Monthly Archives: July 2014

Truth and lies in fiction—how to write an unreliable narrator

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

How to write an unreliable narratorI’m excited about this blog post. While most of my articles are on common topics that you can find information about all around the Internet, the subject of unreliable narrators doesn’t get a lot of ink. And that’s probably because relatively few fiction writers know about the literary device of unreliable narration, and if they do, they haven’t any notion of how to create it or use it to best effect. Recently, I’ve edited several authors who inadvertently created an unreliable narrator, but because they weren’t even aware they were doing it, it wasn’t handled as well as it might have been.

Definition of an unreliable narrator
In most fiction, one of the author’s primary goals is to create a strong, sympathetic, vulnerable, likable protagonist, a person readers can relate to, connect with, and root for, a character who creates empathy in readers and has them identifying with that character on multiple levels. In fact, I encourage creating this kind of relatable protagonist in several of my blog posts on fiction writing. The reader has certain expectations of this protagonist—primarily that he or she will be able to trust and believe in this character, and not be lied to or deceived.

But for a twist, if it suits your story, you can create what’s known as an unreliable narrator. This kind of protagonist (almost always written in the first person) will break that trust that’s typically understood between reader and narrator, will mislead and lie to readers, perhaps by omission, or tell them only half truths—whatever suits them and the unfolding events of the story. Unreliable narration can make for exciting plot developments and twists and lots of suspense for readers, who can never be sure whether what they’re reading is the truth, a partial truth, an omission of truth, or a lie. This kind of narrator will usually have values and perspectives that contrast sharply with the author’s, if those are known.

Because of all this, this kind of character is rarely fully likable and, in fact, often worthy of being despised by readers. An unreliable narrator may be a pathological liar, or a narcissist, or simply delusional, causing readers to feel unnerved or even to revolt in disgust. She may appear quite sane and be highly intelligent. To complicate things, an unreliable narrator may believe she’s telling the truth (for example, if she is psychologically unbalanced), but it’s up to the reader to figure out that she isn’t. The challenge, then, for an author is to write a story that will keep readers turning pages even though they may not feel connected to a contemptible protagonist or simply one they can’t always relate to.

Why use an unreliable narrator?
The best reason to use an unreliable narrator is to create suspense, to keep readers guessing, to keep them turning pages. But it won’t work to simply decide to turn your narrator into an unreliable one halfway through your story only because you want to create or add suspense. The unreliability needs to be built into the character’s psyche from the outset, or possibly develop as the plot unfolds, and the plot should be based on this unreliability. In other words, you’ll need to plan your story, even before you begin writing, around your protagonist’s unreliability.

How to use an unreliable narrator
An unreliable narrator is almost always written in the first person, making your protagonist the unreliable party. If you try to write an unreliable protagonist in the third person, that’s going to make you, the author, the unreliable party—and trust me, that likely won’t work. Readers may accept one of your characters as a liar, but they won’t accept being misled by you, the author.

Writing an unreliable narrator well is notoriously difficult. This is primarily because, as I’ve indicated, it’s hard to create a character to whom readers can relate and with whom they can empathize and at the same time have that character lie to readers. Most people suspect when they’re being deceived, and that creates an element of mistrust. So one of your goals is to create a character who has enough empathetic characteristics that readers will still relate to her to a certain degree even though they may not trust her entirely. Your second goal is to create a plot so compelling that readers will want to turn the pages even though they may not like your protagonist. And perhaps most importantly, your prose style must be so good, so smooth, so clever and captivating, that readers will want to read it for its sheer beauty. All in all, this is a tough assignment.

Finally, if you think you’ve got what it takes as a fiction writer to create an unreliable narrator, this literary device needs to be studied and mastered. The two most important things to keep in mind as you write are:

1. Immerse yourself in your protagonist’s psyche. Most regular protagonists have some characteristics of their authors—this is almost inevitable. Authors write their protagonists using the familiarity of their own mental state. However, your unreliable narrator likely won’t be much like you at all—she may feel more like a villain or antagonist. More than with any other type of protagonist, you’ll need to get completely out of your own head and immerse yourself in the alien head of your unreliable narrator, something easier said than done. What motivates her? What are her deepest fears and insecurities? In what ways do these things fuel her actions and the plot?

