Basics of writing

Thoughts on inner thoughts

From Rick:

Before I begin this post, I want to say that I have significantly added to and updated the “Common Compound Words” file I mentioned in my 5/11/2020 post. If you already downloaded it, you’ll want to do so again. I will be updating that file periodically. I’ve also added a revision date near the top of the file so you can verify if you have the latest version.

I have put access to that file under the RESOURCES tab at the top of the blog.


Every now and then I’ll read an online post that catches my attention raises my hackles either because it’s bad writing advice, because it misinforms or deviates from good writing practices, or because it’s incomplete.

When it comes to dialogue, for example, there are established standard practices given in most grammar and style books, and there are a few alternative practices used by some writers, such as not using quotation marks to set off dialogue or using a dash (called a “quotation” dash) in front of the dialogue line to set it off. While these are considered acceptable writing practices, many readers find them confusing or off-putting.

But there are a number of practices that aren’t found in the grammar and style books that various writers have adopted as standards. This is why Punctuation for Fiction Writers spends a separate, extensive chapter on punctuating dialogue.

You’re always going to find contradictory information out there, but you can often resolve this by (1) checking to see how current the article is (because styles do change), and (2) where the author of the article is coming from. If you’re writing in a different genre from that of the article’s author, you might want to do some more research to see if the advice pervades across genres and whether other articles support the advice.

However, in this post I want to talk about “inner dialogue” or what are also called “inner thoughts.”

Here’s the article that caught my attention because it’s missing some information. You should read the comments because some are good advice and some miss the point and some demonstrate some of the wrong thinking that’s out there.


You should also read the two articles linked in that article: “There Are No Rules” and “The Editor’s Blog.”

Overall, this is a good article, and it presents both sides of the argument on the handling of thoughts, but I did find it wanting in a couple of aspects. Had the author done a bit more investigation, she would have perhaps pointed out that there are TWO types of character thoughts. The article and the comments hint at these but never mention them by name: DIRECT THOUGHTS and INDIRECT THOUGHTS.

Let’s define these to make the distinction clear:

DIRECT THOUGHTS: (also called “internal dialogue,” “interior monologue,” “interior discourse,” or “unspoken discourse”) These represent the character expressing his or her thoughts as if they were being spoken. Direct thoughts are almost always written in present tense (with exceptions only when required otherwise by the narrative). How to show these thoughts is what leads to some disagreement among writers. There are four ways I’ve seen used to present these thoughts:

—Put them in italics, with or without a tag, such as “he/she thought”

—Put them in quotes with a “thought” tag

—Put in quotes AND italicize (with or without a “thought” tag)

—Use neither quotes nor italics and use only a “thought” tag

While these are all acceptable, for the most part, the STANDARD PRACTICE for direct thoughts is to italicize them (despite what some of the commenters in that article said). Despite what the CMOS says, it’s generally agreed that you should not put quotes around direct thoughts because of the chance for confusion with spoken dialogue. And one of the best rules of writing is that you should try not to confuse the reader because confusion causes the reader to stop and retrace the narrative to figure out the problem. And if that happens too often—as I have said MANY times before—you risk losing that reader as a future customer.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is pretty much considered the bible for fiction writers says the following in section 13.43 of the 17th edition (the latest edition as of this post), “Thought, imagined dialogue, and other internal discourse (also called interior discourse) may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference.”

It’s rare that the CMOS takes such a broad position. This is one of those instances where it does, and I understand the reasoning because I can envision cases where one recommendation would not suffice, but I was surprised that they didn’t offer a preference for the common usage of italics with no quotes (unless I live too sheltered a life to see the true picture of what’s out there.)

My view is that putting quotes around italicized internal thoughts is redundant and potentially confusing to the reader, primarily because quote marks generally are reserved for spoken dialogue.

If you choose to put quotes around direct thoughts, then you should definitely use “thought” tags to differentiate thoughts from spoken dialogue. But I think this leads to messier writing overall. Reserve quotation marks for spoken words. And by using only italics for direct thoughts, then the “thought” tags become mostly redundant. I will admit that on occasion a tag may still be needed for clarity, but with careful writing those instances should be rare.

About the only time I use both italics and quote marks around thoughts is when those thoughts are being broadcast as a telepathic character might do.

Look at this example of direct thoughts:

Since they were in the same class, Jack had talked to Michelle on several occasions. He liked her, and she certainly hadn’t seemed bored by his presence. It was time to make a move. I think I’ll ask her out for a date, he thought.

It’s clear that this is Jack’s thought and that the “thought” tag isn’t needed. In fact, this insults the reader’s intelligence by implying that the reader wouldn’t get that this is a thought otherwise. I personally feel that the “he thought” here is sloppy writing because it isn’t needed.

