Fiction Style Guide: Internal Discourse
The more you get right in your manuscript before submitting to an editor, the less work they'll have to do on mechanical issues—and the more time they can spend on making your writing shine. Plus, investing the time to learn the conventions of fiction style* can save you money.
*This is Articulate Editing house style, which is based on The Chicago Manual of Style (the style guide most often used with fiction writing), generally accepted fiction conventions, and a pinch of personal opinion. Most of what is written here will apply across the board, but if a guideline has wiggle room or exceptions, I'll let you know. And if you're working with a publisher, make sure you follow their specifications, as their house style may differ slightly. (This style guide also applies to creative nonfiction.)
The thought options
There's more than one way to style thoughts, and there are some strong opinions out there. But even though you have creative freedom in this area, if you're writing genre fiction, it's often best to stick with the prevailing conventions.
1. Quotation marks with a thought tag
You occasionally see quotation marks used for thoughts (more common in Britain than the U.S.), and Chicago bows to author preference on the matter. But think twice before styling thoughts this way. The prevailing opinion is that quotation marks should be reserved for audible speech. Using quotation marks makes thought tags a necessity (which increases narrative distance), and even with the tags there's potential for confusion. (If reading quickly, you may miss that it's supposed to be a thought rather than dialogue.)
As Henry walked along, he thought, "What a beautiful day. I can't believe it's not even spring yet." X
2. A thought tag with no quotation marks
A better option mentioned in Chicago is forgoing the quotation marks and relying on the narrative to inform the reader of the thought. But this isn't a great choice if you desire a close point of view.* And some people (including me) tend to trip over a capitalized sentence after a comma.
As Henry walked along the road, he thought, What a beautiful day. I can't believe it's not even spring yet.
But ... it may be improved by the addition of a colon.
As Henry walked along the road, he thought: What a beautiful day. I can't believe it's not even spring yet.
Henry walked along the road. What a beautiful day, he thought. I can't believe it's not even spring yet.
*If you're writing literary fiction or making the artistic choice to run dialogue into the text without using quotation marks, this style of showing thoughts may be just right for your purposes.
3. Italics with or without thought tags
Though some writers seem to have an unreasonable hatred toward italics (perhaps a carryover from being told using italics for emphasis is the sign of a weak writer), it has become a common way to style direct thoughts. The Chicago Manual of Style doesn't mention italics as an option for internal discourse, but Russell Harper addresses the omission on their CMOS Shop Talk blog.
Italics can be used with or without a thought tag, granting more flexibility to the writer and allowing a closer POV. And the distinctive type style makes it easier for the reader to distinguish thoughts from dialogue and narrative.
As Henry walked along the road, enjoying the warm sunshine, he thought, What a beautiful day. I can't believe it's not even spring yet.
And with no thought tag ...
Henry walked along the side of the road, enjoying the warm sunshine. God, what a beautiful day. I can't believe it's not even spring yet.
4. Free indirect speech
FIS is a way to weave the POV character's thoughts into a third person narrative. So there's no need for italics, quotation marks, or thought tags. The sense for the reader is that they're hearing the character's direct thoughts (rather than being told about those thoughts)—or are even inside the character's head.
Grammatically, the only difference between a direct thought and free indirect speech is that direct thoughts, like dialogue, are always in first person, present tense, while FIS matches the point of view and the tense of the narrative (usually third person, past tense).
Henry walked along the side of the road, enjoying the warm sunshine. God, what a beautiful day. He couldn't believe it wasn't even spring yet.
→ Free indirect speech works best with a limited POV. With an omniscient narrator, a character's free indirect speech will likely be misattributed to the narrator, which can be especially jarring when the voices are distinct.
We first encounter fourteen-year-old Thomas Carlisle slinking down the hall to Chemistry class. He hated that teacher—what a bitch. And as Thomas's story unfolds, the reason for that hatred will become excruciatingly clear. X
The omniscient narrator of the first (and third) sentence has the voice of a detached observer, and isn't likely to say "what a bitch." But attempting to slide into Thomas's head after an omniscient sentence is just too far for the reader to travel comfortably.
→ For contrast, this is what it might sound like without the FIS:
We first encounter fourteen-year-old Thomas Carlisle slinking down the hall to Chemistry class, muttering something about "that bitch" under his breath. Thomas hated his teacher, and as his story unfolds, the reason for that hatred will become excruciatingly clear. ✔
→ In a third person limited point of view, where the narrator's voice is either objective stage direction or merges with the POV character's voice, free indirect speech easily integrates into the narrative:
Thomas slunk down the hall to third period Chemistry. He hated that teacher—what a bitch. If everyone knew what she'd done, they'd hate her too.
The thought rules
→ Don't use single quotation marks for thoughts. It may sound like a great idea to distinguish thoughts from speech by using single quotation marks for one and doubles for the other, but there isn't one style guide that approves of this. (In British style, single quotation marks are used for dialogue, so using single quotation marks for both thoughts and dialogue would be an option there.)
