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Expressing Thought-Reactions in Fiction

I wonder if she thinks of me?
Here again is another helpful post from our guest, Jodie Renner.

How do you express thoughts and inner reactions in fiction? Thoughts, like dialogue, need to drive the story forward and sound natural and appropriate for both the thinker and the situation.

For this article, I’ve purposely used the term thought-reactions, instead of just thoughts, because in fiction, in any given scene, we’re in someone’s point of view, so in their head, privy to their thoughts. In that sense, all the narration for that scene is, or should be, in their thoughts, written in ordinary font, with no special punctuation or thought tags.

For example, in Sandra Brown’s Ricochet, we’re in Duncan’s point of view. We read: “Within seconds Jenny appeared. All six feet of her, most of it sleek, tanned legs that looked like they’d been airbrushed to perfection.” This is obviously Duncan’s viewpoint and his opinion/thoughts. No need to say “he thought.”

Thought-reactions, on the other hand, are when that viewpoint character (and only the POV character – we shouldn’t know the thoughts of anyone else in that scene) has an inner, emotional reaction to something that has just happened, or something someone has just said, whether it be anger, delight, confusion, frustration, surprise, or whatever.

In popular fiction written in third-person (he, she, they) past tense, you’ll see thoughts or thought-reactions appearing in either present or past tense, in first-person (I), second-person (you), or third-person (he, she, they).

Indirect introspection, or indirect thoughts, summarize, or paraphrase, the thinker's words. Indirect thoughts are usually expressed in third-person, past tense and written in normal font (avoid italics for indirect thoughts), with or without tags, like “she thought” or “he thought.” This is the equivalent to reporting what somebody said, rather than using their exact words in quotation marks, only of course these words are not spoken.
-    She wondered if he’d be late again.
-    Why couldn’t she understand where he was coming from?
-    If he didn’t know better, he would swear she was genuinely perplexed.

Direct introspection or direct thoughts use the character’s exact (unspoken) words, normally expressed in first-person, present tense. They can be in normal font or in italics. This is the equivalent to dialogue in quotation marks, except the words aren’t spoken out loud.
-    Why doesn’t she get it?
-    I’d better call Mom today.
-    Where’s that phone number?

Putting direct thoughts in italics can be very effective for expressing a sudden strong emotional reaction. Showing these visceral reactions of your characters helps us get inside their heads and hearts more deeply and bond with them. Showing a thought-reaction in italics works best when used sparingly, for a significant or urgent thought or reaction:

Leave out the thought tag, as the italics signify a direct thought, in this case.

Here are some examples of indirect thoughts contrasted with the same thought expressed directly.
Indirect: She felt lucky.   
Direct: Lucky me!
Indirect: He was such an idiot.
Direct: What an idiot! Or, in second person: You idiot!
Indirect: She had to be kidding.
Direct: What? You’ve got to be kidding! (second person)
Indirect: Did she really think he’d believe that?
Direct: Give me a break!
Indirect: She opened the curtains. It was a gorgeous day.
Direct: She opened the curtains. What a gorgeous day.
Indirect: Jake took a step back, wondering what he’d done.
Direct: Jake took a step back. Holy crap. What have I done?

Here’s an example from Don’t Look Twice, by Andrew Gross:
It was already after ten! She tried David’s cell one more time. Again, his voice mail came on.
What the hell is going on, David?
She started to get worried….

Finally, here are three basic no-nos for expressing thoughts or thought-reactions in fiction:
-    Never use quotation marks around thoughts. Quotation marks designate spoken words.
-    Never write  “he thought to himself” or “she thought to herself.” That’s a sign of amateurish writing—who else would they be thinking to?
-    Don’t have your characters think in perfect, grammatically correct, complex sentences. It’s just not realistic. Many of our thoughts are emotional reactions, flashes or images, expressed through a few well-chosen words.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, whose craft-of-fiction articles appear regularly here and on four other blogs. For more information on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her website 

Posted by Maryann Miller who has just learned that less is more when it comes to internal dialogue.

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  1. Thanks, Jodie, for a clear exegesis. Practice in "thought-reactions" and inner dialogue have been changing, from long passages set in italic to, at best, an exclamation here or there.

    In typography, there is another style convention that can work for a narrative heavy on direct thought quotation, which is to set the text as a new paragraph and proceed it with an em-dash. It is easier on the eyes than great blocks of slant-face.

    In addition to literary trends, there is the matter of the writer's personal style. Some prefer to spend more time inside a character's head, some less. The same can be said for "head hopping," which is nowadays often taken as a sign of amateurism but can be found in the work of any number of great writers.

    For my part, I am not big on inner dialogue but find that a switch to indirect quotation from other than the POV character can work if done with clear demarcation--a genuine shift rather than bouncing around.

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

  2. Thanks for your comments, Larry, Moody, Traci and Christopher. And thanks to Maryann Miller for posting my article!

    Larry, to me it's all about deeper characterization and engaging your readers more and faster, which happens when they know the protagonist's inner thoughts and reactions. I think if your character isn't reacting to what's going on, there's a gap there, an opportunity missed.

  3. Thanks for this article, Jodie.

    How do editors keep up with trends? Is it difficult moving from something that was "the right way" a year or two ago to an alternate position?

  4. Peg, I don't see these fiction techniques as "right" or "wrong" - they're more about exploring techniques that will engage your readers more quickly and deepen characterization by showing character's inner reactions. These aren't rules, but just tips and recommendations from an editor of fiction on some ways to make your book more compelling and to suck your readers into the head and heart of the protagonist. That helps them bond with the character, so they care what happens to him,and keep turning the pages.