2. Remember a cardinal rule of fiction writing: you can’t cheat the reader. To avoid cheating your reader, you’ll need to inject clues, hints, and subtle indications throughout the story that show that the reader is being deceived (even while being thrown off the scent) so that he or she is not entirely taken off guard by the revelation at the end. Clues that allow the reader, if they want to go back and reread, to acknowledge, “Yes, there was a clue here and there that I was being deceived, but it was so well hidden that I just didn’t see it at the time. So I wasn’t being cheated after all.” Some of the best stories with unreliable narrators will have you wanting to read them a second time, in order to see which clues you missed the first time. But make no mistake, those clues need to be there, or the reader will feel tricked and ripped off.

Degrees of unreliable narration
Are your fictional characters telling readers the truth or lies?
Most memorable protagonists in well-written fiction have some degree of unreliability. That’s because our human perceptions are unique to each of us; we see things through our own often skewed perspectives, and in ways others may deem unreliable. So if that’s the case, isn’t all first-person narration unreliable? Well, yes. But readers will forgive a certain degree of unreliability in all fiction characters because they’ll know your characters are just human, after all. However, deliberately setting out to use unreliable narration as a literary device is something different, something taken a step further than ordinary human unreliability.

All readers engage in fiction with a certain level of suspension of disbelief; that is, they’re prepared, willing, and happy to believe much of what a narrator is telling them, to stretch their imaginations while immersed in your fictional world. But when writing an unreliable narrator, be careful of crossing the line to a point where readers can no longer suspend their disbelief. And it’s a fine line, which is part of what makes writing an unreliable narrator so difficult. If the reader begins to feel more cheated than they feel is fair, or if the protagonist turns into a caricature, or if the plot twists turn ludicrous, you’ll lose your readers. Make a habit of asking yourself of any scene you write, will my readers think this is believable and fair, even after they learn they’ve been lied to?

Examples of unreliable narrators
One of the best things you can do to learn more about this literary device is to read well-written stories with unreliable protagonists. A marvelous thriller with not one but two unreliable narrators is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Crown Publishers, 2012). It’s an astonishing page turner, a story about a couple, Nick and Amy, who alternate first-person narrative as they each relate the details of their failing marriage through their own damaged perspectives. As you read, you don’t know who to despise more, Nick or Amy, yet you’re still hoping to like at least one of them just a little. Flynn is almost a magician in how she has you not wanting to put the book down despite making you suffer these two narcissistic, sociopathic characters. She plants clues and keeps the reader guessing just enough to make the reading experience tantalizing and not frustrating. I must admit, though, that I found the ending somewhat disappointing, and I feel that’s partly because it’s very difficult to create a satisfying conclusion with two unlikable characters. Still, I could hardly put the book down until the end.

More well-known examples:
Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
• Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
• Nelly and Lockwood in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
• Lucy Snowe in Villette by Charlotte Brontë
• Huck in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
• Humbert Humbert in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
• Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
• Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
• Briony Tallis in Atonement by Ian McEwan
• Alex in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
• Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
• Dr. Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
• Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
• Marta Bjornstad in How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman
• Patrick Mateman in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
• Pat Peoples in The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
• Various characters in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Pitching to agents and publishers
Even done well, writing an unreliable narrator story is a risk when it comes to pitching and marketing your book. It is a sad but unavoidable fact that, to a great extent, unlikable protagonists do not go over well with agents and publishers. I found it fascinating to read on one acquisitions editor’s blog about how bad she felt that she couldn’t acquire more manuscripts with unlikable narrators. The problem, she said, was that those books just don’t sell as well as others. Readers want likable protagonists, and if they’re disappointed with a protagonist who’s not very relatable, that book will invariably receive poor reviews—at least poorer reviews than those with likable narrators. This editor lamented that she had to turn down manuscripts she would have loved to accept, solely because she knew they wouldn’t pass muster with her sales department. She went on to speculate over whether Gone Girl would have even been accepted by a big publisher had it been Gillian Flynn’s first fiction and had she not already been a successful, established author with her first two novels.

If you think you have what it takes to write an unreliable narrator, then you may well be able to create some very compelling fiction. But tread cautiously. If you decide to write an unreliable narrator, there must be a solid reason for it, a purpose that drives the character and story arcs. A character who lies for the sake of lying isn’t going to add much to the integrity of your story. And above all, prepare yourself. Before you undertake the difficult task of writing an unreliable narrator, study this literary device thoroughly so you’re ready for all the challenges it presents.

