Emphasized Words in Fiction

Many new writers struggle with how to emphasize words in fiction. It’s tempting to stick a word in ALL CAPS.

Please resist that urge. Yes, all-caps draws the reader’s attention, but not in a good way. All-caps become annoying after a while.

In fact, a 1955 study found that all-caps slowed reading speed by 9.5% over a five-minute period.

For example:


Notice how all the letters blend together in all-caps? It’s difficult to read. Imagine an entire novel littered with all-caps? In dialogue, it’s even more exhausting and amateurish.

If your character is shouting, use one exclamation point—not three!!!—or show us with a body cue.

“I am not hysterical!”


She slammed her fist on the table. “I am not hysterical!”

The combination of body cue, italicizing not, and the exclamation mark show the reader she is hysterical.

To the best of my recollection, I only used all-caps once in nineteen books. In my latest psychological thriller that releases at the end of this month (Yay!), the MC finds an engraved invitation, and I used italicized all-caps to show the heading across the front. Because all-caps is so offensive and jarring, I took special care to break up the text with an em dash, spacing above and below it, and double-tabbed to set it apart from the narrative. Offensive and jarring was exactly what I was going for, so all-caps worked in this case.

If you can think of another exception, please share in the comments.

What about changing the font to indicate emphasis?

I know it’s easy to change fonts these days, but the end result doesn’t enhance the reading experience. If anything, it pulls the reader out of the story. Please, stop. Let the writing speak for itself. If it can’t, then the problem is the writing, not the font.

What about bold to emphasize a word?

The short answer is no. The reading experience isn’t enhanced by bold, either. Both bold and all-caps look like the author’s screaming for attention.

What are we left with?

Italics. Yes, but don’t overdo it. Italics work best for emphasis when used sparingly. Like all-caps and bold, if used too much the eye passes right over the words we want emphasized.

We do have one other trick.

Em dashes. I love the little suckers. Maybe too much. 😉 At least I’m in good company. Jim professed his love for the em dash on Valentine’s Day last year.

“It is a crisp, efficient dash used to set off a word or clause for emphasis or additional information.”

Couldn’t say it any better. It’s a beloved, versatile punctuation mark.

Hope he doesn’t mind if I steal his example from Romeo’s Hammer:

So what about the lack of clothing? A love scene gone bad? Someone who had been with her while she was drinking—or drugging—herself? Her condition when I found her was such that she had to have come from one of the beach houses. Access to the sand is cut off all along PCH. She didn’t wander down from the street.

See how drugging stands right out? The em dashes draw the eye right to it. They tell us to pay attention. They pique interest. They emphasize.

With italics and em dashes, we have all the tools we need to emphasize words. Now, go forth and finish that novel.

For fun, share a sentence from your WIP, published work, or a book you’re reading that shows how a word–or words–are emphasized. Don’t forget to include the title!

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writetip, #writetips and tagged , , , , , , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

45 thoughts on “Emphasized Words in Fiction

  1. I learned in an Aldus PageMaker design class about a jillion years ago, if you HAVE TO USE ALL CAPS (headlines, etc.) it’s a good idea to hit the spacebar twice between every pair of words, as I did in the example. That keeps the words from running together.

    I’ve never used all caps or bold in a short story or novel. I stopped reading a Stephen King book (The Dome) because of the typesetter’s use of bold. It was annoying, and each use actually jerked me out of the story.

    The best rule of thumb I’ve found is Never put anything on the page that distracts the reader from the story. It’s one of those very few absolutes.

      • At that level what they might do is increase the kerning (the standard space between individual letters and words) rather than adding a separate space. It’s what I would do if I were designing the headline for a newsletter, for example.

  2. “…so all-caps worked in this [upper] case….”

    This was something my dad taught me way back in high school when doing the editor thing on my homework…

    …and an English teacher of the same vintage said italics – indented – only in long quotations from works written by others… though I sometimes see (and use), them with internal dialogue to differentiate it from dialogue…

  3. Thanks for the article. Very interesting. I do have a question: What if I’m using all-caps as a plot device? I have a message written in the nineteenth century that is found by my MC in the present day. She reads SAVE DAD but realizes at the end that the message said SAVE DRP. It’s from my WIP Sweet Sixteen Redux, which was one of the first-page critiques back in the spring. Thanks for the advice.

  4. A very judicious use of all caps, bold, etc wouldn’t bother me. But the problem is we can have a difficult time with ‘judicious’ use. You see these snafus in business writing as well. I’ve seen applicant cover letters that made excessive use of underlining to emphasize points. It looks less professional.

    I’m seeing less italics in books these days. I personally am not bothered by italics, but again, even that can be overdone.

  5. Sue, thanks for the good guidelines.

    Can you answer a question? I’m not sure how to punctuate the emphasis in the following dialogue from my WIP. Attorney Tillman is warning an uncooperative client:

    “If you’re arrested, you know what will happen. You’ll commit suicide,” air quotes, “and no one will discover your body until you’ve been hanging by your bedsheet for at least an hour. Agree or disagree?”

