Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author

In my editing and blog posts, I often suggest techniques for bringing characters and the scene to life on the page. A big one I advise over and over is to show the protagonist’s immediate emotional, physical, and/or thought reactions to anything significant that has just happened. This glimpse into the POV character’s real feelings and thoughts increases readers’ emotional engagement, which keeps them eagerly reading. (See Show Your Characters’ Reactions to Bring Them Alive)

Showing your character’s immediate thought-reactions frequently is a great way to let the readers in on what your character is really thinking about what’s going on, how they’re reacting inside, often in contrast to what they’re saying or how they’re acting outwardly. And it helps reveal their personality.

Here are some examples of brief, immediate thought-reactions:

A scene in Breaking Bad

No!

Damn.

What?
 
In your dreams.   

What the hell?

Give me a break!

These direct thoughts, the equivalent of direct speech in quotation marks, are silent, inner words the character can’t or doesn’t want to reveal. It’s most effective to italicize these quick, brief thought-reactions, both for emphasis and to show that it’s a direct thought, like the character talking to herself, not the slightly removed indirect thought.

Here are a few examples of indirect thoughts vs. the closer-in, higher-impact direct thoughts:

Indirect: She’d had enough. She really wanted to leave.

Direct speech: “I’ve had enough. I’m heading out.”

Direct thought: This sucks! I’m outta here.
 
(Or whatever. More personal, more unique voice, more attitude, less social veneer.)

Use present tense for direct thoughts.

If your story is in past tense, as most novels are, narration, indirect speech and thoughts will be in past tense, too. But it’s important to put direct, quoted speech and direct, italicized thoughts in present tense, and first-person (or sometimes second person), as they are the exact words the character is thinking.

Direct thoughts = internal dialogue.

Note: Never use quotation marks for thoughts. Quotation marks are for words spoken out loud.

A few more examples:

Indirect thought: He wondered where she was.

Direct speech (dialogue): “Where is she?” he asked.

Direct thought: Where is she? Or: Where the hell is she, anyway?

Note how the italics take the place of quotation marks when it’s a direct thought, the character talking to himself. Also, the italics indicate direct thoughts, so no need to add “he thought” or “she thought.”

Indirect speech: She asked us what was going on.

Indirect thought: She wondered what was going on.

Direct speech: “What’s going on here?” she asked.

Direct thought-reaction: What on earth is going on?
 
(Or whatever, according to the voice of the POV character.)

To me, using these direct thought-reactions brings the character more to life by showing their innermost, uncensored thoughts and impulses.

In these cases, italics for thoughts take the place of the quotation marks that would be used if the words were spoken out loud. But I advise against putting several long thoughts in a row into italics. In fact, do we even think in complete sentences arranged in logical order to create paragraphs? I don’t think so. Thoughts are often disjointed fragments, as is casual dialogue.

Since italics are also used for emphasis, be sure not to overdo them, or they’ll lose their power.

But do use italics for those immediate thought-reactions, the equivalent of saying out loud, “What!” or “No way!” or “You wish.” Or “I don’t think so.” Or “Yeah, right.” Or “Great.” Or “Perfect.” Or “Oh my god.” Only, for thoughts, take off the quotation marks, of course, so you’ll write: What! or No way, etc.

To me, italics used in this way indicate a fast, sudden break in the social veneer, a revelation or peek into the psyche of the thinker.

So try to insert direct thought-reactions where appropriate to effectively show your character’s immediate internal reactions to events.

But don’t italicize indirect thoughts.

To me, italicizing indirect thoughts (in third-person, past tense) would be the same as putting quotation marks around indirect speech, like: He said, “He wished he could come, too.” (Should be: He said, “I wish I could come, too.”)

So don’t italicize phrases like: Why were they looking for her? She had to find a place to hide!

(“her” and “she” refer to the person thinking.) Keep it in normal font, or change it to a direct thought and italicize:

Why are they looking for me? Where can I hide?

EXAMPLES FROM BESTSELLERS:

Some bestselling authors use a lot of italicized thought-reactions, while others just use them sparingly or not at all. It seems to be a growing trend, though, and I think it’s a great technique for highlighting the character’s inner emotional reactions effectively, directly, and in the fewest possible words.

Lisa Scottoline, for example, uses italicized brief thought-reactions a lot in her novels. They provide a quick peek into the character’s immediate thoughts, without a lot of explaining. Like in Daddy’s Girl:

The heroine, Natalie, has a small cut on her face, and her father, on the phone, asks which hospital

she went to. She says she didn’t need to, “It’s just a little cut.”

  “On your face, no cut is too little. You don’t want a scar. You’re not one of the boys.”
   Oh please. “Dad, it won’t scar.”

Later, a good-looking guy, Angus, makes a suggestion about lunch while they’re working.

   Did he just ask me out?

Later, as they’re working together, Angus tries to protect her, but she isn’t having any of it. The thought-reaction shows the contrast between how she’s really feeling and how she wants him to think she’s going along with his plans.

“I’ll get you out of here in the morning, and you’ll be safe.”
   No way. “Okay, you’ve convinced me.”

Andrew Gross uses frequent thought-reactions in italics very effectively in his riveting thriller, Don’t Look Twice. Here’s one brief example:

A chill ran down her spine. … Don’t let him see you. Get the hell out of here, the tremor said.

And Dean Koontz uses this technique from time to time in his novel Intensity. For example:

Chyna is hesitating about opening a door, then decides to throw caution to the wind:

   Screw it.
   She put her hand on the knob, turned it cautiously, and…

Then later:

   He was coming forward, leisurely covering the same territory over which Chyna had just scuttled.
   What the hell is he doing?
   She wanted to take the photograph but didn’t dare. She put it on the floor where she’d found it.

