Marking Thoughts

Thought bubble

 

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.

 

Indirect

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.

 

Perspective Statements

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.

 

Quotes

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.”

 

Unmarked Direct

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.

 

Italics

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.  (>^-‘)>

 

Bene scribete.

Marking Dialogue

Dialogue Marks

 

I see a lot of talented writers these days who still have trouble when it comes to the conventions of dialogue tagging and paragraphing in narrative, so I thought I’d do a little guide on how to properly punctuate around those all-important lines of speech.

Let’s take a look at the four main types of dialogue demarcation, and I’ll give a rundown on where each of them belongs.

 

When to Comma

The ubiquitous comma should be the most familiar device.  Use it with explicit dialogue marking – i.e., to separate speech from a phrase which directly indicates the speech (words like ‘said’, ‘asked’, ‘shouted’, etc.). This is your basic, everyday dialogue construction.  The marking phrase can be either before, after, or in the middle of the dialogue.

“I want a hamburger,” the dinosaur pouted.

Taliana asked her husband, “Can you pass me the salt?”

“I guess chocolate is fine,” Emmy sighed, “but lemon would have been better.”

(Placement of the comma in relation to the quotation marks is another matter altogether, and up to the style you’re adhering to.  As you may have seen above, I tend to place the comma inside the quotes when the quoted matter warrants its own terminal or conjunctive punctuation, and leave it outside when it does not.)

A little less obvious – eschew the comma when the dialogue has special terminal punctuation, and the marking phrase comes after it.

“You ruined my perfect day!” Sybel yelled.

“What did you see?” Lysander whispered.

Do not use a comma with action phrases that don’t reference the speech or its manner.  This is where I see the most trouble with dialogue commas.

Frogulous picked up a hammer, “I’m gonna get you!”

“I’ve got a headache,” Susie sat down.

There is a little bit of a grey area when it comes to certain phrases that, although they may not literally be describing speech, convey its manner enough that they’ve been adopted as dialogue tags.  For instance, the following construction is fine:

“Maybe it’s a bear,” he shrugged.

But unlike the first examples, a period would also work here:

“Maybe it’s a bear.”  He shrugged.

Note, however, that the comma implies he is shrugging while speaking, whereas the period conveys a shrug post-speech.

 

When to Period

The period is pretty straightforward.  Use it with dialogue that is adjacent to character action statements that do not indicate the speech itself.

Charlotte surveyed the area.  “That would be impractical.”

This is implicit dialogue marking.  You can use it to indicate who is talking without having to take up narrative real-estate with speech words.  At the same time, don’t use a period separator when you are utilizing speech words.

“I can’t believe it’s not butter.” Kevinsburg muttered to his dog.

 

When to Colon

The colon gets a little trickier, and really, you can go a whole book without needing it.  A colon is used to separate speech when the marking phrase also describes what the speech is, or gives a basic summation of it.  If the dialogue is a clarification to a narrative statement which could stand alone, chances are a colon is called for.

Doughnut described his morning: “I woke up late, cut myself on a bar of soap, and nearly choked to death on my toast.”

Emmy clasped her paws together, recounting her plan: “If we raid the grove before midnight, I think we’ll have enough lemons for everyone!”

Note how “described his morning” and “recounting her plan” are semantically complete without the literal dialogue, whereas this is not the case with comma constructions (“He said.” doesn’t mean much on its own).  If it helps, consider that, in comma constructions, the dialogue is acting as the direct object of the speaking verb, so when the verb already has a direct object preceding the dialogue (‘his morning’, ‘her plan’), the colon is simply indicating an elaboration on it.  Lastly, keep in mind that, if you don’t feel like dealing with colons, you can usually get away with just using a period in these cases.

Now, to make things more confusing, you can also use a colon in those instances where you want to set off a large block of dialogue in its own paragraph and precede it with a direct attribution.

The spider crept in circles along its web, inching ever closer to the rodent tangled within its core.  It whispered:

“Little mouse, little mouse.  What were you doing, wandering in here all alone?  You’re much larger than my usual catch, but I shall not complain.  Little mouse, little mouse, please don’t cry; I promise that your suffering will be brief.  One small bite, one small squeeze, and you will drift off to sleep, where your mind can focus on more pleasant things.  Little mouse, little mouse, be still now.  It’s time for supper.”

Here, it is simply acting like a comma, and is only promoted to colon because of the paragraph break. Note with both of these uses that, unlike a comma, a colon is only used before a piece of dialogue.

 

When to Paragraph

This is where I see the most trouble when it comes to dialogue attribution on the whole.  A paragraph break is not a clearly defined and prescribed method for assigning speech like a comma or colon.  It’s another form of implicit attribution – a narrative shortcut that relies on assumptions to function properly. Let me state in brief the two main considerations for paragraphing around dialogue:

  • Wherever possible, when two or more characters interact, consolidate each individual’s speech, feelings, and greater actions to his or her own paragraph(s), and segregate them from paragraphs that focus on the other character(s).
  • A paragraph break, by itself with no other attribution, indicates that the other character is now speaking, not the character who had focus in the immediately preceding paragraph.

