Advice, tips, and info for fiction writers and aspiring authors, from a highly respected fiction editor and craft-of-writing author. Jodie's craft-of-fiction articles also appear regularly or occasionally on these blogs: Crime Fiction Collective, The Kill Zone, Writer's Forensics Blog, The Thrill Begins, Blood-Red Pencil, and others.
How do you express thoughts and inner reactions in
fiction? Thoughts, like dialogue, need to drive the story forward and be
natural-sounding and appropriate for both the “thinker” and the situation.
For this article, I’ve purposely used the term
“thought-reactions,” instead of just “thoughts,” as 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 or done, whether it be
anger, delight, confusion, frustration, surprise, or whatever. Or perhaps
they’re actively planning something.
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 thought 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
-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?
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 more. 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.
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.
Jake took a step back. Holy crap. What
have I done?
Here’s an example
from Don’t Look Twice, by Andrew
It was already after
ten! She tried David’s cell one more time. Again, his voice mail came on.
the hell is going on, David?
She started to get
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 say “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.