Henry sang, "Tra-la-la!" and then thought, 'What a beautiful day. I can't believe it's not even spring yet.' X
→ Don't think "to yourself." There is no other way to think than to yourself, so adding this phrase is redundant.
Henry sang, "Tra-la-la!" and then thought to himself, What a beautiful day. X
→ Be consistent. Pick a style and stick with it. However, it is okay to mix direct thoughts with free indirect speech, just not in the same sentence.
“Maybe an hour,” he said. I need to stay on her good side, and he'd be free most of the day anyway. X
"Maybe an hour," he said. He needed to stay on her good side, and he'd be free most of the day anyway. ✔
"Maybe an hour," he said. I need to stay on her good side, and I'll be free most of the day anyway. ✔
"Maybe an hour, he said. I need to stay on her good side. He'd be free most of the day anyway. ✔
Many writers want to know the right way to style telepathy, but published authors have used all sorts of different techniques to set off telepathic communication between characters and there really are no established rules, despite the occasional know-it-all insisting otherwise on writing forums.
Most of the disapprobation is directed at italics (big surprise). To some, using italics when there are alternatives is a clear sign you don't belong to the writing elite. But who made up this so-called rule? Obviously not editors at big publishing houses, because books are released every day with italics used for emphasis, thoughts, and sometimes even telepathic communication (gasp!). (And, shhhh, some of those are even high-quality literature.) If you dislike italics on principle and prefer to use other options, cool, but please don't insist it isn't an acceptable option for others. And editors, if a client prefers not to use them, that's okay too. Unless a style choice is working against a writer's purpose or putting an undo burden on the reader, leave well enough alone.
Now that we've got that out of the way ... If your characters can communicate with their minds, what are your options?
1. A distinctive font
Tui Sutherland (or her book designer) chose a cute "handwritten" font for the telepathic communications of a baby Griffin in book one of The Menagerie. Fun and appropriate for a middle grade novel.
2. Angle brackets
In the popular children's series Animorphs, K. A. Applegate encloses the aliens' telepathic communication in angle brackets, but otherwise punctuates it and formats it like regular dialogue. This is a good solution if there's frequent telepathic dialogue.
Kevin Hearne uses angle brackets for incoming telepathic messages from main character Atticus's Irish wolfhound, Oberon, while Atticus's own thoughts are italicized.
3. Contextual clues
In Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card runs the telepathic communication between Ender and the Hive Queen into the narrative, using the context to make it clear to the reader what's going on. This works great when the telepathy consists more of impressions and feelings than mind-speech—or if you find other techniques too gimmicky.
Because readers are accustomed to italics used for direct thoughts, italics can be a natural fit for a voice heard inside the mind. Italics work best when the telepathic communication is occasional, since long passages of italics can be difficult on a reader's eyes.
In The Dragonriders of Pern series, Anne McCaffrey avoids overusing italics by describing parts of telepathic conversations in narrative.
Steven Brust, in the Vlad Taltos Collection, combines italics with quotation marks. And while he makes it work, I worry that this has the potential to read as shouted dialogue.
Some writers assume that you shouldn't use italics for both thoughts and telepathy in the same story. But since they're both inside the mind, it can work just fine as long as the writer is careful to use contextual clues to differentiate between the two and doesn't overuse either. In this excerpt from The Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffrey uses italics for private thoughts even though she uses it for telepathy elsewhere.
If the amount of italics becomes burdensome, thoughts can be rewritten as free indirect speech and telepathy can be conveyed in narrative, as McCaffrey did in the first excerpt.
5. Parentheses or square brackets
In Carrie, Stephen King uses the same device for both private thoughts and mental telepathy: parentheses and all lowercase words.
In Magic's Pawn by Mercedes Lacky, colons are used to set off italicized mind-speech.
Writers have also used double colons (::like this::), guillemets («like this»), and tildes (~like this~) to set off telepathic communication, with or without italicization.
7. Quotation marks
Those who are passionately against using italics for telepathy tend to recommend using quotation marks instead and indicating that it's not audible speech in the narrative or with a tag. They say that mind-speech is just dialogue, like having a phone conversation. I struggled to find published examples of telepathic dialogue rendered this way, and I suspect it's because it can be limiting to the writer and confusing for the reader. I suggest reserving quotation marks for audible speech and utterances. But I'm certainly open to the possibility that convincing examples are out there waiting for me to discover them, and I can imagine circumstances where it might be a good option (extended telepathic dialogue conversations that are set apart from other spoken dialogue, for example).
8. Get creative
When Atticus, the main character of The Iron Druid Chronicles, communicates telepathically with elementals—earth spirits who transmit images and feelings instead of words—Kevin Hearne uses double slashes, slashes, and colons to indicate the conceptual nature of the conversation.
Some people might cringe at this; others will think it's freaking cool. Remember, you're engaged in creative writing, and how you choose to indicate internal discourse is a matter of style, not grammar. Guidelines in style manuals like CMOS are helpful, but if you read Chicago's blog articles on fiction, you'll see that they're careful to defer to creative writers' style preferences (some editors might say too careful).
So if it's visually pleasing and it's readable and clear (and your publisher thinks so too), it's all good.