At some point in your story, you’re probably going to want to let the reader know what your protagonist is thinking. Sharing your hero’s thoughts helps us get to know him better and brings us closer to him. But when you come to that moment you hesitate.
How are you supposed to convey your character’s thoughts on the page? Do you use italics? Quotation marks? End them with the speech tag ‘he thought’?
No, no, and no.
Quotation marks should be used only for words being spoken aloud. The most common method I’ve seen for setting apart thoughts is the use of italics. “He/she thought” at the end of a thought is also pretty common. These methods are alright.
But there’s a better way.
Using Writer Magic to Convey Thoughts
A truly skilled writer can convey his or her character’s thoughts in a way that draws us right into the character’s head without distracting italics or speech tags. “What is this witchcraft?” you ask. Well, let’s take a look.
Kali hurried though the village. She wondered if he was already waiting for her. She lifted her skirts and leapt over a puddle. She knew she should have left earlier, but her mother had kept on talking about the chickens. Sweat trickled down her neck and she wiped it away. She ran a hand through her disheveled hair and wished she had taken the time to fix it before running out the door.
Kali ran past the village outskirts and into the forest. They really needed to find a better meeting place, she thought. When she reached the oak tree and saw Liam standing there her heart fluttered. He’s the only secret I’ve ever had.
Kali hurried through the village. Was he already waiting for her? She lifted her skirts and leapt over a puddle. She should have left earlier, but her mother had kept on and on about the chickens. Chickens this, and eggs that. Be sure to this, don’t do it like that. Kali had been fidgety with impatience and couldn’t much remember the details. Hopefully they weren’t too important.
Sweat trickled down her neck and she wiped it away. She ran a hand through her disheveled hair. Saints! Why hadn’t she taken a moment to fix it? Perhaps he wouldn’t notice. Boys usually didn’t notice things like that…did they? Kali ran past the village outskirts and into the forest. They really needed to find a better meeting place, maybe over by–
She reached the oak and saw Liam standing there. Her heart fluttered. He was her only secret. And she planned on keeping him.
Over exaggerated, yes, but you get the point. Notice the difference between the two examples. The second one is more engaging, and brings you into Kali’s head more than the first one with all the she wondered, thought, etc. But how? It has more of Kali’s voice–it’s almost as though she is the narrator, yet we stay in third person point of view.
In the second example I took out all of the she wondered, thought, knew, and italics. Why? Because these are all interruptions by the author. They reveal that there’s a puppet master pulling the strings. In the second example I shut up and let Kali speak. I stayed invisible. And that brings the reader closer to the character, allowing them to slip right into her mind.
The Problem with Speech Tags and Italics
Speech tags and italics form a barrier between the character and the reader. Don’t try to separate your character’s thoughts from the narrative. Instead, blend them together seamlessly by filtering everything through your character’s voice. How does she see the world? Allow her thoughts and opinions to shape the narrative.
I think a lot of writers use speech tags and italics because they’re afraid their readers won’t know what is a thought otherwise. Don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence! Don’t try so hard to make them “get it.” Readers are smart and can figure things out.
Now, some of you might still be clinging to the italics. “Why can’t I use italics? If the character is speaking in first person doesn’t that draw the reader into their head?” you ask.
Well, there’s certainly no rule that says you can’t use italics. But here are my reasons not to. #1: It can be jarring and somewhat disorienting switching back and forth between third and first person. #2: It still separates the reader from the character, letting us only see her thoughts when you want us to. #3: It prevents you from getting into the habit of using a blended narrative, because you will always want to show thoughts in italics. The story will then likely be told in more of your voice than the character’s.
Distance or Proximity?
Now, these aren’t necessarily bad things. It depends on the story you’re writing. You may want to write a story with an omniscient third person point of view that puts more distance between the reader and hero. It’s up to you!
I have used italics in the past, but I decided that the technique of blending the character’s thoughts into the narrative works better for the stories I tell. I want to bring my readers as close to my hero as possible. I want to tear down all the barriers.
How do you convey your character’s thoughts? Do you think you will try to cut out italics and speech tags?