Internal Dialogue – Roman or Italics?

I am a font freak and a typeset tyrant. This penchant bled into me from my earliest years. My father was a printer. I am a printer’s son. Dad always had a magnifying loop in his pocket. Reading the morning paper for him was more than just getting the news. He admired the layout and examined with his loop the mix of dots that made the pictures. His trade and passion informed me that writing was as much a visual art as it was a literary one.

A painting is more than splashes of color on canvas. The artists’ choices of media—oil vs. watercolor, sponge vs. brush, heavy stroke vs. light touch—influence how their inner vision comes out to the world. In similar fashion, writing is more than splashes of words on paper. Poetry was my main form of creative writing when I was young. Working out the centering of my text on a fresh sheet of paper rolled into my typewriter was as much a part of the poetry as the stanzas themselves, particularly if I chose to break from the convention of left aligned text for visual subtext to the lines of rhyme.

I like rules. They serve readers and help to keep us on the same page. Standard formatting options takes the guess work out for readers. They come to our work with a trust in the rules. A period ends a sentence. An indent indicates a new paragraph. Quotation marks show dialogue. The rules allow them to hear our voice much like a musician following the composer’s notes across the staves can hear the music. This understanding brings me to the subject at hand, internal dialogue.

Internal dialogue can serve many functions in our fiction, such as:[1]

  • Establishing your characters and their uniqueness.
  • Revealing things below the surface: pains, secrets, hope, fears …
  • Creating and developing suspense.
  • Revealing character motivation.
  • Rendering reflection.

Two main conventions used to prevail for internal dialogue in fiction and they each had their particular function and strength. The first is straightforward and easily understood. For instance, the point-of-view character is at a rendezvous waiting for her paramour. It is nearly an hour past their meeting time and he hasn’t shown. Wherever could he be, she thought.

This method mirrors regular dialogue in that it uses “he/she thought” much as we use “he/she said” in regular dialogue. “Terrible traffic, dear,” he said. “Sorry I’m late.” (I know. I just let all the tension out of the scene. But wait, internal dialogue can save us yet.)

Traffic, on a Thursday afternoon? Not likely. What has he been up to? “I was beginning to worry about you,” she said.

Using italics for internal dialogue is the second main convention that used to be in favor. It has the benefit of allowing us to discard the “she thought” attribution while at the same time signaling to the reader that they are seeing something different and important. If the convention is understood and accepted, the reader moves seamlessly from the narrator’s voice to inside the characters head.

As I mentioned above, I like rules. Following them exhibits a certain level of professionalism and avoids unnecessary confusion for the reader. I recently shared some of my work in progress with a local writer’s critique group. The piece had a snippet of internal dialogue in italics. Note the critic’s comment.

Italics

Italics? Okay, I thought (no pun intended) the rule was to write in italics any internal dialogue that didn’t have an attribution. The critique group begged to differ. I like the convention for the reasons listed above. Leaving internal dialogue in roman type without attribution gives no aid to the reader, forcing her to figure out its source based on context. What is a writer to do?

Well, this writer turned to a trusted resource, Writer’s Digest. I got doses of Writer’s Digest with my mother’s milk, so they should know, right? Barnes & Noble, here I come! Browsing the shelves of that beloved store, I found the following beauty.

Dialogue

A guide to thinking in fiction was just what the doctor ordered. Sadly, only one chapter dealt specifically with this topic. Its author, Elizabeth Sims, had this to say about the format of internal dialogue:

“As for format, the only rule is to avoid quotation marks, single or double, as they’re associated with spoken-aloud dialogue and confuse the reader. It used to be the convention to put inner thoughts in italics … Now the trend seems to be to keep everything in roman text, the idea being that italics are intrusive and unnecessary.”[2]

I would describe italics for inner thoughts as alertive, not intrusive. The slight mental jarring brought about through a change of type puts the reader on alert that they are hearing directly from the character’s mind. What do you think? Writers and readers, give a writer a helping hand. Let me know in the comments your thoughts on the subject and your preference. It may save me hours of formatting later and future readers will thank you.

[1] “Understanding Internal Dialogue” by Elizabeth Sims, Crafting Dynamic Dialogue: The Complete Guide to Speaking, Conversing, Arguing, and Thinking in Fiction, The Editors of Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, 2016, p. 254-255.
[2] Ibid., p. 255.

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