Do you have any thoughts on how to best approach the challenge of creating an unreliable narrator? I’d love to hear from you in a comment below.

♠ ♠ ♠

book and manuscript editing

Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
July 24, 2014



I welcome all comments. Please note that Disqus is a secure commenting system requiring moderator approval, and it may be a short while before I receive notification of your comment, approve it, and reply. Thanks for your patience!

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Dialogue in fiction: Part V – Writing your characters’ thoughts

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

Interior monologue

Revealing your characters’ deepest thoughts will help make your fiction unforgettable.

In my final article on how to write effective dialogue for fiction, we’ll move from dialogue—a conversation between two or more people—to monologue—a conversation a character has in his or her mind; unspoken thoughts that are conveyed to the reader using several methods. This is variously referred to as interior monologue, internal monologue, inner dialogue, internal thought, or internal speech. I use the terms interchangeably, while being aware that internal thought is a somewhat redundant phrase. While we explore these methods in today’s post, be prepared for a little technical talk about tenses and first- and third-person point of views.

Outside of Shakespearean soliloquy (which is spoken thought), written fiction is the only art form that allows its audience to know a character’s internal, unspoken thoughts. Only in novels can a reader delve into a stranger’s mind and learn of his fears, his insecurities, his motivations, his rationale for planning a proposal of marriage or an affair or a murder. Because of this, it’s possible to develop a far more intimate relationship with characters in fiction than it is with those in film or on TV. Throughout the history of literature, authors have used the unique platform of the novel to reveal to readers their heroes’ and villains’ innermost thoughts, such as stream-of-consciousness (half thoughts, impressions, subconscious associations) or conscious inner talk.

And we readers gobble it up. Most fiction is character driven, and I’m convinced that readers’ most-loved fiction is that which allows us to delve into the innermost thoughts of its characters, in the process finding moments of recognition—the chance to recognize ourselves in fictional characters and identify with them on multiple levels—and discovering more about ourselves. We read fiction to see ourselves reflected back, both the good and the bad, and we’re able to do that when authors allow us into the deepest recesses of their characters’ minds.

And so, if you think it’s not important to reveal your characters’ deep thoughts, you’re missing out on an opportunity unique among all the art forms to connect deeply with your audience, your readers. The success of your book will hinge on connecting with your readers, and writing meaningful inner monologue will be one of the most important things you can do to ensure this connection is made.

The fundamentals
Allow your characters to think deeply. To do this, it will help to explore your own deep thoughts as well as what you perceive to be the thoughts, intentions, and motivations of people around you. Novice writers are sometimes hesitant to explore their characters’ thoughts, possibly because they aren’t used to examining their own. Good fiction writers delve deep into their own selves to examine all their flaws, fears, and foibles, at the same time as studying others’. The human condition is of infinite interest to them, and they never stop their quest to understand it—with the goal of transferring what they learn to their fiction characters.

• Restrict internal thoughts to your point-of-view character. Most fiction these days employs deep POV with just one or two main characters (and of course, only one POV character per scene). Unless you’re writing omniscient POV, which is difficult to write and uncommon today, make sure only your POV characters have internal thoughts. Avoid suddenly jumping into a non-POV character’s thoughts in the middle of a scene—that’s considered head-hopping and a big taboo in fiction writing. (For more on writing deep POV, see my blog post on the subject here.)

• Interior monologue must advance the plot or build character. In real life, we might go a bit crazy if we knew every tiny thought in the heads of everyone around us. In fiction, we don’t need to know a character’s every tiny thought either. Just as most dialogue and narrative must propel the plot forward or deepen readers’ understanding of your characters, make sure every sentence of your characters’ internal monologue makes a meaningful contribution to advancing the plot or developing your characters.

And don’t be afraid that your readers will find interior monologue boring compared with action (narrative), description (exposition), and dialogue. A compelling story needs all four, and of the four, inner thoughts may be considered the heartbeat of most successful fiction.

