog. I should just end it, he thought, and get back to my MS. He slid the mouse to the left, and clicked Publish.)

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