1. Jessica_312
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    Jessica_312 Contributing Member

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    First Person Thoughts in Third Person Writing?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Jessica_312, Aug 25, 2011.

    I've noticed I have a penchant for inserting first person thoughts into third person writing. When I say first person, I mean I usually don't add "he thought" or "she thought", I just separate it and italicize.

    Here's an example from one of my stories:

    Does anyone else do this in their writing? Is it considered "correct"? I have noticed some authors such as Stephen King have done similar things, but it's just a habit of mine to throw in random thoughts, sprinkled throughout the narrative... Not sure why
     
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  2. Yandos
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    Yandos Member

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    I like to know what other people think about this too as I do the same, though it never occurred to me that this was wrong. I know Cog gets the bit between his teeth when it comes to italicising thoughts but in my case this way of writing fits in with my style.
    I think that as long as it is clear whose though it is, it shouldn’t matter.
     
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  3. pinelopikappa
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    pinelopikappa Senior Member

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    I have read a book entirely written that way, I mean all the inner monologues were in italics, while the rest was third person. It worked wonderfully for me, no confusion at all. Unfortunatelly I don't think it has been translated in english. It's by a lady called Maro Douka. You'll have to take my word for it. She is very skilled though, I mean as a writer. You'll have to work on it a lot to make it sound natural, because it could easily become confusing and tiresome in the wrong hands.
     
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  4. Youniquee
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    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    I somewhat do this, but I have no need to italicise the thoughts as it blends in the nicely with the narrative style I use~
    I find nothing wrong with italicising though, if it makes the reader less confused, I don't why they're going to care if the thoughts are like that.
     
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  5. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have been known to do that, though I avoid it now. You don't necessarily need the "he thought" or anything if it's obviously a thought. But italicising it like that is frowned upon. It's not necessarily wrong, not in the modern way that you can use language now, but it's definitely frowned upon.
     
  6. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    But by whom is it frowned upon, and why? That remains rather vague. The why is particularly vague. The only real answer I've heard is that it is lazy, but I don't consider that a valid criticism of the style, per se, because as with any other use of style it might be lazy and it might not be, depending on the author and the implementation of it.

    After a few discussions on this topic, I decided to browse through some recently-published fiction. Some first books by authors who were then unknown. Some by better-known authors. I stayed away from the likes of Stephen King, because examples from those authors will prompt the response that they are exceptions.

    Whether the practice is frowned upon or not, I've decided it can't be a serious impediment to publications. A Google search turned up a number of authors and editors who actively suggest using italics for direct thought. Other suggest avoiding direct though all together. I didn't find any who advocated using direct thought but leaving the formatting unaltered, except in the case of first person POV.

    One published author whose blog I came across referred to a "rule" for this. She did not, however cite the any rule or any authority, so I'm not sure that such a rule exists. What she said, however, was that one should italicize internal monologue if one is writing in third person and the internal monologue is in first person, or if one is writing in past tense and the internal monologue is in present tense.

    Again, I do not know whether such a rule exists, but her advice fits generally with what I've seen published, and flipping again through those books I mentioned that do use italicized thought, they all follow this rule. So I suppose that's a good place to start.
     
  7. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    I'd say it's only awkward here because you're writing in what feels like a distant sort of style. We're told about a guy, but don't actually see him act/interact. Like, he doesn't walk in the door, order a bagel, then complain. Instead we're told in summary that he's the sort of guy that does it.

    This is a distancing style that can still work at times in a first person reminiscent story, where the character/narrator is simply literally telling us about past events or remarking on habitual actions, but in a third person story it gets awkward, feeling as if it's all events being related to generically by a narrator (which can work, if that's your style), but then suddenly we get a direct thought. But since we haven't been purely seeing the story through the main character's pov, and getting a sort of narrator presence as well, we then have to stop so we can figure out if the the direct thought is from the character or narrator.

    Imagine watching a movie where the main character does voice over narration, but then the option is turned on to hear actor commentary. Suddenly, we have two voices in competition and have to try to figure out whether it's the actor or character providing commentary/narration. In a dvd example it's a literal competition. In your example of prose here it's a more of a figurative competition of 'voice,' but it's similarly disconcerting.

    My recommendation would be to cement the prose firmly in action. Don't provide what seems like narrator-based, external exposition (telling us he's a corporate head honcho), but instead let us just see the guy, watch him act, and then either make our own conclusions or allow the character to make a judgement. Instead of telling us about his attitude in a summarized way, put his attitude on display through action. Instead of referencing habitual time actions in his complaints, have him actually there, in the moment, complaining.

