Last month, I detailed the conventions of setting off dialogue in narrative. This week, I figured I would follow up with the same for characters’ thoughts.
Unlike the more clearly defined and fairly universally accepted considerations for tagging and punctuating speech, conventions on portraying thoughts are much looser and more open to stylistic preference. As such, I’ll go over the more commonly implemented methods, and how I feel they are best handled.
The most basic and innocuous of options is simply to describe a character’s thoughts or feelings with the narrative.
The sign recommended not jumping off of the bridge. Tomsfield thought this was a good idea.
With her parents out of town for a week, Jenna felt as free as waiting room coffee.
Dipton did not particularly want to ride the rollercoaster.
This is a straightforward, low-level use of language. Without stating a literal verbalization of the thought, it does not require an understanding of or agreement on any technique specific to storytelling, and it is thus the most prominently utilized of any of these methods.
A more stylistic approach to conveying thoughts is to insert them into the narrative as direct, subjective statements belonging to the character holding the story’s point of view. This works the most transparently in first person.
I picked up my report and stared dumbly at the ‘D’ scrawled in red within its upper margin. This was ridiculous. Mrs. Clemp had no idea what she was on about.
But it can also work in tightly-defined third person.
Berg leaned back in his chair, contemplating the rabbit. It was kind of adorable. How did it stay so white and fluffy?
In both cases, the latter two sentences, even though written without demarcation, are understood to be their respective POV-characters’ direct thoughts, rather than objective truths about the story being told. This is easier to accept in the first example, as first-person accounts are naturally perspectivized as is. It requires a subtle leap of understanding to pull off in third person, but it’s commonly done enough that it shouldn’t cause hang-ups with most readers.
However, as this is a technique of implicit attribution, avoid using it in parallel omniscient. It makes for a sloppy and confused narrative voice, and its misuse is one of the primary reasons I would recommend against parallel omniscient altogether.
“I need some of that pizza,” Pencil whispered. He hadn’t eaten all day, and it smelled amazing. A rumble stirred the emptiness within his belly. Wasting not another moment, he snatched up a tantalizingly cheesy slice and slid it down his gullet. It was more delicious than it had any right to be. Tina rolled her eyes. Pencil was such a slob.
Gregolas chuckled, grabbing another piece for himself. “Eat up – there’s a couple more pies on the counter.” Takeout from Cheesy Palace was a surefire way to buy some of Pencil’s time, and he was hoping to get him to run some numbers tonight. Olga scooted away from him, wrinkling her nose as the pizza’s cheap, nauseating odor burned her nostrils. Why did Greg have to eat it so often?
Tuesday nights were always a blast, and this one was shaping up to be no different.
The narrative voice can’t act as a surrogate perspective for more than one character at a time, or it loses coherence. If you must do parallel omniscient, remember that the ‘narrator’ has to be a detached entity to be able to focus on multiple characters simultaneously, and with that in mind, use only explicit attribution for thoughts, whether direct or indirect.
Finally, note that direct thoughts as perspective statements should retain the tense of the narrative.
The frog hopped up to the overturned garbage pail and saw a massive swarm of flies circling above it. This is fantastic.
Direct thoughts, just like dialogue, can be explicitly attributed and set off with quotes.
“I am a rather large man,” Bendleman thought.
Clean and precise, but largely fallen out of style. If you go this route, keep in mind that it cannot be used with implicit attribution, as it will be read as speech.
For a minute or two, Maria found herself staring at a big yellow duck on the edge of the lake. It kept trying to swim into a massive rock poking out from the water’s surface. “I wonder if he’s an idiot.”
Some writers will attribute thoughts without any special punctuation.
I’m pretty tired, Lubrio realized. He’d been up since 4:00 A.M.
I’ll come right out and say I’m not a fan of this method, and I recommend against using it. Shifting tense and person without strong demarcation makes for a disjointed reading experience. If you can’t be convinced otherwise, then at least, as with quotes, restrict it to explicit attribution.
Oreo found his dog lounging on the living room sofa, blanketed by the tattered remains of the new curtains. He shook his head, but couldn’t suppress a rueful smile. I love you, Broomstick, but you’re a damned jerk. He took a seat by her head and farted loudly.
Anymore, the most common practice you’re likely to see for conveying direct thoughts, as it gives us the best of all worlds in terms of clarity and flexibility. It’s strong demarcation that won’t be confused with speech, and it can be used tagged or untagged.
It’s a little too quiet in here, Joyster thought. She began tapping her foot against the ground.
The bee buzzed up to the chef’s hat and slipped stealthily inside it. He’s the one that stole my honey – I just know it!
Italics can be used similarly to perspective statements, but conversely to perspective statements, italics denote literal, verbalized thoughts and therefore should change tense and person (unless your narrative is already in first-person present).
Barley stumbled as a basketball slammed into his back. Her turned in time to see Chuggs standing there with his stupid smirk. Why was he so rude to him all the time?
Barley stumbled as a basketball slammed into his back. Her turned in time to see Chuggs standing there with his stupid smirk. Why is he so rude to me all the time?
Like perspective statements, however, italics should be restricted to one POV per scene or block, especially when used implicitly.
Not a comprehensive list, and again, the means of indicating characters’ thoughts are not so expressly prescribed as those for their speech, but this hopefully provides some guidelines for what conventions there are. Whichever method works best with your style, aim for clarity, cohesiveness, and transparency, and give your readers a chance to slip neatly into your characters’ heads. (>^-‘)>
Just like in your “Marking Dialogue” post, your clear and succinct way of explaining mistakes that I see all too often in the writing of aspiring authors makes this one both easy to follow and fun to read. How does he come up with those great sample sentences? :-D
Hehe. Well, thank you.
As for the example sentences…probably just tiredness. (>^-‘)>
Wanted to pass along that I forward your writing posts to my son, the aspiring English professor and he enjoys (appreciates?) them very much.
Aw, that’s awesome. Glad to be of service. (>^-‘)>