Friday, June 29, 2012

Expressing Thought-Reactions in Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor and author    

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 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 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.   
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 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.


  1. I printed this out to keep handy during my rewrite. Great reminders!

  2. Linda Bonney OlinJune 30, 2012 at 5:49 PM

    Jodie, I've got a question about applying your excellent advice to my first-person novel.

    I've italicized the brief thoughts that are expressed as direct quotes by the FP character and by her dead mother (in the FP character's imagination). They're worded in such a way that the reader can easily identify who's "speaking." Should I add quotation marks to the mother's imaginary remarks? Seems like overkill to me, but what do you think?
    Thanks. Linda

  3. Hi Linda,

    Thanks for stopping by. No, definitely no quotation marks for thoughts or imaginary remarks. Reserve quotation marks for actual dialogue. Good luck with your first-person novel!

    1. Linda Bonney OlinJune 30, 2012 at 7:07 PM

      Thanks, Jodie.
      I enjoy reading first-person mysteries and it felt natural to write this book in first person too.
      It's taking so long to finish a full draft! My nonfiction projects keep hogging my writing time.
      Meanwhile, though, I'm soaking up sage counsel from you experienced folks. :)

  4. Glad to be of help, Linda. I look forward to reading your mystery when it's done!

  5. This is very helpful! Thanks.

  6. Thanks for dropping by, Heather!

  7. Thanks for clarifying an often murky area!

    Speaking of murky areas, what about telepathic communication? An agent objected to my use of italics for it, requesting instead quotation marks for any speech-like conversation, audible or no. This isn't exactly covered in the Chicago this usage standard, or does this sound like a "house rule" to you?