    When you ground a story in action, you can then have reactions that feel more genuinely and specifically from the character, not from an external narrator (even if that narrator seems to be the character who is able to pause their own life to stop and provide copious commentary). Then, we'll get an action-reaction relationship that will make a direct thought clearly from the character, eliminating confusion and building a better empathetic connection between reader and character.

    So, for instance:

    You'll notice I was still speeding up the action a bit so it didn't take forever to get the guy into the shop, but instead of talking about him in general terms as if he isn't present, I based everything in action. Instead of a distant 'he was the kind of guy' that makes us wonder why the character is staring off into space giving the reader a lesson on types of guys, I present the guy in the context of action, and then demonstrate how the MC feels about him through descriptions of that action (his suit and the character's perception if it being too much). Then I have the MC trying to react with action (smiling), not just with generalized commentary that doesn't occur in a place or time, and even found a way to fit in hints she's had issues in the past, giving context to her situation (she has a boss who is maybe an idiot and has to try to deal with another idiot). And then more action by him, more reaction by her, etc.

    All that prose is grounded in action and reaction of the actual characters, in an actual moment, not just general reference to moments. So, by the end when we get "what an asshat" it's clearly a thought from the character, as there's no confusion anything else was from anyone but the character, since it was all based in action. And note, that because of this, I didn't need to use italics, because I didn't need to try to indicate 'oh, hey, this is a direct thought from the character' and instead that direct thought just became part of the experience on the page, in the moment. It becomes part of the action-reaction paradigm, not a response to habitual, summarized, generic sort of references to characters and events without a clear place and time, at which point it's confusing when a direct thought (implied to exist in a defined place/time) is suddenly presented. Instead of asking who thought that, where we literally are in the world the character is now thinking, it's all clear. The character is right there in the story, in those moments of action, reacting with a thought.

    And maybe not a best off-the-cuff writing example, but hopefully you'll see the point.
     
  8. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    I avoid italicizing thoughts. More than anything, it helps me in the writing process. Without italicizing, I have to give extra efford to make the context clear so that the readers know a phrase or sentence(s) is an internal thought. So, it helps me write clear ideas/scenes. That's one usefulness. Another thing that it helps me with is that it deters me away from relying too much on internal thoughts. And I believe relying too much on internal thoughts can be detrimental.
     
  9. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I think it comes down to whether people like to see direct thoughts or not. If you are going to use direct thoughts, then I think italics are appropriate. If you incorporate the thoughts into the narrative, then you would not want to use them. For example:

    versus:

    It seems to me the choice between the two is stylistic as opposed to one being right or wrong in a technical sense. If you chose the style of the second example, but did not italicize the thoughts, wouldn't it appear strange?
     
  10. JackElliott
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    JackElliott Senior Member

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    Italics are meant to indicate the character's precise thought. It's a perfectly valid technique. The issue is whether it is the preferred style or not, and it's not anymore.

    Some authors prefer to write goin instead of goin'. They'd prefer their character said, I'm goin away now, and don't you be followin me, all without the apostrophes. It is a stylistic preference. Leaving out the apostrophe is obviously incorrect grammatically, but the alternative -- dialogue littered with distracting apostrophes -- is far, far worse.

    Kind of the same thing going on here. Italics is the kid waving his arms in the air to get your attention because he wants you to know you are hearing the character thinking right now. I think the general attitude among authors now is that they don't want that kind of attention. They'd rather slip into the character's head with as little fuss as possible. As a reader and writer myself, that is my preference as well. I love reading prose where the line blurs.
     
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  11. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Question: do these authors simply avoid the use of direct thoughts all together, then? Going with something more akin to the first example I posted? I don't think I've come across any instances of direct thoughts that aren't italicized, unless it was a story written in first person POV to begin with. So maybe authors writing in third person tend to avoid direct thoughts in the first place.
     
  12. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    I've seen it done, and it only seems strange or like a POV switch when the writing is generally not strong enough that you're not engaged fully in the story and looking for such things to nitpick. When I've seen it done in strong writing, it's understood to be a direct thought, and doesn't raise red flags.

    You know, it's kind of like how when you first meet the love of your life all the flaws are just part of the package you barely notice, perhaps even cute. And then, years later as things start to deteriorate, it's not that the person suddenly grew a bunch of moles, but more that you're just not as into the person so suddenly those moles are no longer beauty marks, but something to fixate on as a flaw and will take the focus and blame for the fact you just don't love the person as much anymore.

