I Think I Thought: How to Properly Show Character Thought

The problem of proper thought recently appeared (and not for the first time) in a book I was editing a week or two ago. For some, the difference between spoken dialogue, plain narrative, and internal thought is obvious, but for others it isn’t as easy.

Spoken dialogue is usually noted in text with quotation marks. I say usually, because I have read books where the author chose to use only dashes or even no markings at all besides a paragraph break. That is the author’s style choice, but it’s certainly not one I would recommend for the majority. Also, I personally find it confusing.

Plain narrative is just that: narrative. It’s narrative voice telling the story. This can happen in first, second, or third person, in past or present tense.

The confusion comes in when thought enters the picture.

If your character is thinking, you should not use quotation marks; you should use italics. Also, thought should be in the present tense, because we think in the present tense. What I find is that some writers either don’t use italics to show thought when they should, or they use italics to show thought when they shouldn’t. Here is an example of each so you can see the difference:

(1) Incorrect: I slowly poked my head around the corner. I wondered if I would see him.

(2) Correct: I slowly poked my head around the corner. I wondered if I would see him.

(3) Incorrect. I slowly poked my head around the corner. I wonder if I will see him.

(4) Correct: I slowly poked my head around the corner. I wonder if I will see him. 

Do you see the difference? Let me break it down for you:

Example #2 is correct with no italics and past tense. The second sentence is not a thought; it is simply narration, which is why #1 is incorrect. There’s no need to use italics.

Example #4 is correct with italics and present tense. The character “I” is thinking in her head I wonder if I will see him. Even though the regular narration is happening in past tense (I poked my head), the thought is in real time, present tense. That’s why #3 is incorrect, because you need to use italics; otherwise, there’s just an awkward tense shift between sentences.

So many times I either see #1 or #3. Just remember that thoughts should be in present tense and shown with italics (again, I’ll add a disclaimer and say that there are exceptions for author style, but this is how it is found in the majority of books).

Here are a few more examples:

Incorrect: Anne ran toward the corner while frantically waving her arms. The bus was getting away!

Correct: Anne ran toward the corner while frantically waving her arms. The bus is getting away!

Incorrect: Just then, Tom looked up from his desk and caught the eye of the cute, new receptionist. Instantly he became suspicious. Why was she smiling at me? (Incorrect because thought is in the past tense)

Correct: Just then, Tom looked up from his desk and caught the eye of the cute, new receptionist. Instantly he became suspicious. Why is she smiling at me? (Correct with thought in the present tense with italics)

Correct: Just then, Tom looked up from his desk and caught the eye of the cute, new receptionist. Instantly he became suspicious, wondering why she would be smiling at him of all people. (Correct because narration needs no italics)

For further reading:

Using Italics to Note Thought by Writing4Success

Dealing with a Character’s Internal Thought by Daily Writing Tips

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