OWL writers doing their thing.

Indicating thoughts in fiction manuscripts

I can always tell the fantasy writers on any critique site because they leave me little notes that I need to put the thoughts in my stories in italics. The use of italics to indicate direct thoughts has become popular and is one option available to writers. But it isn’t the only correct way to show a character’s thoughts. There are actually three options, all equally correct when writing.


Setting thought off in italics:

He’s handsome. Mary handed the waiter her card.

Or even

He’s handsome, Mary thought, handing the waiter her card.

Generally, using italics to indicate thoughts is a method that sets thoughts apart from the narrative and allows the writer to skip the thought tag. So the second option – italics with a thought tag – seems to defeat the purpose of the italics for me.

Setting thoughts off in quotes:

“He’s handsome,” Mary thought, handing the waiter her card.

This method treats thoughts as internal dialogue and uses both quotes and a thought tag. Some writers feel that it’s easy to confuse this with spoken dialogue. Which leads to the next method.

Using the thought tag with no offset:

He’s handsome, Mary thought, handing the waiter her card.

This method tends to call the least amount of attention to the thoughts and blends them in with the ongoing narrative.


So, which of the three works best? It depends on the writer. I generally use the third method – a thought tag with no offset. The reason is that I rough draft quickly and do lots of rewriting. Stopping to do italics slows down my typing and if I move work around the formatting doesn’t always follow smoothly. But I read quotes and dialogue and don’t want to risk one character responding to another’s thoughts. The third method is most natural for me.

Science fiction and fantasy is often written using the first method – italics. But that often leads to the question– if I use italics for thoughts, how do I indicate mind-reading or psychic thoughts. Sometimes it’s easiest to use the italics for psychic thoughts between characters and the thought tag for internal thoughts.

But regardless of which method you prefer, this isn’t something that you need to stress over when writing your manuscript. Publishers often have their own in-house style guide and use that to determine how thoughts are presented. Once the work is accepted, an editor will help you with any changes that the publisher requests. With my novels, I’ve had publishers who prefered to change the thoughts into italics and others who have left the formatting as I wrote it.