Today is part 3 in Jeanne Marie Leach’s 4 part Writing Dialogue series.

Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.

I Thought So!

Writing Dialogue: Part 3

By: Jeanne Marie Leach

 He is only exempt from failures who makes no effort.

                                    — Richard Watley


The dilemma of how to write character thoughts in fiction can be confusing, so you need to be able to recognize the difference between these elements of fiction. There are three techniques people often use, but only two are correct. I’ll discuss all three individually.

Interior monologue happens naturally and stays in the character’s head with no changes in tense or person. Many new authors have the impression that they must TELL the reader that the character is thinking something, either by putting thoughts in italics or by using “she thought.” Give the reader some credit; they will know the character is thinking something if you write interior monologue correctly.

An example of interior monologue:

Amy slammed the car door behind her and stormed into the house. She didn’t know whether she wanted to cry, laugh, shout or simply collapse into bed and never wake up. Why hadn’t she seen this coming? Ryan had never given her any reason to suspect he was having an affair. This couldn’t be happening. Not to her. Not now.

You can see the moment I went from the actual story-line into the interior monologue. Why hadn’t she seen this coming? This took you into her line of thinking seamlessly.

Using this technique is preferable for several reasons.

  • It forces the writer to take the reader into a deeper POV. You get to know the characters better.
  • It doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story, nor does it create a momentary jolt for the reader because it stays in the same tense and font as the rest of the story.
  • Interior monologue is never italicized. A university study showed that italics are more difficult to read, and often people simply skip over italics when reading.

There are two little words that many authors use when in interior monologue—she/he knew. But most of the time they are unnecessary.

Example: She knew he planned to go to church this Sunday and hoped he’d talk to her there.

There’s no need to TELL us “she knew” this. By being definitive about it, the readers will automatically know that she knows this because it’s part of her interior monologue.

Corrected: He planned to go to church this Sunday, and she hoped he’d talk to her there.

Direct thoughts are exactly that. You no longer SHOW us what the character is thinking as you do with interior monologue, but rather actually TELL us what the character is thinking. It is advisable to use this technique sparingly—if at all—for these reasons:

  • Direct thoughts are always placed in italics. As mentioned above, italics are more difficult to read, and the sudden change slows the pacing of the scene. It might not be more than a nano-second, but it’s enough to become annoying to a reader.
  • Direct thoughts are always written in first person, present tense. If the rest of the book is in third person, past tense, the change is glaringly noticeable.
  • Direct thoughts are TELLING.

Using the same paragraph in the interior monologue section above, the direct thought would be rewritten like this:

  • Amy slammed the car door behind her and stormed into the house. She didn’t know whether she wanted to cry, laugh, shout or simply collapse into bed and never wake up. Why didn’t I see this coming? Ryan has never given me any reason to suspect he was having an affair. This can’t be happening. Not to me. Not now.

While this is just fine, imagine an author putting EVERY thought by EVERY character into direct thoughts. Before long, it would become a bit cumbersome to read that many tense switches and italics. This is why publishers prefer to not see much direct thought; some prefer none at all.

The third element beginning authors use for character thoughts is quotation marks. This has been a big point of confusion for many of my editing clients, but the solution is simple. Here are some guidelines for using quotation marks in fiction.

  • If the character isn’t actually SAYING something out loud, it does not go in quotation marks. Reserve quotation marks for actual dialogue.
  • If the character is remembering something their grandpa used to say, it does not go into quotation marks because grandpa isn’t actually talking at that moment in time. It is a direct thought, so it goes in italics. Example: As Karen lie on her bed, thinking about her grandfather she could almost hear his deep, baritone voice as he said, Baby girl, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. You can do whatever you put your mind and heart into.
  • Regarding prayers: only italicize a prayer that is NOT SPOKEN. If the character is described as “breathing a prayer,” this is understood that they are whispering it, so because it is being spoken, it would go into quotation marks.

Remember, if the lips aren’t moving, then it doesn’t go into quotation marks.