When to use interior monologue
To show emotional vulnerability. This is one of the most important characteristics you can give your protagonist (your POV character). If you don’t show her to be vulnerable in certain ways, your readers may wonder why they’re finding her shallow or unlikeable. While readers may not be able to identify the reason, it’s very likely they aren’t connecting or empathizing with her on an emotional level. The way to remedy this? Give your POV character emotional depth by revealing her deepest, most intimate thoughts and feelings through your interior monologue. Fear, anger, sorrow, depression, hope, dreams, longing, courage, strength of spirit are typical emotional states that warrant the use of interior monologue.

To emphasize dramatic moments. All of us have a hundred thoughts racing through our heads at any given time, and your POV character is no different. But just as with every detail in your story, you’ll need to be selective about which of your protagonist’s thoughts you present to your reader. Choose the most highly charged emotional reactions going on in your character’s head at any given point in a scene, places where you’re character uses profanity or is extremely frustrated, for example.

To reveal character motivation. Readers want to know why your character is acting the way she does. What motivates her? Fear? Anger? Jealousy? Revenge? Altruism? Love? Lust? It’s essential that you continually show readers the motivations that justify your characters’ actions. Doing this will add depth to your characterization and help move the plot forward at the same time. The best way to do this is by showing readers your characters’ deepest thoughts.

To show character growth. In fiction, just as your plot needs an arc, your protagonist needs an arc to show her change and development over the course of the story. She cannot be the same at the end as she was at the beginning. The events of the story must force her to struggle, change, grow, and acquire wisdom—or perhaps the change is negative or destructive. But there must always be change, and she must have learned something. By examining her thoughts and exposing them to readers, you can show the struggles and conflicts she’s undergoing in the course of that necessary change.

To reveal the truth. Your protagonist’s deepest truths may be too dark, too painful, too desperate to share with any other character. Or she may be unable to be honest with other characters. Or her outer actions may be at odds with her inner convictions. One of fiction’s greatest advantages is that it gives the author, using interior monologue, a chance to share a character’s honesty and truths with readers, even if that character is unwilling or incapable of sharing them with other characters.

To differentiate between your characters. If you have more than one POV character, you show their unique personalities through their choices, actions, speech, and thoughts. Varying their language, word choice, and speech patterns in their dialogue means also doing so for their thoughts. For example, in any given scene, use your POV character’s mental state—her thoughts—to describe every aspect of the scene, including how the setting and other characters appear through her eyes. If your next scene has a different POV character, write the scene through his eyes.

To lighten or darken the mood or tone. The mood may be light, but you can have your POV character thinking dark thoughts, or vice versa. Perhaps it’s a funeral scene, where the mood is serious and sombre, but your POV character is mentally laughing at the pallbearers’ clothes or the trick he just played on the deceased’s family, fooling them into leaving him a big settlement in the will.

To slow the pace. While dialogue typically quickens the pace of the plot, interior monologue slows it. Sometimes your POV character’s thoughtful, thought-provoking mental reflection is just what you need in between fast-paced action scenes.

Lots of thought bubblesFormatting and mechanics
Let’s start with one of the most frequent questions fiction authors ask: Should italics be used for internal thoughts or not? It helps to understand that interior monologue is similar to dialogue that’s spoken aloud. The differences (and some similarities) lie in the conventions you use to convey the interior monologue. So the simple answer is yes, often you can put your characters’ thoughts in italics to offset them from the regular text.

→ Dialogue: “Should I take the shortcut today?” Davis asked.
→ Interior monologue: Should I take the shortcut today? Davis thought.

This seems simple, right? Well, yes, but there are a number of exceptions to this guideline, which I’ll discuss in the rest of this article. (Note that in the above example, the question mark always goes directly after the question, just as it would in dialogue, and not at the end of the sentence.)

When you write interior monologue, sometimes you want a thought to stand out, to be set apart from the rest of the story. Other times, you won’t deem it deep enough to stand out and you’ll want it to blend in with the narrative. You have three basic ways of presenting interior monologue, and the method you choose will partially depend on the point of view you’ve chosen for your protagonist—first-person POV or third-person-limited POV. (I’m limiting my discussion here to these two POVs, since they’re the most commonly used.)

1. Thoughts can be shown by using italics—or not. This is often a style choice made by the author or publisher. But never use quotation marks for interior monologue. Readers will think it’s spoken dialogue, and they’ll be confused, if only momentarily. While italics are the conventional treatment, they can be intrusive, and they should be used in moderation and usually only when you’re writing deep POV.

