Did You Just Use Italics?

James Scott Bell

Controversy? You want controversy? You thought Michelle’s post about F-bombs was controversial? John’s post about offending readers?

Well, step right up, cause I’ve got your controversy, right here: How about the use of italics?

That’s right! I said italics!

I love the way writing “rules” sometimes get floated around the internet, become a meme, then move to “accepted wisdom” or even “non-negotiable truths from on high” – while, all along, it may be wrong for an across the board regulation.

Sometimes there’s a kernel of truth. For example, there’s a “rule” that says, No Prologues! Part of that may be simply because agents see so many bad ones. Maybe we’ll discuss that in a future post.

Today I want to discuss the use of italics for rendering the inner thoughts of a character. You know how that’s often done:

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. Back in town! I don’t want him to see me like this!

That’s the shortest possible route to showing us the inner thought. Another alternative is to not use italics, but put in an attribution:

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. Back in town, she thought. I don’t want him to see me like this!

A third way is to use 3d Person, but filtered in such a way that we know it is Susan thinking it.

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. So he was back in town. She didn’t want him to see her like this.

That last two renderings are probably the preferred type these days. Or at least the fashion cops seem to think so. But does that mean italics should never be used for thoughts?

Never say never, especially when it comes to writing “rules.” I think italics are still perfectly acceptable when used in moderation.

Note that word: moderation. The overuse of italicized thoughts gets a bit wearying.

But an italicized thought may be the best, most economical way for a character to recall a key point or phrase uttered earlier in the book. And to set it off for the reader, too.

For example, early in the book your Lead character is given a clue about the villain by someone, who says, “Baxter will be wearing cheapie shoes that squeak.”

Near the end of the book, the character hears someone enter the room with squeaky shoes. You could write it the clunky way: She listened to the sound of his shoes on the tile. And she remembered what Clive had told her about Baxter, that he would be wearing inexpensive shoes that squeak.

Or you could do it quickly and easily with italics:

She listened to the sound of his shoes on the tile.

Baxter will be wearing cheapie shoes that squeak . . .

If you have a scene that is mostly interior dialogue, using italics can be a means of variety. In Lisa Scottoline’s Courting Trouble, lawyer Anne Murphy has to process some shattering news. First, Scottoline uses no italics:

Could this be? Could this really be? Was Willa dead? Anne’s heart stalled in her chest. Her eyes welled up suddenly, blurring the busy boardwalk . . . . She struggled against the voice and the conclusion, but she couldn’t help it. Willa, dead? No!

But then, as Anne continues to try to “wrap her mind” around it, there’s this:

Kevin got out, but how? Why didn’t they tell her?

The switch to italics, for one line, adds a certain immediacy to the thought process. I don’t think Scottoline should be arrested for using it. I don’t even think she should get a ticket.

In The Hard Way by Lee Child, a man in a hooded sweatshirt who takes money off drunks is walking down the street, and sees: A big man, but inert. His limbs were relaxed in sleep.

As the hooded man moves closer, Child inserts a series of quick thoughts, between paragraphs of narrative:

His hair was clean. He wasn’t malnourished.

Not a bum with a pair of stolen shoes.

[more narrative]

A prime target.

And so on. It’s just an efficient way to get the point across and get out of the way. Could the same thing be done without italics? Perhaps. Should it? That’s up to you.

Another jab against italics is that they are “hard to read.” I don’t buy that. That’s why I didn’t mind that Robert Crais has whole chapters in italics in L.A. Requiem. He has a reason for it, and I’m not going to call the Style Felony Hotline to report him.

Here’s my pragmatic conclusion: yes, there may be some prejudice against italics. But if they’re used judiciously and for good reason, I see no problem.

Do you?

Do you?

33 thoughts on “Did You Just Use Italics?

  1. A good use for italics is for stuff people said in another moment other then the one being narrated. I mean, I usually write in first person, and I use italics when the narrator is remembering something someone else said, or maybe something someone WOULD say.

    (I’m not so sure I’m making any sense, but.)

    Not really for thoughts, but more like a displaced dialogue. Something like that. I think it looks nice πŸ™‚

  2. I’ve never had a problem with italics properly used. It is a quick, easy way to express the thought. Great post!

  3. Richard, I’ll certainly consider writing a book about this stuff. Maybe one chapter could be called What’s Your Slant on Italics?

    Jill, I agree that “quick” is probably the best use of an italicized thought.

  4. I like italics in very small doses. I do usually prefer them to the use of “he thought.” It’s all a matter or moderation, as you said.

    Long blocks of italics are tiring and a turn-off to me. I usually stop reading.

  5. Thanks for this. Italics are a sticky subject in our critique group. We must first know the rules in order to break them, right?

    So, when’s he going to teach about prologues?

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom!


  6. Excellent, excellent post. One-hundred thousand thank yous! As my husband says, there are no absolutes in art when using conditional styling! This “debate has driven me mad!! LOL

  7. I’m a fan of well-placed italics. For some internal thoughts and emphasis, it’s often the best way to go.

    I recently read a book by a “big name” author. Letters were a featured part of the story, but rather than put them in italics, the publisher decided to use a fancy, curly type font to mimic handwriting. Wow, that was REALLY hard to read. I would much have prefered some nice, clear italics!

  8. Always learn something new here.

    I don’t mind italics if used judiciously throughout a story. Many times it aids in understanding.

    So thank you for reminding us that rules are like Italian red lights: just suggestions.

    Hmm.Hope James Scott Bell understands that.

  9. As a professional reviewer of fiction, I have noticed an erosion of the italics for inner thoughts protocol recently.

    Your analysis is correct. It is an effective tool used maybe once or twice in an entire novel.