    This is also one of the huge flaws of workshop environments, as the readers are often reading actively looking for things they can call a flaw. Good writers in workshops or groups don't focus on individual technique as a starting point, but instead look at the effect of the prose. When the writing isn't working is the time to look for reasons why.

    Even great stories will have things that can be seen as a flaw, if one is looking to find flaws. Bad stories, of course, set themselves up for scrutiny, so those flaws become even more apparent. But, removing all the things people claim are flaws, or against rules, etc, doesn't make a story strong. In fact, it often just makes a story competently boring and unmemorable, as it can then feel like it was produced in a lab.

    So, basically, if your writing isn't great, don't do anything at all that could be seen as risky, or a no-no, or against the rules. But, without taking risks, writers also may find their prose perpetually lifeless. The fine line is a tough one that most aspiring writers fail to ever navigate successfully, and as we can see from this very forum, there are tons of black and white sort of 'can I do this or not' sort of questions. It's the wrong question to start with, so the answers are never satisfying.

    The real question should be when an how should a writer do something, what effect is created, and is it effective, but that's a bit harder to answer, so such discussions usually gets ignored in a sea of 'no way, italics are for the birds' as if it were that simple.

    I will say, that for most writers, it's easier to create a successful effect by simply italicizing a direct thought. That doesn't mean it's the best option, just all that most writers can handle. The writers that can handle more hopefully learn to take risks, ignore all the 'conventional wisdom' (I don't want to be a conventional writer, thanks), and figure out how to write effective prose, not prose that is 'right' or 'wrong.'

    Effective writing isn't always proper. And proper writing isn't always effective. And instead of arguing what is and isn't proper, there are better things a writer can be doing... like figuring out what's effective, and why.
     
  13. JackElliott
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    JackElliott Senior Member

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    I suppose there's probably some author out there who quotes a character's thoughts directly and doesn't bother to italicize them. I just bought Selby's Requiem for a Dream recently, and just flipping through the first pages it's clear that he makes no attempt to separate dialogue from the narrative. And so I wouldn't be surprise at all if I came upon a passage where he quoted directly and made no attempt at clarification.

    But it seems appropriate there, because the style is attempting to mirror the content.

    To answer your question, I think most, if not all, thoughts in Third Person are paraphrased and built into the narrative, in the interest of subtlety, smoothness. And that is okay with me. I don't really see the point of quoting a character's thoughts exactly, to the degree that italics or some other indicator seems necessary. It feels like a bump in the road. You're cruising at 80 miles an hour, everything's fine and good, and all of a sudden you're rattled into awareness again. The technique calls attention to itself.
     
  14. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    No and no.

    It depends what you're reading. Generally, genre fiction is often still heavy italics based, as the writing is a bit more surface and plot-based, and the stories are often not digging into a character's psyche as much as, say, a literary story.

    Now, keep in mind, literary is often more about approach than genre, as there are writers like George Sauders who writes sci-fi, speculative and fantasy subjects and themes, but is considered literary (having a zombie story published in the New Yorker will cause some confusion for people trying to pin one down to a specific genre).

    If you read more contemporary literary stuff, then you'll see a lot of stories that are in third person that present direct thoughts. The thing is, you don't notice, because it's not supposed to be noticeable. It's supposed to just be part of the experience on the page, so 'he thought' and italics will be removed, and you may not even realize it's a direct thought until you stop and break down the passage. And often, there are examples where it could work as a direct thought, or description/exposition, or a combination of multiple things that creates a representation of character motivation and experience. But, in such stories, it works.

    Imagine you're in a close, limited POV where everything is heavily voiced and presented through the character. You may have a sentence like "smells like roadkill" and is it a narrator providing facts? Is it a sensory description? Is it a direct thought?

    The latest style of prose says it's all three, perhaps, if you want to break it down, but in the moment of the story, it doesn't matter, because you aren't there to label and diagram sentences, but to experience a story. So the best answer is that it's a representation of the characters experience, part thought, part senses, part fact, part description... you know, kind of like how we, as people, process the world. We don't see something, acknowledge the fact, register the smell, and respond with a direct thought. We have levels of processes all going off at once, which is what many writers of today try to replicate.

    If you italicize 'smells like roadkill' it's now suddenly limited to only a direct thought, since that's the expected convention of italics. It's not right or wrong, good or bad, based on what the writer is trying to do with their prose.
     
