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Formatting Internal Dialogue: Quotation Marks or Italics?

Fiction writers often ask me how to format their characters’ thoughts, which are also sometimes called internal dialogue. Should writers use quotation marks? Italics? Something else? Or nothing?

By
Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #794
The Quick And Dirty

How to format a character's thoughts is up to you—there are no hard-and-fast rules—but in general, I recommend against using quotation marks.

The hardest part about deciding how to format this internal dialogue is that there is no definitive answer. It’s a style choice, and you will find different credible websites that make different recommendations, sometimes in very strong tones. 

One site will clearly state that you should use quotation marks, and the next will adamantly state that you should never use quotation marks. One will recommend italics, and another will recommend against italics. It’s enough to make you have some internal dialogue of your own. I will make a few points, but the best advice is to take it all with a grain of salt, and if you have an editor or agent, see what they prefer.

Italics for Internal Dialogue

When I look through the published books that I’ve read recently, I regularly see italics being used for a character’s thoughts, so it’s certainly done, and it’s certainly a common style.

Quotation Marks for Internal Dialogue

After reading a bunch of sources and their recommendations, I come down on the side that says you shouldn’t use quotation marks for a character’s thoughts. Quotation marks denote speech, and using them for internal dialogue could confuse your readers.

Internal Dialogue Without Formatting

Finally, in many cases, you don’t need any special formatting. For example, when you’re writing in third person, the narrator can tell the reader what characters are thinking. Here is an example of something like that:

Squiggly reminded himself that he had wanted to go on this nightmare of a fishing trip.

Aardvark could have told me we’d have to climb boulders, Squiggly thought, wondering whether Aardvark had withheld that information on purpose.

The same style can work in first person too:

Hurry up, I thought, shifting my bag and wishing the train would come.

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Some writers would italicize “Hurry up” in that sentence, and although it would be fine, it’s also not necessary. Many of the books on my e-reader would have that italicized, but it’s simply your choice (or your editor’s choice).

One pet peeve from the redundancy department, though, is to not write such things as “she thought to herself.” You don’t need the “to herself” part since the default state is that you’re the only one who can hear your thoughts. If you're writing about telepathy in science fiction, you may have more leeway, but most writers should never have characters thinking “to themselves.”

I’ll also note that I did check the Chicago Manual of Style to see if it had an entry on this topic since it is the style guide used by many book editors. I couldn’t find an entry, but in the website’s “Shop Talk” section, Carol Saller, an editor for Chicago and the author of the book “The Subversive Copyeditor,” noted that she “is constantly removing italics used for . . . internal dialogue.” So, as tempting as it is to use italics, and as common as it is, remember that not everybody loves them. 

The best advice is to choose your style (with input from your editor if you have one), and use that style consistently.

Additional Source

Hill, B. “Inner Dialogue—Writing Character Thoughts.” The Editor’s Blog. May 17, 2012. http://theeditorsblog.net/2012/02/28/inner-dialogue-writing-character-thoughts/ (accessed October 12, 2020).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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