Character thoughts: When to italicize them

From Rick:

In my June 1, 2020 post I talked about how to deal with character thoughts, specifically inner (direct) thoughts. I also talked about indirect thoughts. In a novel I’m currently editing, I noticed some places where the author had italicized thoughts that looked like direct thoughts, but they were not written properly as direct thoughts. Yet, with the author’s choice of verb tenses, they weren’t exactly indirect thoughts either. They sort of fell in between.

That led me to thinking about how to tell the difference and how to word direct thoughts properly in your writing.

The first question is this: How do you know if it is a direct thought and should therefore be put in italics?

Look at these examples:

(1) Walking a few feet behind Michael, Josh heard the explosion. “Run!” Michael shouted and took off ahead, running toward the exit. In the next moment, the building began to shake. Was this an earthquake?, Josh wondered. Then the ceiling of the corridor in front of him collapsed, blocking his way out. Had Michael gotten out safely?

(2) Mackenzie studied the fanged human in front of her, with what looked like blood dripping from the corners of his mouth. Was he a vampire? she thought.

At first glance, these might seem okay, but they’re not quite right.

In example (1), “Was this an earthquake?” and “Had Michael gotten out safely?” are not cast properly as direct thoughts, even though the first one has a “he wondered” thought tag with it.

To understand why these are wrong, consider how they’re phrased. A direct thought is, in essence, unspoken dialogue. As I discussed in the June 1 post, I prefer not to put quotes around direct thoughts. Although quotes are considered an acceptable practice for direct thoughts, they’re not the norm in most fiction today.

So, how would you (or Josh) phrase the question to someone if asking “Was this an earthquake?” I think we’d say it one of two ways:

“Is this an earthquake?” (because it’s happening in the present)
“Was that an earthquake?” (because if we use “was” to indicate it already happened, then we’d use “that” with it in this context.)

I know these seem like fine points, but our writing should be precise and not sloppy. With that settled, now we have to ask whether this is properly a direct thought and therefore should be italicized. I’m going to say yes because it meets the criteria I gave for being acceptable if it were spoken aloud to someone else.

The second part of example (1), “Had Michael gotten out safely?”, fails the spoken dialogue test. As written, it is an INDIRECT thought (not italicized), and even if we had written it this way…

Had Michael gotten out safely? he wondered.

…it’s still an indirect thought. To make it a direct (and italicized) thought, we need to change the tense:

Did Michael get out safely?

What about example (2)? The same issue exists with “Was he a vampire?” as with “Had Michael gotten out safely?” Both are cast as INDIRECT thoughts and should not be italicized. If someone were standing next to Mackenzie and she voiced her question, she would not say “Was he a vampire?” but rather “Is he a vampire?”

A simple tense change from “was” to “is” would fix it.

Don’t think that adding a “she thought” tag will turn it into a properly written direct thought. Certainly you can add the tag if you wish (although it’s extraneous), but you still need to get the verb tense right.

Depending on the character’s voice, this could be cast in so many ways as both direct and indirect thoughts:

A vampire? Really? [DIRECT]

Vampire? What do I do now? [DIRECT]

He was a vampire? What should she do now? [INDIRECT]

A vampire! Run! every muscle in her body screamed. [CONTAINS BOTH INDIRECT AND DIRECT THOUGHTS]

With what looked like blood dripping from the corners of his mouth, he had to be a vampire. [INDIRECT]

Mackenzie studied the fanged human in front of her, with what looked like blood dripping from the corners of his mouth. Not what she expected. [INDIRECT]

Mackenzie studied the fanged human in front of her, with what looked like blood dripping from the corners of his mouth. Not what I expected. [DIRECT]

==========

It’s easy to get the thought type right when you follow the simple guideline: If it’s how you would say it to someone else, then it can be considered a direct thought and italicized.

If it’s something you would be relating as a past event, then it’ll be difficult to consider it a direct thought. It’s hard to justify a direct thought using the past perfect verb tense (had gotten), as we saw in the second part of example (1) but there are exceptions:

If only I had gone to the police sooner, then maybe my roommate would still be alive. [DIRECT]

If only he had gone to the police sooner, then maybe his roommate would still be alive. [INDIRECT]

The first sentence works as a direct thought because you could imagine the character saying it as dialogue.

It may seem nitpicky, but getting the verb tense right when using direct thoughts is important in good writing.

–Rick

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