  15. Ashleigh
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    Ashleigh Contributing Member Contributor

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    Stephen King does it alot and I've seen examples of it in many books. I think it can be quite effective, personally.

    There's not really a right or wrong way of doing these things, just as long as the quality's good and you keep your technique consistant. If other people don't agree, then so what? They probably aren't your target audience.
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Literal thoughts are from the perspective of the person thinking them. By definition, that is first person.
     
  17. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    And as your own preference, if you were writing in third person and wanted to use literal thoughts, would you italicize them?
     
  18. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Never italicize literal thoughts.
     
  19. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Then would you use a tag, like "he thought?" Without a tag, a first-person thought in a third-person narrative still seems weird to me.
     
  20. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Literal thoughts in third person narrative is less likely to need a tag. The change from third person to first can help signal the reader of the transition to literal thoughts.
     
  21. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I'm going to browse through some books tonight and see if I can find any examples of that. Maybe I've read some that way and haven't noticed, as popsicledeath suggests.
     
  22. Sundae
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    This. In most of my reading experience, literal thoughts have never needed to be italicized that I don't really understand why you would need to italicize it unless you want to bring attention to that thought specifically. They simply fade into the text and so I have always thought of literal thoughts as just part of the text. I've never considered it to be a stylistic choice because it has always been a part of writing in general. It's only in the last decade in which I have seen literal thoughts being italicized and the use of this method popularized. Pick up any chic-lit and you'll see what I mean. On the other hand, it's not that I'm opposed to the technique, it's that usually when an author is employing it, they over use it to the point that it gets annoying, or the reason it is used is weak in general that is disconcerting to read. I think I put a negative light to my stance on italicizing direct thoughts by calling some who use it lazy, but I can't help that conclusion when I have seen so many good examples that when I do read bad examples, I cringe. And usually the author's that do it badly, serially use it, as in every single novel of there's contain it, but to me, it's used in a way that diminishes the overall quality of the prose as opposed to enhancing it. I mean, there is nothing wrong with a device or style, but why use it if only takes away from the overall experience?

    I think one misconception is that because it's so popular to do these days, people think of it as stylistic choice, when to me, it has never been a stylistic choice. Almost every book will have literal thoughts in some degree that I've always thought of it as just being part of writing in general.

    As far as examples goes, I tried to find books that both use this approach as well as those in which the literal thoughts are just part of the text.

    1) I'm reading the hunger games now. It's written in first person, but the author italicizes the thoughts that her MC is physically thinking in that moment(not as pov, but as an action). This to me is okay, because there is a difference between perspectives at this point. The author is italicizing because she wants to separate the action of thinking versus the first person perspective.


    2) From: The Tristan Betrayal by Robert Ludlum

    I hope posting these examples are okay, but here, if you read it, you can clearly see the literal thoughts littered in there. There isn't really any doubt that they are literal thoughts, but at the same time, it's part of the text, just like any other point of narration.
     
  23. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Sundae: none of those examples include what I'm talking about in terms of direct thoughts. Those are just what the character is thinking woven into the third-person exposition. A literal thought would be a present-tense (unless thinking about a past event), first person thought such as what I provided in my previous examples. It would be just like regular dialogue, but it is internal monologue.
     
  24. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    By way of further example. Here's what Ludlum is doing:
    That's fine. That's how I write as well. I don't use direct, literal thought.

    But if it was a direct, literal thought, like if you were at a door listening, it would be:



    I'm looking for examples of books that use this kind of direct, literal presentation of thoughts in third person narrative and do not italicize.
     
  25. Sundae
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    Sundae Contributing Member

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    I'd have to disagree. Literal thoughts are not solely tied to present tense. In the examples I have, they were happening in the "now" as in the "now" of that moment and that moment can be in the past. I think you might be holding the band of present tense a little too tight.

    Present tense doesn't necessarily mean that it's happening now, as in literally right now and so, italicizing a literal thought because it is different due to your tense to me is more wrong than right. (after the spiel of "there is no wrong way to do something"). And that's the thing, you don't need to convert something to present tense from past tense to convey that it is happening in the now; and that is why I don't like the use of it. Because it's not necessary.

    But I think we just agree to disagree.


    Hmm... literary works I see direct thoughts not italicized in many literary novels and short stories. Tags of he said, she said are removed, quotation marks are removed, italics are removed. And even in that, I have to agree, that if you're not use to seeing something, the way even this can be presented too can be jarring. I'll see if I can find some examples of this because I have seen it done.
     

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