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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

The Editing Agenda: Expressing Thoughts

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

A huge challenge every fiction writer faces is finding a way to express characters’ thoughts. Many writers use italics or quotation marks; in fact, a lot of authors do. But too many italics are overwhelming, and quotation marks can be confused for those of dialogue. So which is the best method? In my opinion, neither is. So how do you effectively convey a thought without relying on italics or quotation marks?

Option 1: Tags

When using tags to indicate thoughts, structure the sentence just as you would for dialogue, but omit the quotation marks and include an appropriate thought tag.

Dialogue: “We sat in silence for the better part of an hour,” she said, “but it was the most intimate conversation we ever shared.”

Thought: We sat in silence for the better part of an hour, she thought, but it was the most intimate conversation we ever shared.

One issue that arises by using this method, however, is that in order to correctly punctuate an interrogative thought, you’re sometimes left with a lowercase word that follows a question mark. Readers are very much used to seeing this with dialogue, so they don’t think anything of it in those cases. But when it comes to thoughts, the punctuation is awkward, even when it’s correct. In fact, Word flags it regardless.

Dialogue: “What was she thinking?” a tall boy in the back said.

Thought: What was she thinking? a tall boy in the back wondered.

Since option one has a few flaws, let’s try a different approach.

Option 2: New Paragraphs

By using a new paragraph, you can bypass the need to use tags altogether, avoiding the awkward punctuation that sometimes comes along with it. Each time a character has a thought, move that thought to a new paragraph, just as you would with dialogue when a new person is speaking. If your main narrative is in third person, switch to first person for the thought.

The leaves crunched beneath her sneakers as she ran along the narrow path. The sun would be setting soon, but Jennifer was getting close.

Almost there. I just need to make it past the highway.

She picked up the pace and continued pounding the pavement, sweat saturating her thin t-shirt.

The potential problem with using new paragraphs to indicate thoughts is that some readers find the constant jump between POVs distracting, and you can also wind up in a situation where there are multiple characters in a scene but only one has a thought. (This is especially true for third person limited and third person omniscient narration.) Then you’re left with finding a way to clearly express which character the thought belongs to, and that’s tricky:

Melinda swept the sidewalk while her husband, Tim, continued to mow the lawn. Both were being pelleted with the sun’s unrelenting rays.

I can’t take another day of this.

Without more context, it’s a bit unclear whether the bolded part is Melinda’s thought or Tim’s. And even though the reader could probably figure it out, especially with the surrounding lines, you’re better off not chancing a misinterpretation. For thoughts and dialogue alike, ownership of the idea expressed should always be clear.

So let’s look at a third option.

Option 3: Narrative Integration

Smooth narrative integration is by far the best option and the most effective in terms of clarity, aesthetics, and writing style. When you integrate a thought into the narrative itself and you do so smoothly, the reader will automatically pick up on the fact that it’s a thought without ever skipping a beat. The best way to do this is to keep the thought as part of the same paragraph and in the same point of view.

A terrific example of this is from a short passage in chapter twenty-nine of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

Harry looked at her. Perhaps it was the effect of the chocolate—Lupin had always advised eating some after encounters with dementors—or simply because he had finally spoken aloud the wish that had been burning inside him for a week, but he felt a bit more hopeful....

Narrative integration works particularly well with first person narration. Take this example from chapter one of The Hunger Games:

My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named.

However, sometimes narrative integration doesn’t always fit so well with the style of writing you’re going for, and that’s okay. Using any combination of the above methods will still give you options for expressing dialogue WITHOUT resorting to italics and quotation marks.

After you pound out the first draft of your manuscript, go back and take a look at the thoughts you used throughout. How did you format them? Does it work for the narrative style, or is there a better way of doing it? Try playing around with the options above, and you might find that there’s a more effective way of incorporating them. Keep in mind, though, there are several ways to express thoughts in writing. What works for one story won’t work for all stories, and what works for one author might not work for another. Find your style and voice, and go with what is the best fit for you.