The First Sign of Insanity? Nah. Just Inner Discourse.

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking all the time. Stream of consciousness and all that. Your characters have thoughts too—separate from the narrative. And when a character has a thought important enough to write about, important enough to draw attention to, let’s do that.

In moderation.

There are lots of ways to indicate inner monologue. You can:

1. Enclose them in quotes, just like spoken dialogue.
2. Leave the quotes off but add a tag.
3. Change them from present tense to past tense (assuming you’re writing in past tense).
4. Set them in italics (not forgetting that in moderation dictum).

The Chicago Manual of Style tells us (13.41), “Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference.” (That is, Chicago advocates using solution 1 or 2.) Let’s use their two examples (imperfect as they are) to illustrate our choices, since I’m not feeling creative tonight. Here they are (you can find this on page 634 of the Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition):

  • “I don’t care if we have offended the Morgensterns,” thought Vera. “Besides,” she told herself, “they’re all fools.”
  • Why, I wondered, did I choose this route?

1. Enclose them in quotes, just like spoken dialogue.

I’m not crazy about the quotes. We’ll already have dialogue in our novel, which uses quotation marks. This just confuses the issue. Are they talking or thinking? Too many quotes; I prefer something cleaner.

  • [Joe had already turned away, but Vera watched their dinner guests hurry down the sidewalk as if they couldn’t get away fast enough.] “I don’t care if we have offended the Morgensterns,” she thought. “They’re all fools.” [She shook her head as she closed the front door.]
  • “Why,” I wondered, “do I always choose this route?”

2. Leave the quotes off but add a tag.

Well, the tags already existed in the original examples. But do have a look at them without the quotes. Cleaner; it works a lot better for me, but some readers might be confused as we slip back and forth between present tense and past. Don’t let me see a tag like she thought to herself; it’s redundant. Stop at she thought.

  • I don’t care if we have offended the Morgensterns, Vera thought. Besides, she told herself, they’re all fools.
  • Why, I wondered, do I choose this route every day?

3. Change them from present tense to past tense (if you’re writing in past tense).

Remember, like dialogue, inner monologue would generally be in present tense, as in the two examples above. Now let’s change them to past.

  • Vera didn’t care if she and Joe had offended the Morgensterns. They were all fools, she told herself.
  • Why, I wondered, did I choose this route?

4. Set them in italics (using moderation).

Frankly, I like this as a solution, though we need further ground rules (see below).

  • I don’t care if we have offended the Morgensterns, Vera thought. Besides, she told herself, they’re all fools.
  • Why, I wondered, do I always choose this route?

Although the first example here is a bit much, generally I like the use of italics to show a character’s thoughts or inner monologue. Not everyone does, though—and that’s fine. (I generally go along with the author’s preferences.) You see the no-italics rule everywhere, as in this fine article from Anne R. Allen. However, there are exceptions, as Allen notes in the comments:

There are times when [italics] do provide clarity. My editor put some in my novel Food of Love, and they did improve it. I gave a reading from the book on Saturday, saw those italics, and realized I should have qualified that statement. I’m talking about the convention of putting all the protag’s thoughts in italics when you’re writing in a third person limited POV, which is annoying and unnecessary.

I agree. Sometimes italics do add clarity. Sometimes they simply make it a more interesting read.

Of course, not all stories are told in third. The problem we run into when a story is told in first person, is virtually everything could be termed inner monologue. So after some years of trying to work out the right mix on this—you don’t want too much in italics, because it diminishes your ability to use them for emphasis, titles, and so on; the text just becomes too full of italics—I’ve devised a little system. First, generally narrative is in past tense, while dialogue is always in present, and so should inner discourse be; thus if the statement makes sense in present tense, I italicize it.

  • I looked at my watch and sighed. Why, oh why, do I always choose this route? I’d never be there on time now.

(We could just as easily recast the sentence—making the inner discourse past tense—to get rid of the italics, of course.) Second, if the statement addresses another character by name or by pronoun, I italicize it.

  • Barry insisted we had plenty of time, but I knew it wasn’t true. Don’t you sweet-talk me, buddy. We’d never be there on time now.

This also goes if the character addresses herself/himself.

  • I looked at my watch and sighed. Main Street was always jammed at four o’clock. Molly, what were you thinking? I’d never be there on time now.

The rest I let go as simply narrative commentary.

Again, italics for thoughts should be used sparingly, but they can be effective. If you don’t like ’em, don’t use ’em, but keep an eye on clarity.

Tweet: Talking to yourself again? Four ways to handle inner monologue.
Tweet: When a character has a thought important enough to write about, here’s how.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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2 Comments

  1. Marianne Sheldon says:

    Thanks for this. This is precisely what I’m struggling with in revision right now. My novel is in first person which does make it setting off her thoughts from her narration difficult.

  2. […] dialogue. (In most cases I would call it inner monologue, but that’s neither here nor there; I’ve written about it […]

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    […] dialogue. (In most cases I would call it inner monologue, but that’s neither here nor there; I’ve written about it […]

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