As always, better to explain by example:

Peggy’s eyes glanced over the table and landed on the porcelain platter.  She picked up the sandwich sitting neatly upon it and gave it a sniff.  The cloying stench of rot nearly knocked her of her feet.  “Agh.  Tim, was this your lunch?”

“Yeah, I guess,” he muttered.  He folded his arms, leaning back against the wall.

“Well…well, that’s gross.”

“Did you bring a towel?” the tire asked.

“No,” Stacey huffed.  “Wait – why are you a talking tire?”

“Because a cat gave me the ability to talk.”

“And…why was a cat able to do that?”

“Because it was a magic cat.”

“Oh, right, of course.”

In the first example, the last line belongs to Peggy, not Tim.  In the second, once the tire and Stacey are indicated as a speaking pair, each paragraph break alternatingly attributes the subsequent dialogue to the other character.

With that in mind, don’t do something like this:

Trudissima gave a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Oh, please.  The ball wasn’t my idea.”

Clenching a fist, Jimberley pursed his lips and turned his glare out the window.  The rain continued to etch away the once pristine features of his statue on the terrace, yet he couldn’t help but view it as a suitable reflection.  He’d had enough of this run-around.

“Either way, it’ll all be over by tonight.”

There’s no reason for that second paragraph break if that last line belongs to Jimberley.  As is, it reads as though Trudissima is saying it.  There are several ways to rewrite this properly:

Trudissima gave a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Oh, please.  The ball wasn’t my idea.”

Clenching a fist, Jimberley pursed his lips and turned his glare out the window.  The rain continued to etch away the once pristine features of his statue on the terrace, yet he couldn’t help but view it as a suitable reflection.  He’d had enough of this run-around.  “Either way, it’ll all be over by tonight.”

Trudissima gave a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Oh, please.  The ball wasn’t my idea.”

Clenching a fist, Jimberley pursed his lips and turned his glare out the window.   The rain continued to etch away the once pristine features of his statue on the terrace, yet he couldn’t help but view it as a suitable reflection.

He’d had enough of this run-around.  “Either way, it’ll all be over by tonight.”

Trudissima gave a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Oh, please.  The ball wasn’t my idea.”

Clenching a fist, Jimberley pursed his lips and turned his glare out the window.   The rain continued to etch away the once pristine features of his statue on the terrace, yet he couldn’t help but view it as a suitable reflection.  He’d had enough of this run-around.

“Either way, it’ll all be over by tonight,” he said.

Or even:

Trudissima gave a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Oh, please.  The ball wasn’t my idea.”

Clenching a fist, Jimberley pursed his lips and turned his glare out the window.   The rain continued to etch away the once pristine features of his statue on the terrace, yet he couldn’t help but view it as a suitable reflection.  He’d had enough of this run-around.  He grumbled:

“Either way, it’ll all be over by tonight.”

The first is probably preferable, as it keeps the character’s actions, thoughts, and dialogue together, but the others at least make it clear who is speaking.

One should also avoid constructions like this:

Crinkley threw his biscuit to the ground.  This was rubbish, plain and simple.  Were they testing his tenacity?  He could think of not a single reason to give in to the farmers’ demands.  His brother stepped up beside him.  “Let them sow their discontent; we shall see that they reap it.”

Whose dialogue was that – Crinkley’s or his brother’s?  The sudden shift to his brother may suggest the latter, but Crinkley’s thoughts and actions had the focus of the paragraph, which simultaneously implies the former.  If his brother is talking, a paragraph break would clear this right up:

Crinkley threw his biscuit to the ground.  This was rubbish, plain and simple.  Were they testing his tenacity?  He could think of not a single reason to give in to the farmers’ demands.

His brother stepped up beside him.  “Let them sow their discontent; we shall see that they reap it.”

If the line belongs to Crinkley, shifting the focus of the preceding statement would make that more apparent:

Crinkley threw his biscuit to the ground.  This was rubbish, plain and simple.  Were they testing his tenacity?  He could think of not a single reason to give in to the farmers’ demands.  He noticed his brother step up beside him.  “Let them sow their discontent; we shall see that they reap it.”

Even if we resort to explicit attribution (“[Crinkley / his brother] said”), it would still be best to include the paragraph break in the case of his brother speaking.

Now, in these types of situations, context will sometimes make it obvious who is talking, but don’t let that be a crutch.  Implicit dialogue attribution is not a place to exercise your stylistic uniqueness; subverting your readers’ built-in assumptions as to what paragraphing indicates in narrative is a recipe for confusion, and not knowing who is speaking can make for a frustrating reading experience. Adhering to convention is simply much less ambiguous in the long run (and is ultimately what allows it to work in the first place).  Clarity is a good thing!

 

So, in brief summation – use commas with indicated speech (she said,) and colons with clarified speech (she read the note:).  Use periods to separate non-speech actions from dialogue belonging to the same character, and paragraph breaks for dialogue belonging to a different character.

Simple, right?  (>^-‘)>

 

Bene scribete.