Thursday, May 18, 2017

Editor's Notes #32: Inner Dialogue & How to Punctuate Thoughts

Punctuating dialogue has so many rules, depending on whether there are dialogue tags, split sentences, spoken words, or internal thoughts. Most of the rules are hard and fast, but there can be a little bit of flexibility when necessary.

As with any guidelines that allow for exceptions, the key is to be consistent. There's nothing more confusing than a lack of consistency, and nothing that will turn your readers off more quickly by pulling them out of a story.

My partner in crime, S.K. Anthony, covered all the how-tos of punctuating spoken dialogue in her article "How to Correctly Punctuate Dialogue for Novels" (aptly named, eh?), so if you'd like to know how to . . . um . . . correctly punctuate dialogue for novels . . . then pop over to Writers After Dark and read all about it. As for me, I'm going to tell you what to do if the dialogue is all in your character's head.

So here are the basics, and the POV you're writing from can help you decide which is best for you with relative ease:

Most people will write a character's thoughts in italics, either with or without a dialogue tag. It makes sense because the italics set off a visual cue in the reader's mind that we're hearing thoughts, not spoken words. The sample using omniscient POV uses a dialogue tag, since the reader needs to know who's doing the thinking, and the omniscient point of view gives you a little bit of everyone while keeping the author as the dominant voice.
I don't understand, Lynda thought as she looked around the kitchen in a panic. Why would Kat have eaten all my brownies without telling me? And to think I was going to surprise her with them for breakfast! 
Kat walked in, empty coffee cup in hand. "Heyyy, 'sup? Any of those brownies left for breakfast?"
You don't need the dialogue tag for regular third-person POV, since it will be clear who's speaking and whose thoughts are happening.
"G'morning." Kat yawned, holding out an empty coffee cup and glancing around the kitchen. "Any brownies left? I couldn't stop thinking about them last night."
Like you don't know. Unless you're a sleepwalker . . . and a sleep-eater. "Well, I was going to ask you the same thing." 

You could also do this exact exchange with no italics, and it would still be clear because of the POV. All it needs are a few tweaks in the verb tense.
"G'morning." Kat yawned, holding out an empty coffee cup and glancing around the kitchen. "Any brownies left? I couldn't stop thinking about them last night."
Lynda looked as baffled as she felt. Like Kat didn't know. Unless she was a sleepwalker . . . and a sleep-eater. "Well, I was going to ask you the same thing." 
There's an additional complication, though, in certain instances when characters communicate telepathically. In Alex Cavanaugh's CassaSeries (CassaDawn, CassaStar, CassaFire, CassaStorm) the Cassans have the ability to communicate this way. Cavanaugh does a nice job of differentiating the types of thoughts. If a character is simply in his own head, then there are no italics or dialogue tags. If two characters are sharing thoughts with each other, italics come into play.

Two important things to remember:

  1. NEVER use quotation marks for internal dialogue of any type. They're reserved exclusively for spoken words and will only confuse the reader if you add them anywhere else.
  2. Be consistent, whether you're using italics with a tag, italics without a tag, no italics and no tag, or a mixture as in the book series mentioned above.
So what do you think, folks? Did you learn anything today? Did you already know it? It's entirely possible that you just don't care, because you're never going to use ANY dialogue in your book—and I would love to read a book that used only clicks, grunts, shrugs, eyebrow raises and elbow nudges to communicate, don't get me wrong—but I doubt any of you currently have that as your WIP. 

I hope.





12 comments:

  1. I was just thinking about the way I use italics to show telepathic communication and then you mentioned it! Thanks for reading them. Hopefully it didn't confuse anyone.

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    1. The great part about it is that I was reading CassaStar as I was working on this post about a month ago. So it was pretty good timing for all of it to come together. I didn't think it was confusing at all, and it was nice to see it done well.

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  2. I always use italics to show a character's thoughts. Luckily, I never had to deal with telepathic conversations!

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    1. Well, I've spent the past 24 hours saying, Yes, you have, with my brain power, and since you haven't answered, I suppose I'll have to concede that you have not had to deal with telepathic conversations. Maybe next time.

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  3. I'm so glad you posted this. I've been told that publishers are moving away from the italics for thoughts, but I like it. I've been using italics for internal dialogue, and italics with tags for psychic/magical dialogue. Glad to be given a clue about what the industry accepts.

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    1. I've not seen evidence of moving away from italics, but in any case, I can't imagine how confusing it would be if there were no differentiation between thoughts, telepathic communication, and spoken dialogue.

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  4. I'm terrible at the consistency until the final edits. Thank goodness I have a shot at making it right. This is very clear and I'll mark it as a post to refer to while I'm in editing mode. Thanks, Lynda.

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    1. Anytime! I think most people don't stress about the consistency until final edits, so as long as they happen SOMETIME, you're good. Thanks for the visit!

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  5. That is a tricky one! I remember when I first started writing, publishers wanted you to underline instead of italicize if something was to be italicized in the final book. That was the 90s...so quite a while ago!

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    1. That gives you a great story to tell your kids . . . "When I was your age, I had to UNDERLINE! You kids have no idea how good you have it these days." My own kids reminded me just the other day that the 90s was almost thirty years ago, and I'm in complete denial, of course.

      I appreciate the visit and comment! Stop by anytime.

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  6. As you know, I use italics and tags. Sometimes I wonder if my main characters spend more time thinking than talking. I remember the day when you had to underline too.

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    1. I've often wondered if I would benefit from thinking more than I talk . . . hmmm.

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