How to Format Internal Dialogue

How to Format Inner DialogueBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome to the next installment in my series on inner dialogue. If you missed the earlier post on Inner Dialogue in Your Fiction: What It Is and How to Tell Good from Bad, make sure you take the time to read it as well. (And my apologies for such a long gap between them. I’ve been sick, and the blog here suffered right along with me.)

As you might have noticed from the comments last time, when it comes to internal dialogue, the most common question is “how do I format it?” It’s easier than you think.

The answer depends on what point of view you’re writing in.

In Omniscient POV Use Italics and a Tag

Because omniscient POV maintains some distance from each character and the author’s voice is dominant, it’s the time when you need to make sure you’ve clearly attributed the thoughts. If you don’t, you risk the reader not knowing whose thoughts they’re listening to. (Please remember that in these examples I’m not trying to illustrate how the POVs are different. I’m only trying to show you how to format your internal dialogue.)

Ronald took Melody’s hand and flashed her a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Liar, she thought. Where’s the $1000 you still owe me? “I’m maxed out this month.”

As you might have guessed, this clarity and ability to put thoughts in present tense while writing in past tense is one of the often overlooked advantages of writing in omniscient POV.

In Regular Third Person POV Use Only Italics…Or Don’t Use Anything

You have options if you’re writing third person point of view but aren’t bringing it to the intimate level of deep POV.

Ronald took Melody’s hand and flashed her a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Liar. Where’s the $1000 you still owe me? “I’m maxed out this month.”

Because we’re in third person point of view, we’ll already know that any thoughts are Melody’s so we don’t need the “she thought” of omniscient POV. The italics clue the reader in that we’re now hearing Melody’s exact thoughts.

The italics also allow you to use present tense thoughts in an otherwise past tense story if you want, without jarring the reader. If you choose to give the thoughts in present tense, just remember to be consistent throughout and, whenever possible, set them off in their own paragraph in the same way that you would dialogue.

You could also write this as…

Ronald took Melody’s hand and flashed her a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Melody yanked her hand away. Liar. Where was the $1000 he still owed her? “I’m maxed out this month.”

You don’t have to add the action beat in front of the internal dialogue to make it work without italics, but I wanted to show you that it sometimes helps to ground the reader. Also, if you don’t use italics, you should keep it in past tense (assuming the rest of the story is in past tense).

For First Person or Deep POV (Third Person) Don’t Use Italics or Tags

You don’t need italics or any other signal. You’re deep inside your character’s head, and your reader will understand that what they’re reading is what the character is thinking.

The trick with this is that, to maintain consistency and keep from jarring the reader, you must maintain a consistent tense. You can’t be switching to present tense in your internal dialogue if you’re otherwise writing in past tense.

Ronald took my hand and flashed me a smile fit for a dentist’s ad. “I’ll pay you back.”
Liar. Where was the $1000 he still owed me? “I’m maxed out this month.”

No matter what point of view you’re writing in, never, ever use quotation marks for internal dialogue. Quotation marks signal spoken dialogue.

What do I do if I’m writing a paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction story and people can speak telepathically?

This is actually the trickiest of all because now you’re juggling externally spoken dialogue, internal dialogue where the character is thinking to herself, and head speak where two characters are speaking privately in their minds.

Here’s what I recommend to keep it all straight.

  • Use quotation marks for normal dialogue spoken out loud.  
  • For inner dialogue where the character is thinking to herself, don’t use italics or tags. Keep the tense consistent, and format it the way I showed you above for deep POV (third person).
  • For head speak, use italics. The first time this happens, you’ll need to use a tag or signal to the reader somehow that they’re talking in their heads. Once you establish that italics mean “we’re talking telepathically,” the reader will assume that’s the case every time they see italics. This is why you can’t then also use italics for inner dialogue where the character is thinking to herself.

So for the sake of demonstration, let’s assume Ronald and Melody from our example are telepaths now, and they’ve met up with a third character named Edgar who owns a classic space cruiser that Ronald desperately wants to buy.

“Sorry, bro.” Edgar rolled his three eyes. “I need cash now, not someday after you’ve been flying her for months.”
Ronald took my hand. Loan me the money? he asked telepathically. I’ll pay you back.
Liar. Where was the $1000 he still owed me? I’m maxed out this month. You’ll have to ask your sister.

Not the best written example, but it gives you an idea of how it would look.

Do you have any more questions about internal dialogue? Do you prefer to see it with or without italics?

Want to learn more? Check out my book Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide!

(You might also be interested in checking out Deep Point of View, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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