  5. Thanks, this was a great post.

  6. But it's important to keep one thing in mind - that inner reaction has to move the story or give meaning to the situation or character. I've seen far too many manuscripts that have italicized comments for no apparent reason, except the author had to inject himself into the dialogue. Haven't you noticed this?

  7. No, I haven't noticed that, Dani. If italicized thoughts or any thoughts seem like they're coming from the author, it's just plain bad writing. Thought-reactions need to be organic to the character, fit with his personality, character, and backstory, and be a logical, believable reaction to what's happening around him.

  8. Worst inner dialogue ever: In. Your. Dreams. This sort of chat is just superfluous. We should already be feeling this way about a character or situation if the dialogue and action is moving well. Right? That's what I'm talking about. No part of the writing should be superfluous, and actually, quite a few really good writers do this. Maybe for word count? I dunno!

  9. Thank you Jodie ~ as a writer, and as a peer editor/proofreader, I find this information very helpful.

    Larry - Regarding the long paragraph of thoughts or inner dialog being entered as a separate paragraph preceded by an "em-dash": can you tell me what the em-dash is?

    I find dialog the most difficult passage to proofread for another author, as I have to stop and think of whether it is the character making the error, or the author himself....

  10. Thanks, Terry. Larry, I definitely don't advise my writers to use italics for lengthy thoughts, just the short, quick ones, as reading italics can seem intrusive or hard on the eyes. But italics is perfect for a short, strong, visceral thought, as it also adds some emphasis - a little spice.

    And to me a long paragraph of thoughts or inner dialogue would seem unnatural no matter how you write it, in a new paragraph with a dash or not. Lengthy thoughts can also be kind of tedious, like an info dump. Interaction is always more interesting, with thoughts sprinkled in here and there in reaction to what's going on, rather than long passages of narration or one person speaking, or lengthy inner thoughts.

    And remember, as I said at the beginning, this post is about thought-reactions, rather than narrative reflection.

  11. Jodie commented: "it's all about deeper characterization and engaging your readers more and faster,"

    Exactly. I couldn't sleep last night. I tried reading several different novels, but none of them engaged me. I finally realized this was because none of them gave me a character to climb inside, someone I could experience the story through. The best writers write from an emotional viewpoint. Action happens, conflicts are won and lost, but it is the inner dialogue that captures and pulls the reader along because it is visceral. And the closer a reader can come to BEING the character, the better. Writers accomplish this by cutting out the layers of separation between the reader and the character, just as Jodie has explained so well.

  12. Wow! Thanks, Leigh! So well said!

  13. This post comes at the perfect time for me. I'm rewriting scenes, bringing the characters to life. It has been an amazing process, working with Jodie as my editor. Each time I find a comment in the margin asking me to have the character react to what he just saw or heard, it seems to deepen the character in a way that allows a glimpse into his mind. It's much more moving and powerful than describing what he/she was thinking and opens the relationship to the reader.
    Lots of great examples in the post!

  14. This is great. I had a tough time figuring out how to show thought when I first started writing. Once you get the "hang of it" it's pretty simple!

  15. Thanks for stopping by over here and commenting, Beverly! I'm glad I'm helping you deepen your characters and make them more accessible to the readers.

    And thanks for your comment, Heidi.

  16. Really enjoyed the post and all the comments.

    Beverly, I'm so glad that Jodie pointed out one of the most important elements of story - reaction. In a class I took eons ago, the instructor kept repeating, "All drama is action and reaction." We were working on stage plays, but that advice works for all forms of story telling.

  17. I learn something every time I read your posts, Jodie. Very well articulated.

  18. Thanks, Jodie! I just cut a "he thought to himself." Less work for you on my next book!

  19. What a great post, Jodie! This is an area that can be troubling for writers, particular newbies.

    Dani, you are so right that every word in a story needs to have a purpose, and that purpose is to move the story forward.

    Terry, a hypen is a short "dash," an en dash is a medium dash, and an em dash is a long dash. You can see the difference in Word by doing this: Hold down the alt key and type 0150 on the numeric key pad. You will get the en dash. But if you hold down the alt key and type 0151 on the numeric key pad, you will get the longer em dash. Be sure to use the numeric key pad; otherwise the codes won't work.

  20. Thanks, Maryann, LJ and Joanne!

    Joanne, I can't wait to work again with you on your next novel!

    LJ - ditto! :-)

  21. Thanks, Linda. Here's how I do the longer, em dash: Ctrl + Alt + - (minus sign, top right on numbers keyboard). And for the "medium-sized" en dash: Ctrl + Alt + - (minus sign on numbers keyboard).

  22. I prefer direct thoughts, when possible. They get the reader into the character's head easier.

    Morgan Mandel

  23. These are fantastic pointers... probably the most difficult for me and yet, the most crucial to the story. Thanks!!

  24. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Elspeth, Morgan and Barbara! I'm always glad to hear when my articles are helpful to writers. We all benefit when the books come out!

  25. Comprehensive summary, Jodie! Here's one of my pet peeves: characters who mutter/murmer/talk to themselves. One line is okay, I guess, but when it happens regularly I think the character is schizo. I would much rather my clients master the expression of inner thoughts as you've outlined here!

  26. Great post, Jodie.
    I like the use of sudden strong emotional reactions, rather than long-winded reactions in italics. Sparingly, of course.
    Thanks for clarifying the expression of thought-reactions in fiction. It's a topic that hits-home with me as I do some necessary rewriting.

  27. Thanks for stopping by, D.F. Glad to be of help! Yes, I think italics are perfect for short reactions, but not so good for long thoughts. Whether you choose to express longer thoughts in first-person or third-person, I think regular font is best. Good luck on your rewriting!

  28. Great post. I've been struggling with this very issue in my WIP, and this was so helpful. Thank you.


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