2. Thoughts can be shown by using thought tags—or not. A dialogue tag, as you’ll see in my blog post on dialogue basics, here, is the “he said, she said” part of the dialogue, the noun and verb showing who the speaker is. In the case of interior monologue, this is called a thought tag.

3. Thoughts can be shown directly, using the first-person present tense, or indirectly, using the third-person past tense. I’ll discuss direct vs. indirect thoughts a little further below.

These three options—italics or not, tags or not, and direct vs. indirect thoughts—manifest themselves in different ways, depending on the story’s POV. In all of the following examples, keep in mind that these are not rules but only conventions and style guidelines; you’re free to apply any that suit your fiction’s needs. But once you apply a particular style, you should be consistent with it.

Story or scene written in third-person POV
a) Thought in first-person present, italicized, with tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. I’m not going to make it, she thought. I need Josh now more than ever.

b) Thought in first-person present, italicized, without tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. I’m not going to make it. I need Josh now more than ever.

c) Thought in first-person present, not italicized, with tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. I’m not going to make it, she thought. I need Josh now more than ever!

d) Thought in first-person present, not italicized, without tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. I’m not going to make it. I need Josh now more than ever.

Story or scene written in first-person POV
e) Thought in first-person present, italicized, with tag:

I struggled up the hill, glancing over my shoulder at the dark figure gaining on me. I’m not going to make it, I thought. I need Josh now more than ever.

f) Thought in first-person present, italicized, without tag:

I struggled up the hill, glancing over my shoulder at the dark figure gaining on me. I’m not going to make it. I need Josh now more than ever.

g) Thought in first-person present, not italicized, with tag:

I struggled up the hill, glancing over my shoulder at the dark figure gaining on me. I’m not going to make it, I thought. I need Josh now more than ever.

h) Thought in first-person present, not italicized, without tag:

I struggled up the hill, glancing over my shoulder at the dark figure gaining on me. I’m not going to make it. I need Josh now more than ever.

In the latter examples, can you see how the thought tags (in red) are unnecessary because, being in first-person POV, we’re already in the protagonist’s head for the entire scene? There’s no need to identify a thought as such because the reader already knows it’s a thought.

Italics are also unnecessary, but they do serve to offset the more dramatic, emotional thoughts from character’s regular thoughts (which would be the entire first-person narrative). I don’t like the last example (h) at all, and I don’t recommend using it. It’s too jarring to go from the narrative in the past tense to the thought in the present tense, with no tag or italics to distinguish the thought, and the last thing you want to do is jar your reader out of your fiction. I prefer (e), with a tag, or (f), with no tag, just the italics offsetting the thought.

I’m not a fan of (d), for the same reason. While the thought portion is clearer than in (h), it’s still a bit jarring to go from third-person past-tense narrative to first-person present-tense thought with no visual cue like a tag or italics to distinguish the thought. You’ll no doubt have your own preferences, and there are always exceptions, but as a general guideline, only mix tenses and POVs when writing interior monologue if you give the reader a visual cue like a tag or italics to show the thought.

And again, whether you’re writing your character in first-person or third-person POV, try to limit your use of italics and saving them for deep POV when you want to emphasize more emotional, intense thoughts.

Direct thoughts versus indirect thoughts
Lost in thoughtNote that all the above permutations of written thoughts are in the present tense. That’s because they are direct thoughts, written as though the POV character is speaking dialogue aloud. Just like regular dialogue, direct thoughts should always go in the first-person present tense, no matter whether you’re writing in first-person POV or third-person POV, or whether the rest of your story is written in the past or present tense. In this way, direct thoughts are most closely related to dialogue. Just as you wouldn’t write your dialogue in the past tense, avoid writing your direct internal thoughts in the past tense.

Indirect thoughts, on the other hand, read as if they’re part of your narrative, and they always go in the third-person past tense. The only exception to this will be if your entire story is already written in the first-person present tense. In that case, of course, your character’s thoughts will also need to remain in the present tense.

