Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Question of Style


The topic of using italics came up in my writer's group last meeting. Specifically, we were discussing the merits of using italics to indicate the thoughts of the character. A typical passage:

"Peter turned to face the monster. Unbelievable, that thing has enormous fangs! He gulped and picked up his sword."

Some writers, such as Terry Pratchett, use this method selectively and with some success, while others, such as David Payne, use it extensively and not with great success.

I started to use italics as thoughts in writing, but after I read Payne's Back to Wando Passo, his excessive use of italics felt cumbersome and I never bothered to finish the story. It even encouraged me to go back and rewrite my novel to remove the italics.

I have noticed that the usage of italics for thoughts is slowly becoming more common in fiction, which leads me to ask this question: how do agents/editors view italics as thoughts? Is it discouraged, encouraged, or do different people have different views?

This is really more of a stylistic question than a publishing question, but as a writer myself currently entrenched in editing my second novel for publication, I'd be happy to give my opinion.

As writers practice their craft, they experiment with different techniques with language. Most people who write constantly experience fads, where they like a concept (such as using a lot of italics to indicate inner thought) and use it to the point of overusing it, at which point they might realize what they're doing and stop. This usually comes from some recent external influence. From ages 13 to about 15 I was really into ...s everywhere to indicate the pacing of the sentences because I was reading a lot of fanfic writers who were doing it. It was an embarassing phase for me, but I learned from my mistakes. Also, not all of my experiments have been mistakes. Some legitimately entered my style as a common technique.

If you find something new and you like it, have fun with it, but be aware that you shouldn't overuse it, especially if it's grammatically incorrect.


Anonymous said...

I used to read James Patterson many, many years ago. I stopped reading the Alex Cross books because of his overuse of italics. It became painful to try to weed through the fields of italics (aka pages), and I simply didn't bother to do it.

David said...

I have the impression that the use of italics is becoming less common.

Anonymous said...

"If you find something new and you like it, have fun with it, but be aware that you shouldn't overuse it, especially if it's grammatically incorrect."

Doesn't have to be "new." Can be a style has fallen into disuse.

Anonymous said...

I use italics to indicate thought, as in, "Shelly considered the suspects' statement. His phrasing was identical! Careful."

Every now and then I use quotes for thoughts, as in, Shelly thought, "His phrasing was identical."

Sometimes I just use narrative, as in "Shelly noticed that the phrasing the suspect used was identical to what was found in the file."

Whatever fits the situation. I try not to get too hung up on any one method for anything. But I do use italics for thought at least 2 or 3 times in every novel.

And sometimes I'll even use italics for emphasis.

Anonymous said...

Reading the first half of Eragon put me off doing this, ever.

"Hey Eragon, maybe you should go home and do something else that makes you seem like a complete twat."

He's right! Maybe I should go home and be more of a twat!


Bernita said...

I blogged about italics on Wdnesday.
Their main value is emphasis.

Deb said...

Agent Chip MacGregor said in a recent session in front of my local writing group, that italics for thoughts were becoming less acceptable, and most publishers he knows are telling writers to change them back to plaintext.

I wonder how this reads? I'd hate to cause the reader to say, "Whoa, huh?" when transitioning from action or dialog to thought.

Anonymous said...

Don't disrespect the ellipsis.

That which is not said is sometimes more important than the words which tumble over a characters lips.

Ellipses rule.

Sneak Thief said...

I've been asking this question for along time and have never gotten a straight answer.

Obviously overuse is a bad thing. Overuse of anything is bad, except maybe single malt scotch.

But can a writer use italics for a quick peek into a character's mind without having to use a thought description.

A simple yes or no? Sheesh!

Anonymous said...

Blaming the italics is missing the larger problem. I'd argue that if using italics to convey a character's thoughts is becoming a distraction, it's probably because you're relying too much on interior monologue to advance your story in the first place.

It would drive me crazy to read an entire book where characters' thoughts are put forth in plain text, undistinguishable from the rest of the narrative.

Deb said...

S.T., I say yes, 'cause I still write like that. But no more than a line at a time. Maybe two if I must.

Anonymous said...

Sneak: the answer is in all those published books on the shelves of the chain stores.

Unknown said...

There're some situations where it can't be avoided. Telepathic characters, for example. Alfred Bester had all sorts of specialized formatting for his "peepers" in Demolished Man, and this was back when it first came out in the 50s. I wonder if the blocks of italicized text he used would go through nowadays.

Polenth said...

I don't mind the odd line in italics, but it is harder to read. The large sections in italics in the last Harry Potter were enough to make me cry.

Sandra Cormier said...

If you feel you have too many phrases in italics, you can always substitute deeper narration.

For instance:
He watched her leave the room. (Funny how time can go full circle.)

He watched her leave the room. It was funny how time could go full circle.

Heh, sorry I don't know how to do the italics in a comment.

Anonymous said...

If you're writing Realist literary fiction, italics are discouraged because it pedestals the text, creates an embeded text, a metadiegesis. The theory is you want the text to be the transparent medium that conveys the story. Anything that calls attention to itself breaks that dream.

Anonymous said...

I once ran into a fanfic type who ended almost every paragraph with an authorial "Little Did He/She/It/They Know..."

And in my own writing, I do use italics a LOT. Mostly inner thought and foreign/coined words. I also use a lot of compound sentences with two sentence/clauses separated by a semicolon.