How to Punctuate Thoughts in Fiction

It’s a question that arises regularly among new fiction writers – what is the best way to represent a character’s thoughts in print?

In reply, the first point I would make is that this is a stylistic matter, not one of grammar. There is no single “correct” way to punctuate or otherwise represent a character’s thoughts. Some authors put them in quotation marks, others use italics. I’ve even seen thoughts put in parentheses or ALL CAPS, although I certainly don’t recommend that!

In fact, though, the most common approach nowadays is to avoid using any special punctuation or formatting to represent thoughts, and that is the style I would strongly recommend.

A crucial point here is that most stories today are written in scenes portrayed through the eyes of a single viewpoint character, whether first person (I) or third person (he/she). In such cases there is no need for any extra punctuation to signify a character’s thoughts. The whole scene is, in effect, the thoughts and perceptions of the ‘viewpoint’ character. The example below – written in a third-person limited viewpoint – may illustrate why extra punctuation for thoughts is usually unnecessary.

“What time is it?” Sarah asked.
That’s the third time you’ve asked me in the last twenty minutes, James thought. Still, he checked his watch. “Five to eight,” he said.
“Why aren’t they here?” Sarah asked. She stared at him. “Do you think they’ve been in an accident?”
“I doubt it,” James replied. “Probably they just got held up in the traffic.” Unless Phil’s car has broken down again, he thought to himself.

If you tried putting quotation marks around the thoughts in this passage, you would end up with almost everything in quotes, and total confusion over whether the character was speaking or thinking. 

In general, the problem with using quotation marks around a character’s thoughts is (a) it makes the text look cluttered, and (b) it invites confusion with speech.

So what about the alternative of using italics for thoughts? Yes, you can do this, but as mentioned above, when a scene is written from a limited viewpoint anyway (as is usually the case in modern fiction), there is no need to represent thoughts any differently from the rest of the text. And if it’s unnecessary, why do it?

Using italics to represent thoughts also has a number of drawbacks:

  • You are likely to waste a lot of time agonizing over whether a particular line is a thought or a description.
  • You will end up with much of your text in italics, which looks ugly and distracting.
  • And finally, you will lose the option of using italics when, for some dramatic reason, extra emphasis is required.

If you want further evidence for my case, browse through any popular novel published today. You will be hard pressed to find ANY examples of quotation marks or italics used specifically to represent thoughts. In the vast majority of cases, thoughts are presented in plain text without any other punctuation or adornment.

So my advice is clear. NEVER use quotation marks for thoughts. If it’s absolutely necessary to indicate thoughts in a special way, use italics (but mostly this shouldn’t be required). And keep italics for their proper purpose, which is providing extra emphasis.

Don’t forget – there’s much more advice on grammar, punctuation and spelling in my downloadable course Essential English for Authors.

Note: This is a revised and updated version of an article originally published on my old blog at Mywritingblog.com.

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