There are a few universal truths we can confidently state. Everybody dies. Everybody poops.
Most importantly—at least for this article—everybody thinks.
This is true for the made-up people in your stories, too. Sure, they might not die in your story. Hopefully you don’t have a bathroom scene without a dang good reason. But all of your characters will have thoughts.
So how do you write a character’s thoughts? It’s not as easy as you might think. Heck, a lot of books don’t even explicitly state what their characters are thinking..
But, when used properly, writing a character’s thoughts can be an effective addition to your storytelling.
Don’t strain that brain too much, though. Writing thoughts and internal monologue can be tricky, but we’re going to cover all the bases in this article—including how to write thoughts and when and why you should.
“What grammar should I use?" you think to yourself.
More than when or why, most authors are stuck on how they should write thoughts. That’s because there isn’t one true way to write inner dialogue. Rather, there are a few methods that us authors stick to and readers don’t complain (too loudly) about.
One of the easiest and most effective ways to write thoughts is to treat them like dialogue. Thoughts are just us talking to ourselves, right?
To that end, stick to normal dialogue rules, including the use of dialogue tags. Simply switch out said with thought.
Wow, that was easy, the reader thought.
It’s as simple as that. But that won’t look right to some people. If you’re a writer who likes using synonyms for said (screamed, muttered, chanted, etc.) or with modifiers like adverbs (glumly, cheerfully, etc.) like I am, add those in, too. And don’t let anyone tell you that’s wrong, because everyone uses those in dialogue tags.
Even with dialogue tags, that example might still be strange. It just looks like every other bit of writing, basically unnoticeable until you get to the tag. There are two other things we can do to our thoughts to make them a little more thought-y: add quotation marks or italicize them.
Quotation Marks vs. Italics When Writing Thoughts
The tough thing about our example above is that it makes it difficult to distinguish the thought from the rest of your prose. Sure, it’s on a new line, but so are a lot of other passages in your book.
Could you imagine writing dialogue without using quotation marks? It would be confusing as the writer, but imagine how much your readers would struggle trying to decipher it.
So, while the above example can work, we can include quotation marks or italics to differentiate our characters’ thoughts.
Quotation marks work just like they would in dialogue, with a combination of the thought within the quotation marks and a dialogue (or, in this case, thought) tag before or after.
“Wow, that was easy,” the reader thought.
The reader thought, “That was easy.”
Both of these are perfectly okay. To let my bias show a little, though, let me explain why I don’t use quotation marks when writing a character’s thoughts.
Italics do a great job at highlighting text that isn’t part of the prose (in addition to adding emphasis to a word or phrase that is part of the prose). This can work for love letters or song lyrics within your story, but it can help differentiate thoughts, too.
Wow, that was easy, the reader thought.
The reader thought, Wow, that was easy.
Notice how only the thought is italicized, not the tag.
This is my preferred method because it allows you to not only distinguish thoughts from prose, but thoughts from dialogue, too. It makes it easier for your reader to immediately know they are reading a thought, not something said aloud. With quotation marks, we must rely on the dialogue tag to give us this information.
In some cases, it allows us to remove the dialogue tag altogether, making for a punchier statement or controlling the pace the exact way you want to. Consider this example:
Doug, that most handsome, funniest, bravest warrior in all the land, studied the tracks in the mud. He could have recognized those clawed footprints anywhere. Still, his mind refused to believe what was right in front of him.
This far south? The thought loomed in his mind. It’s impossible.
Then the smell hit him.
That’s not to say that one method is inherently better than another. While using italics is my personal preference, it will get obnoxious if your book contains a lot of internal dialogue or thoughts.
For the vast majority of writers, however, I’d advise you choose quotation marks or italics to signal a character’s internal dialogue. Writing without them can confuse your reader, especially if you’re still developing your style.
Still, whether you use italics, quotation marks, or neither, do what works best for your writing style. Just do it in an informed way.
Get Right in There With Deep POV
Sometimes you don’t want thoughts to be so explicit, right? Maybe you want to use some subtlety with your craft and weave your character’s thoughts into your prose.
This is entirely possible through something we call deep POV.
Deep POV isn’t something that’s metaphorical or mystical. It hasn’t spent a year abroad gaining “life experience.” That’s not the kind of deep we’re talking about.
Rather, deep POV refers to a style of narration that’s interwoven with a character’s mind. If you’re writing in first-person or third-person limited perspectives, you can use a deep point of view.
In these styles, you’re experiencing the story through the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and actions of a specific character. Unlike third-person omniscient, which gets into the minds of every character, deep POV uses a single narrator (at least for that scene) to add more… well, depth to the story. That’s where the term comes from.