Also note the punctuation in the example. We treat the italicized thoughts the same as if they were dialogue and do not italicize the “thought” tags themselves.

One note: Try to avoid a tag like “he/she thought to himself/herself” because who else would one think to than oneself? The only time “self” might be acceptable in this sense is where one character is talking to another character:

“I was going to give the street beggar a couple dollars,” Jack told Mike, “but he reeked of alcohol and I thought to myself he’ll only use it to buy booze or drugs.”

As a further argument against not using quotes around direct thoughts, look at these examples quoted directly from the CMOS section 13.43.


[CMOS] “I don’t care if we have offended Morgenstern,” thought Vera. “Besides,” she told herself, “they’re all fools.”

[ONE SUGGESTED REVISION] I don’t care if we have offended Morgenstern. Besides, she told herself, they’re all fools.

[I’m assuming that the reader would already know that this is Vera’s POV (if the writer is doing the right job). In that case, the thought tag is completely unnecessary. The “she told herself” could be taken out as well, but it serves to add a break in the thought, just as an action or speech tag would provide in dialogue. Leaving it in is fine. And in case you’re wondering, it is more common in modern writing to put the speaker’s name (or the pronoun) before the verb in tags: “Vera thought” rather than “thought Vera.” Some UK writers prefer the latter, and it’s fine as long as it’s consistent or fits the tone of the writing.

[CMOS] Why, we wondered, did we choose this route?

[In this case, I’m not sure italics would work because it’s a collective thought, not the direct thought of one person. However, to me it reads as if it were an indirect thought because it’s in past tense (which I cover below).

[CMOS] She thought, If there’s an app for that, I’ll need to program it myself.

[MY SUGGESTION] If there’s an app for that, I’ll need to program it myself.

[In the CMOS example, they chose not to use quote marks to illustrate how to render the line without them. But it not only looks weird to see that “thought” tag in there with the capitalized thought following it, MS Word flags it as a possible grammar error because the quote marks are missing (even if you italicize it). These are two good reasons to avoid this construction and not to use “thought” tags unless absolutely necessary to avoid confusion. Nevertheless, according to the CMOS, this is how you should write it if not using quotes or italics. Again assuming we know the POV character, there would be no need at all for a thought tag.]


INDIRECT THOUGHTS: (also called “indirect discourse”) These are basically paraphrased dialogue, if you consider direct thoughts to be unspoken dialogue. Indirect thoughts are cast in the same tense as the narrative (which is usually past tense), not in present tense as direct thoughts usually are.

Let’s recast a previous example with an indirect thought:

Since they were in the same class, Jack had talked to Michelle on several occasions. He liked her, and she certainly hadn’t seemed bored by his presence. It was time to make a move. He decided to ask her out. (or: He would ask her out.)

[If the narrative had been in present tense, here’s how this indirect thought would read:]

Since they’re in the same class, Jack has talked to Michelle on several occasions. He likes her, and she certainly hasn’t seemed bored by his presence. It’s time to make a move. He decides he’ll ask her out. (or: He’ll ask her out.)


Are there good reasons to use indirect thoughts over direct thoughts? Aside from the fact that italic type is a little harder to read, direct thoughts are more distracting from the narrative, particularly if overused, as I’ve seen some writers do. Those writers seem to believe that anytime the character is “thinking” it’s important to put those thoughts into direct thoughts.

Rather than argue this point further, I’m giving a link below to an excellent article by Louise Harnby. She does a great job in her post of giving reasons why indirect thoughts often lead to better writing. Don’t be misled by the article’s title. Her arguments apply to all genres. She gives some great examples as well.


The next time you’re tempted to use direct thoughts, try replacing them with indirect thoughts as a test. I think you’ll find the writing is generally smoother.

On an ending note, I generally restrict thoughts to indirect ones and only use direct thoughts for brief phrases (usually swears) where the character is admonishing himself or herself in the same way that we might think Oh, shit (or something stronger) rather than saying it aloud when in the presence of someone who might not appreciate the expletive.

Or I’ll use direct thoughts in situations where the characters are silently talking to themselves. Think of it this way, we do “think to ourselves” all the time, but when it comes to writing, it can come off as awkward to have the characters thinking to themselves too much.

However, if your character has some sort of mental issue or is arguing with himself (or herself), then those internal direct thoughts might be appropriate and used to good effect because they would show the mental state of that character.

The best way to decide on how to show character thoughts (as direct vs. indirect) is for you to step away from the writing and look at it with objective eyes. Ask yourself if it sounds right or if it sounds forced with direct thought, or whether you’re using them too much


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