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?

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