With deep POV, it can be tough to determine when the narration stops and the thoughts begin–because that doesn’t happen. The narrator’s thoughts are part of the prose. Here’s an example from Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents (because that’s what I’m currently reading and it was next to me when I was writing this):
Just as the trees loomed over the house, the house seemed to loom over Nate. He had a vertiginous moment where it felt like the red front door would whip open, and the house would lean forward and the doorway would become a mouth. Gobbling him up and swallowing him down. This was a house of foul breath and bad dreams.
That “vertiginous moment” is deep POV. We get a glimpse into Nate’s thoughts without breaking the pacing or flow of the prose.
Deep POV excels at keeping the story going while giving us a look into the thoughts of our character. Just remember that you can only use the thoughts of the narrator/perspective character in third-person limited or first-person narration. Head hopping is best saved for third-person omniscient.
Keep in mind that this isn’t a one-or-the-other situation; you can use deep POV and italics or quotation marks in your writing. Just be consistent in how you use them, as deep POV doesn’t explicitly state “they thought,” while italics or quotes can.
Details and Description
If you want to convey the emotions or thoughts of characters other than the narrator, you can use details and descriptions of things like body language, tone, actions, etc. to do so.
Think about fidgeting thumbs, biting sarcasm, or a glint of adventure in someone’s eyes. These details can hint at boredom or anxiety, disrespect, and excitement, respectively. A study found that upwards of 93% of communication is non-verbal.
In writing, we don’t have the luxury of images or video to let our characters communicate. So use your details and description to imply what your characters are thinking.
Something to keep in mind, though: these details aren’t a free pass for you to dump a page of exposition about the inner workings of a secondary character’s mind. In fact, non-verbal cues can easily be misinterpreted–by both real-life people and your narrator. So how does your narrator (mis)interpret the details and description they’re noticing in other characters?
"But when should I use internal dialogue?" you ponder quietly.
It can be difficult to know when to use internal dialogue in your story… but it can be a lot more difficult to understand when not to use it.
I’m going to rapid-fire through some reasons that justify writing a character’s thoughts in your story before getting to the one big reason that trumps all the others.
Character development is an important reason to include your character’s thoughts. By giving your reader a peek into the mind of your narrator, you can advance arcs, reinforce archetypes, and let us know how they feel about the situation they’re in. This can also be used to add details about your character’s past they don’t necessarily want to vocalize. Adding depth to your characters is rarely a bad thing.
Revealing motivation and conflict is essential in writing. If your readers don’t know why your made-up folks are doing what they’re doing or what’s eating away at them via internal conflict, you’ll quickly end up with readers who simply don’t care. And then you’ll find you have very few readers indeed. Realistic characters don’t often wear their hearts on their sleeves, though, so motivation and struggles posed by conflict will often be debated in a character’s head.
Switching up tension is easy with internal dialogue. You can show your reader how stressed your character is or, on the other hand, how calm they are in a seemingly stressful situation. In situations like this, remember to use other details like body language or actions to reinforce your thoughts, otherwise you run the risk of boring exposition and telling rather than showing.
Showing emotion is an effective way to use thoughts in your writing. While a character’s actions might give off a particular look, they could be feeling something entirely different. By giving your reader a look behind the curtain, you let them get closer to your characters. I like to get my readers quite attached before devastating them, but you could also let them get close to your characters to share in victories and successes… I guess.
The #1 Reason to Write a Character’s Thoughts: The Plot
Here’s the thing: no one likes an author who writes a lot of words just for the sake of writing a lot of words. The same can be applied to writing internal dialogue or thoughts.
Don’t include a character’s thoughts unless there is a reason. All the reasons we covered above contribute to the plot, either directly or through character development. If you write a thought and it doesn’t help the story in some way, why is it there?
We don’t need random lines thrown in because a character might be thinking it at the time. Just take a moment to recall all the thoughts you’ve had since you woke up. How many of them are actually relevant to your story? How many were simply passing notions or trivial things?
Write your thoughts with purpose.
“How can I write an awesome character with equally awesome thoughts?” you wonder.
Writing internal dialogue (or choosing to omit it) is just one part of creating a great story with memorable characters. While including thoughts can be a powerful tool in your writing toolkit, this skill can’t exist in isolation.
Don’t worry, dear writer, because Dabble’s got your back. Over at DabbleU, we’re adding informative articles all the time to help you with your writing craft–articles that are hopefully fun for you to read, too! If you want to make characters that rock, just click here to see all the different articles we have on writing characters.
Then, when you’re ready, bring those characters to life with Dabble. Our novel-writing platform has all the tools you need to create your perfect plot, complex characters, and a story you’re proud of. All without the clutter or learning curve, letting you focus on what matters most: writing.
And we don’t even ask for your credit card to get started on a two-week trial. So enough thinking about writing thoughts. Get writing with Dabble today by clicking here.
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