    In the ms, I put the words “commit suicide” in italics but I don’t know how to show italics in a WP comment. 😉

          • Huh…that one stumped me until Sue suggested the BELOVED em dash. 🙂

            I’ve also seen writers denote air quotes via the character’s motions. ie:

            “You’ll commit suicide,” Frank said, wagging his fingers in an air quote.

            But that can get messy.

      • When I show air quotes, I just use regular single quotes, so Debbie’s example would read like this:

        “If you’re arrested, you know what will happen. You’ll ‘commit suicide,’ and no one will discover your body until you’ve been hanging by your bedsheet for at least an hour. Agree or disagree?”

        To indicate italics or bold in a comment you have to write the code. So in front of ‘italics’ above, I wrote a left carat . After ‘italics’ above I wrote the same thing, but inserted a forward slash / between the left carat and the i. To create bold attribute, do the same thing but with b in the place of i.

        Now let’s see if this comes out right. (grin)

  6. I love em dashes and italics for emphasis. Never bold or all caps. Confession. I use italics where some might use quotes because I don’t like the punctuation issues when the italics come at the end of a sentence. Inside or outside the quotes. Bugs me. I also like em dashes in dialogue to show that people don’t speak in nice flowing sentences.

    Scrolling the wip for examples:
    “Oh, dear.” Frieda raised her hands to her cheeks. “I hope they can save it. Nobody was inside, were they?”
    “No.” For the first time, Gordon wondered if there had been someone inside.

    “Be home soon.” Gordon put his SUV in gear—only a little white lie that he was already on his way—and headed for home.

    • Me too, Terry. Em dashes are my jam. 😉 I agree about punctuation marks following italics. Bugs me, too. Interesting how you get around that issue.

      Great examples! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Thanks for a great post on a very helpful topic, Sue.

    Something else I’ve seen but rarely used is making each word in an emphasized phrase a separate sentence. “Do. It. Now.”

    What’s your take on that way of emphasis?

    HAVE. A. GREAT. DAY!!!

  8. Hi. My name is Tom and I am an em dash addict. Ellipses too…

    Good advice, Sue. I’ve always been told I’m allowed one exclamation point per novel! I do use italics though (probably too much). Thanks for the post! (Yes, that’s 2 exclamation points. My editor will clean it up.) 🙂

    • Yay for ellipses! I do love those little buggers…
      And em dashes–oh, and parentheses, too! I love all of the bad boys.
      (I’m on an Android; I have no clue how messed up that dash is going to be!)

  9. My editor rarely fixes my mistakes…just tells me where I need to change it. Which is good because I rarely repeat the mistake in the next manuscript. Just make new ones. Yes, thank goodness for editors.
    I love Harvey’s advice on all caps. This is a great post and comments.

    • Thanks, Patricia. I love Harvey’s advice, too. With…I dunno…something like 100 books to his name, he knows his craft. 🙂
      The TKZ community rocks!

  10. Thanks for the shout out, Sue—and for the EM DASH love.

    Sorry, I meant em dash love.

    In my last Romeo he sees a FOR LEASE sign on a window. I did that in all caps. Seemed right. But when I made the final style choice, I did it in italics. I’m still on the fence on this. I may even change it back.

    Personally, I don’t mind a different font for things like letters, emails, messages. Ed McBain used to do that. Also bold for things like headlines. But never in dialogue.

    • I agree, Jim. For things like signage, email, texts, diary entries, etc., style rules are much more flexible. When I used all-caps for the invitation header, I chose italics to soften the intrusion. Worked great.

  11. Good morning, Sue. I’m a fan of italics for emphasis in my fiction. I try not to over use it. I do use the em-dash, but rarely. I might starting using it a lot more, and dial back the italics. You do make a great point about how the latter should be used sparingly.

    Here’s an example of my italics usage–typically I keep it to a single word, but not here. This is from my WIP, the cozy library mystery A Shush Before Dying

    Eunice rolled her eyes. “I expect my son to be ready for the meeting,” she growled at Harold. “And I find you lounging in a reading chair and perusing a stamp magazine.
    “Philately, mother,” Harold said. His eyes widened and Meg’s heart went out to him.
    Eunice’s face looked like a thundercloud. “Don’t. Ever. Correct. Me. Again.” She punctuated each word with a jab of her finger. “Especially about such frivolous things. You are vice-president of the neighborhood association. Now act like it.” The rest of her rant faded as she led Harold into the stacks, stomping toward the conference room.

    Have a wonderful week!

  12. Great advice, Sue. I’m also a lover of em dashes.

    I used UPPERCASE in my last novel for the coded clues that were found in the chapel prayer box. I think it worked because it set them apart from the narrative.