    It is a pacing tool, as well as a point of view tool. It’s a kind of punctuation.

    However with so many printed novels (nevermind e-books) getting the protocol of the grammar incorrect, it is (as you noted) becoming lore to do it “wrong.”

    And you provided a perfect example.

    You wrote:
    But then, as Anne continues to try to “wrap her mind” around it, there’s this:

    Kevin got out, but how? Why didn’t they tell her?

    The switch to italics, for one line, adds a certain immediacy to the thought process. I don’t think Scottoline should be arrested for using it. I don’t even think she should get a ticket.

    “Kevin got out, but how? Why didn’t they tell her?”

    The line creates confusion. Tell who? Who-her? And the verb tense intensifies the confusion.

    If it’s Anne who wasn’t told and Anne’s the narrative POV, then the ITALICIZED thought, is internal and one (native English speaker) does not usually refer to oneself as “her.”

    If it’s not italicized, the verb should be “hadn’t” “Why hadn’t they told her?”

    So if it’s italicized it should read:

    How (the hell?) did Kevin get out? And nobody told me!

    How did Kevin get the hell out? Risa should have told me! I’ll kill her next time I see her!

    And that’s the power of the italicized thought. It brings the reader into the emotional immediacy of the interior of the third-person narrator’s mental mindset. It’s supposed to shock the reader into paying attention.

    To do that, the grammar has to be characteristic of that particular person thinking silently to him or herself. And that makes it a chance to characterize.

    Another legitimate use of italics is in SF/F where the dialogue is exchanged telepathically.

    Occasionally italics are used to set off dream sequences, but if they’re long, that’s very annoying. A section space works better.

    Getting the knack of grammar shift into internal thought is well worth the effort.

    Just watch the person and verb tense, and then be certain-sure the copyeditor doesn’t “correct” you!

    Thank you for this very nice post on a subject that really needs attention.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  10. In my current WIP, which is written in first person, I am using italics when my MC hears the voice of his dead father. It is all in his mind and happens once or twice a chapter, usually just a sentence or two.

    In my book on submission I have a short scene in italics on page two. I debated on whether to put it in italics since I had read so much about not using it, especially in the beginning pages since it could be a reason why an agent might stop reading. In the end I left it in b/c I thought it was the way best to convey the scene and received several offers of representation and now the book is on submission, italics intact. (It’s the only use of italics in the whole book.)

  11. Ronie, so glad if this post brought a little “sanity” to the discussion! It really needs it.

    Jennifer, you make a good point. Rather than be drawn out of the story, a traditional use of italics would have been better.

  12. Teri, yes, the use of italics for an emphasized word in dialogue is essential. What else could you use? All caps? Underline. Not.

    For an internally expressed prayer it seems the best way as well. The alternative is with quote marks, but that would mean the prayer is uttered out loud.

    Two perfect places where italics come in handy. Thanks.

  13. I tend to use italics to convey a character’s inner dialogue- I agree, it’s the least clunky option much of the time.
    I have also been guilty of using prologues (although only because my first editor advised that we change chapter one to a prologue).
    What kind of sentence does this felony usually get?

  14. Being a student and affectionado of deep POV, I tend from using italics with internal thoughts unless the thoughts are written in first person.
    I just finished judging several entries for a contest for unpublished authors and almost all of the entries had every single thought in italics. I suggested they ditch them, unless in first person POV. I don’t mind a few sprinkled around when emphasis is needed, but when in deep POV and internal thoughts go on sometimes for several lines, italics to me are a huge speed bump.

    Having said that, I wish I had your post to suggest to the contest entrants whose work I just judged. I did tell them in my remarks that balance is needed and you said it much better than I did!

  15. It depends, Michelle. You can spend up to three days in jail for Prologue Violation if they catch you. If you call it Chapter 1, or just leave it blank (a la Coben in Tell No One) you can usually fool them.

  16. Pam, sorry the advice came a little late. I think category romance (you no doubt judged a lot of these, yes?) can tend to heavily favor the italicized thought. Am I right?

  17. Yes, I like your third example for internal thought. I use italics for punch or emphasis. But thank you for reminding us writing rules can stifle us needlessly sometimes.

    I read a post once about not using the word “suddenly” and now when I use it, I suddenly panic! I think, “Stop taking words away from me.”

    Thanks Jimbo for your insight!


  18. Here are some things I found on the internet:

    Using Italics for Thought
    Where do you guys stand on the subject? The Chicago Manual of Style says not to do it, and a number of writers and editors are adamantly against it (I’m not quite clear on why it inspires so much passion with them). I don’t use this approach very often, personally, but a lot of writers I like do so and I don’t have a problem with it.

    It always pays, however, to know what editors and markets want and don’t want. Knowing that there is a not-uncommon bias against this technique from some editors and publishers gives you something to look for when researching a market, after which you can adjust or simply avoid the market.

    Mary W. Walters, an award-winning Canadian writer and editor (though not someone I knew before searching this topic, says the following:

    December 28, 2011


  19. This is from an editor:

    Italics make your book look weak. Period. Go through and remove them all. Every instance of italics taken out is a pound of gravitas added to your book. If you want to look like a pro, cut the italics.
    I mean it.

  20. I almost laughed out loud reading this post. Why?

    Because when I got serious about writing in 2008 and starting learning the “right way to write”, using attributes like “she thought” was taboo and using italics was the only way to convey interior dialogue.

    Just goes to show, I guess, that the rules of writing are no more reliable than the latest medical study (which will be totally contradicted by the next latest medical study in six months).

    My one unbreakable rule of writing?

    Just. Write.

    Thanks for a great post and for reminding me not to take writing rules so seriously!

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