Note that these intensified thoughts are often at the beginning of a paragraph or set off in their own line, for emphasis. Or sometimes they’re at the end of a paragraph, to leave us with something to think about, as in later in the same book.

Lee Child’s The Affair has lots of examples of Jack Reacher’s critical thoughts in italics. Here’s one of many I could have chosen:

   He asked “Was I on your list of things that might crawl out from under a rock?”
   You were the list, I thought.
   He said, “Was I?”
   “No,” I lied.

(Not to nit-pick with a huge bestselling author, but in my opinion, neither the “I thought” or the “I lied” are necessary above.)

Lee Child also uses this technique a lot in The Hard Way, especially to show Jack Reacher’s mind busily working away while he’s talking to or watching someone, or to emphasize the importance of a bit of info he’s just learned.

David Baldacci uses this technique frequently in Hell’s Corner to show the direct thoughts of his
protagonist, Oliver Stone. Here’s one example:

Burn in hell, Carter, thought Stone as the door closed behind him.
   And I’ll see you when I get there.

Brenda Novak, in her romantic suspense, In Close, uses italicized thoughts to show the contrast between what the character, Claire, is saying and what she’s really thinking:

   “Maybe I could get back to you in the morning after I’ve…I’ve had some sleep.” And a chance to prepare myself for what you might say….

Even TKZ’s James Scott Bell uses this technique in his delightful novellette, Force of Habit. The spunky, rebellious Sister J, a former actress and trained martial arts expert, is being confronted by someone obnoxious who has recognized her. Her internal dialogue shows her (unsuccessful) attempt at calming herself.

   “Can you still kick butt?”
   She could all right, and she felt like kicking something right now. His shin, if not the wall. Think of St. Francis, she told herself. Think of birds and flowers…

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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What Lucy taught me about writing

It’s three in the morning and I can’t sleep — again. My story is a giant hairball in my brain but it’s more than that. I am obsessing about the world of publishing and my little place within it. There is so much uncertainty in our business right now. Bookstores are closing, advances are shrinking, publishers are paring their lists, and we are all groping for something to grab onto as the eBook earthquake rumbles beneath our feet.
I retreat to the sofa, remote in hand, searching for something to quiet the questions in my head.
Have I used up all my good plot ideas?
Is it too late to switch to erotica? Which might be adapted into Nu Bay Videos?
Should I take out a loan to go to Thrillerfest?
How did that hack get a movie option?
What should I write about for my first Kill Zone blog?
Did I remember to feed the dogs?
In the darkness, the ceiling shimmers with fifty-seven channels of nothing on. Then, suddenly, there she is — Lucy Ricardo. My muse, my all, my Ambien.
Before I know it, eight episodes have passed and the sky is lightening with a new day. I have an epiphany! Everything I need to know about surviving in publishing today can be learned from “I Love Lucy.”

Speed it up!

When Lucy needed to make money she went to work in a chocolate factory but found out it wasn’t easy keeping up. Time was we could get by doing one book a year. Not anymore. Maybe we can blame James Patterson who is fond of comparing novels to real estate — i.e., the only thing that matters is how much room your books take up on the shelf (real or virtual). But the eBook age has accelerated the metabolism of publishing and many of us are pulling extra shifts, churning out novellas, short stories and even an extra book a year. (Lee Child just put out his second Reacher story “Deep Down” and I’m working on a novella prequel to our March 1012 Louis Kincaid book HEART OF ICE). Lisa Scottoline in this New York Times article, calls it “feeding the maw.”  What I call it can’t be printed here. Sigh. But I get it.

Reinvent yourself!

What did the artistically thwarted Lucy do when she wanted to be in the movie “Bitter Grapes?” She went to a vineyard and became Italian. Is your series on life support? Are you in midlist limbo? Maybe you just need a change of identity. If you write dark, try light. Leave your amateur sleuth and write a standalone thriller. Got the “bad numbers at B&N blues”? Adopt a pen name and start over. Or. . .go over to the dark side. I know, we aren’t supposed to like this eBook thing. But it has given new life to some authors, like my friend Christine Kling who put out Circle of Bones when no publisher would. It’s the Wild West and if you want to be a pony soldier you gotta mount up!

Make friends!

When Ricky and the Mertzes forgot her birthday, Lucy joined the Friends of the Friendless. (“We are friends of the friendless, yes we are! We are here for the downtrodden and we sober up the sodden!”). Truth is, publishers aren’t putting out anymore (publicity-wise). So we writers just need to get ourselves out there more! No, a pretty website isn’t enough. Now you need to be on Facebook, Quora, Writertopia, Writers Café, MySpace, Tumblr, Foursquare, Goodreads, Shelfari, Fictionaut, Broadcastr. You need to Tweet even if you’re a twit with nothing to say. Oh, and when you have couple free moments, post something on your blog and what do you mean you don’t have a book trailer on YouTube? It’s all about buzz, Bucky. Or is that branding? I don’t know…
I need a nap. Or maybe a glass of good Sancerre. Probably both. All this advice about what we should be doing to sell ourselves and our books. And you know whose voice I keep hearing? Neil Nyren. He’s the president of Penguin-Putnam books and a friend of mine. (Yeah, I’m namedropping.) At SleuthFest one year, Neil said, “all the time you’re doing that other stuff you could be writing a better book.”  I need to remember that.
That and what happened to Lucy. She tried too hard and ended up too sick to eat chocolate and dyed too blue to get in the movie. I think it’s time for a new muse. Maybe Wonder Woman is available.
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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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