    We’re often warned against using long sections in italics, but I recently found an example where it worked in The Dry, an excellent mystery by Jane Harper. She wrote the flashback scenes—and there were lots of them—in italics. Although it surprised me, I think it was clever of her. She didn’t have to explain to the reader that they were entering a flashback by using a date as a subchapter heading. As soon as you saw the italics, you knew you were entering the flashback. And the italics added a kind of dreamy quality to the narrative.

    • While in edits for my debut, the rule was to always italicize flashbacks, so my editor italicized two or three pages of a flashback. I’m glad they changed that rule. Italics lose their punch after a while. Much easier to use “had” in the first and last sentence of the flashback, then start the following paragraph with “Now.”

  13. Great stuff, Sue. I celebrate Em Dash Day each year in June–the day I discovered them. 🙂

    From my shiny, newly-minted debut novel, The Master’s Inn:

    Red-faced, she stamped her foot. “You’re so mean–all of you. Anyway, he’s”–she stabbed her finger in Bill’s direction–“he’s not even your real father. Your real father’s dead. So there.”

  14. I used to use Em dashes all the time, but for some reason this year I’ve gone back to commas for most things. I use them now just for interrupted dialogue and the occasional long phrase that would be confusing inside commas.

    My favorite emphasis strategy is actually the accompanying body language. I got a much more visceral response from the woman slamming her fist on the table.

    Admittedly, I lean on body language a little too much and have to remind myself that every line of dialogue doesn’t need it. Well, that’s what revision is for.

    • Exactly, Azali. Body cues show the reader how the character is feeling, but adding an italicized word along with it can’t hurt.

      Have a wonderful day!

  15. “Sail Away on My Silver Dream” presented some challenges. I used “crimson” for David’s narration (1st person) and a second font for Sharon’s diary. An example of her text, a script font, follows, if all goes well . . .

    𝓝𝓸𝓿𝓮𝓶𝓫𝓮𝓻 12: 𝓓𝓮𝓪𝓻 𝓜𝓲𝓵𝓵𝓲𝓬𝓮𝓷𝓽, 𝓘 𝓱𝓮𝓪𝓻𝓭 𝓽𝓱𝓮𝓶 𝔂𝓮𝓵𝓵𝓲𝓷𝓰 𝓲𝓷 𝓽𝓱𝓮 𝓫𝓮𝓭𝓻𝓸𝓸𝓶 𝓪𝓰𝓪𝓲𝓷 𝓵𝓪𝓼𝓽 𝓷𝓲𝓰𝓱𝓽. 𝓣𝓱𝓮𝔂 𝔀𝓮𝓻𝓮 𝓼𝓱𝓸𝓾𝓽𝓲𝓷𝓰 𝓽𝓱𝓲𝓷𝓰𝓼 𝓪𝓽 𝓮𝓪𝓬𝓱 𝓸𝓽𝓱𝓮𝓻, 𝓪𝓷𝓭 𝓽𝓱𝓮𝓷 𝔀𝓱𝓪𝓶! 𝓘 𝓰𝓾𝓮𝓼𝓼 𝓜𝓸𝓽𝓱𝓮𝓻 𝓯𝓮𝓵𝓵 𝓭𝓸𝔀𝓷. 𝓢𝓱𝓮 𝔀𝓮𝓷𝓽 𝓸𝓾𝓽 𝓲𝓷𝓽𝓸 𝓽𝓱𝓮 𝓵𝓲𝓿𝓲𝓷𝓰 𝓻𝓸𝓸𝓶 𝓪𝓷𝓭 𝓼𝓽𝓪𝓻𝓽𝓮𝓭 𝓬𝓻𝔂𝓲𝓷𝓰.

    The “wham” is/was in bold, the only use of bold in the entire book.

    For their “Log of the Silver Dream” entries, I used a third distinct font, a girly script, since Sharon keeps the log. A poem appears in a fourth font.

    Throughout, I used italics for interior thought, book and game titles, and the usual. My only use of all caps was at the end of the book, where David tells us:

    On Dr. Appelman’s wall, he has a little sign that says:


    • Wow, that’s a lot of font changes, J. Is it fiction or nonfiction? I ask because I had trouble reading the diary entry in that font, but maybe it’s just me. After spending way too many hours at the keyboard over the last month, I’m lucky I’m not crosseyed. LOL

      • Silver Dream is fiction, but based on a situation I’m familiar with. The fonts had to be different enough to discern who is talking. The Kindle Version is different, all TNR or similar serif fonts, with intro notes re who we’re reading.

  16. Hi (Em dash that WP won’t do) All-Caps SUCK and should only be used in real life, courtroom cross-examination or siccing a police dog on a fleeing felon.

    Sue – this Harvey guy who comments:

    “The best rule of thumb I’ve found is Never put anything on the page that distracts the reader from the story. It’s one of those very few absolutes.”

    May this Harvey guy write 100 more books.

Comments are closed.