Direct thoughts provide deeper POV than indirect thoughts, but both are effective, and they should be balanced. Save direct thoughts, because they are deeper, for the most dramatic moments in your story. In terms of how to format them, convention dictates that direct thoughts are often set in italics (but not always), while indirect thoughts are never set in italics. Here are some examples:

i) Direct thought in first person, italics, present tense, with tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. I’m not going to make it, she thought. I need Josh now more than ever!

j) Indirect thought in third person, no italics, past tense, with tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. She wasn’t going to make it, she thought. She needed Josh now more than ever.

k) Indirect thought in third person, no italics, past tense, without tag:

Sadie struggled up the hill, glancing over her shoulder at the dark figure gaining on her. She wasn’t going to make it. She needed Josh now more than ever.

l) Indirect thought, narrative and thought in first person, past tense, no italics, without tag:

I struggled up the hill, glancing over my shoulder at the dark figure gaining on me. I wasn’t going to make it. I needed Josh now more than ever!

Can you see how, in examples (j), (k), and (l) in particular, there is only a subtle shade of difference between the narrative and the indirect thought itself? In those examples, it could be argued that they’re not even indirect thoughts; they’re simply a continuation of the narrator’s voice, whether that’s Sadie, the author, or “I.” You may be writing like this already, but perhaps you’ve been unaware that you’ve been switching from narrative to indirect thought and back. It’s good to be aware of the distinction.

Summarizing first-person POV vs. third-person-limited POV
There’s a difference in how you’ll write your character’s thoughts, depending on whether you’re writing in the first-person or third-person limited.

First-person POV. When writing in the first person, virtually all of your narrative is coming from the mind of your POV character, including her interior monologue. In fact, as we’ve seen in my examples above, there will often be little distinction between the narrative portions of your text and your first-person POV character’s interior monologue. The question of whether to use italics is technically a moot one: they’re simply not needed. It will be clear to readers that the internal thoughts are your POV character’s because the entire story is from her POV. If you were to italicize her thoughts, the entire story would be in italics!

However, as my example (h) shows, without italics, jumping from past-tense narrative to present-tense thoughts can sometimes be jarring. The solution is to write the bulk of the protagonist’s thoughts in indirect thought style, as in my examples (j), (k), and (l). They will blend in with the narrative, and that’s perfectly okay. Use italics, but again sparingly, for emphasis, when the protagonist is having a highly emotional thought, just as you might put dialogue in italics for emphasis (if the character is shouting, for example).

Third-person-limited POV. Use of interior monologue becomes a little more complex when you’re writing from third-person-limited POV. This is because you now have a narrator’s voice and/or authorial voice to contend with along with your POV character’s voice. Sometimes there’s only a subtle distinction between the narrator’s voice and the POV character’s voice, so italics help with differentiating between them. Even so, italics may not be needed if the POV character’s voice is clear, and you may decide to follow the guidelines for first-person POV and use italics only when emphasis is needed.

Remember, the whole point of italics for thoughts is to differentiate them from the main narrative, and if the thoughts are clear without italics, then italics may not be needed. Whatever you decide, remember that your decision is a style choice and not a rule, but once you’ve made a choice you’ll need to stick with it consistently.

A few thoughts on thought tags
Be conservative and minimalist in your use of thought tags. You shouldn’t need much more variety in your tags than “she thought” or “he wondered.” When you do use them, follow the same guidelines as those used for dialogue tags, which I’ve written about in detail here.

One thing to note: I often see the tag, “Davis thought to himself.” There are very few occasions where you need the “to himself” tacked on the end—it’s redundant, so try to avoid it. Of course he’s thinking to himself—who else would he be thinking to? About the only exception I would condone as an editor is if you need the two extra words “to himself” to help the rhythm of the sentence, and that won’t be often.

In summary
In this article, I haven’t touched on how to handle interior monologue if you’re writing the narrative portion of your story in either the first-person or third-person present tense. The present tense, while more difficult and nuanced to employ for fiction and therefore much less commonly used, still uses the same principles for internal thoughts that I’ve given you here.

A discussion of dialogue in fiction isn’t complete without considering the importance of interior monologue, which affects every aspect of characterization and plot. I hope I’ve covered the key elements here, and that you’ll go forward with your fiction writing with a keener awareness of how essential interior monologue is to adding depth and breadth to your characters and your story. Mastering your characters’ thoughts—both the content of those thoughts and how you deliver them—will make the difference between a good book and an unforgettable one.

♠ ♠ ♠

book and manuscript editing

Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
July 10, 2014



I welcome all comments. Please note that Disqus is a secure commenting system requiring moderator approval, and it may be a short while before I receive notification of your comment, approve it, and reply. Thanks for your patience!

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