GFWW Member Matthew Bryant shares his thoughts and advice on italics.
A wonderful question that I’ve come across several times in the past few weeks is, “When do I italicize?” There are literally tons of resources on the Internet to suggest what MLA or the Chicago Manual of Style will tell you, but how does this apply to fiction?
Truth is, it doesn’t. Much.
The Inner Monologue:
Italics can be used within a paragraph to represent the thoughts of a character. While not exactly profound, this can be trickier than it seems, so keep these tidbits in mind:
This technique should only be used for first person narrative or limited third person. Sure omniscience knows all, sees all, and tells all, it should lack the perspective to know individual thoughts of all parties involved.
- If you’re utilizing internal monologue, it doesn’t need a qualifier statement. EX: Why do I read this garbage, she thought to herself. (Notice the internal dialog is written in the present tense.) The italics alone let us know that she’s thinking. You should only use a qualifier if you’re linking to an action. EX: I just know I’m going to win prom queen, she mused smugly to herself while stuffing the ballot box.
- The biggest question I get about this is, “If it’s first person, what’s the difference between narrative and internal dialogue?” The best way to explain it is to say that internal monologue is a direct quote going through the character’s head at the moment. You will use narrative to describe actions and emotions. Internal monologue is what your character is saying to him. EX: I nearly squeal with excitement as I lift the golden monkey statue from the podium. As I turn it over in my hand, reveling in the intricately carved detail, a dull roar sounds from the sinking stand. Oh that can’t be good. Stuffing the idol into my man-purse, I dash out of the chamber, narrowly avoiding falling debris.
Say It With Feeling:
One of the downfalls of texting is that, aside from a barrage of emoticons at your disposal, there’s no way to get tone across. If your plan is to fill your book with a crap-ton of smileys, I say GO FOR IT! (/sarcasm) Your best bet is to figure out which word needs emphasis to give it the proper meaning you’re intending to convey. For demonstration, I’ve supplied a simple expression used with different words emphasized:
- “Are you really going to wear that to the party?” Suggesting the attire is inappropriate for the function.
- “Are you really going to wear that to the party?” Suggesting the person in question may want to bring a change of clothes.
- “Are you really going to wear that to the party?” Suggesting that the material may in fact be better served to another purpose. See also: edible pants.
Another thing to consider is that this technique should be used sparingly. Like F-Bombs or words best used to describe French Silk Pie instead of people’s features. This should be used whenever you want to put a word in all caps. That should be used for shouting (Imagine spilling information in such a manner that everybody in the library can clearly hear it.) and reserved for loud/obnoxious people.
The Written Word:
Whether it’s a passage from the Bible or a Dear John letter, italics should represent anything quoted from a written text. In addition, the written text should be separate from narrative and indented a half-inch with no additional indentions on the first line. EX:
This is the song that goes on forever
But does not have any words
So however you sing it
Make sure that you mean it
And just hum or tweet like a bird
This applies even if it’s just one word. If it is referenced later on in the character’s mind, I would recommend using it as internal monologue as the protagonist in question quotes it to himself.
Things That Go Unh!
The last time you would traditionally use italics in fiction is when using onomatopoeia. And no, I didn’t spell that right the first time. When translating a sound into words, italics should represent the words. The only exception I can think of is when making a direct quote of an animal. EX: “Woof,” said Bowzer with no enthusiasm. Instead, they would be used to represent the rhythmical wub wub from the stereo, the shlop of muddy boots on the carpet, or cht cht of a mouse double-click. Hope this helps.
Matthew Bryant is the author of the science fiction thriller, Towers, a math and English teacher, and full time family man. His love of great literature is only trumped by the excitement of the next story idea.