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From Rick:

In a previous blog (May 7, 2012, Novel Writing for Beginners–Part 3), I talked about the five narrative forms: Description, Exposition, Dialog, Thoughts, Action. I promised to come back to them at some point. Since the proper use THOUGHTS seems to cause difficulties among some new writers, I thought (no pun intended) that this would be a good time to address them.

Thoughts come in two forms: DIRECT and INDIRECT.

A DIRECT thought comes, as you might expect, directly from the character’s mind. The question is how do we express them in our writing? And should we tag them as thoughts?

Since they are thoughts, not dialog, it’s not proper to put them in quotes. Italics are generally preferred. Examples:

John hesitated. I really should do this now before I chicken out, he thought to himself.

Mike looked at the new girl in his class. I wonder if she has boyfriend, he thought. If not, maybe she’d go to the dance with me.

There are a couple of problems with these examples, however. In the first one, “John thought to himself” is redundant. Who else would he be thinking to? If you insist on a tag, leave “to himself” out.

But why do we need to tag the thoughts at all? Don’t the italics tell us it’s a thought? If the writer has already made it clear whose head we’re in–which the writer should have–then the tag isn’t necessary at all. In the second example, we know we’re in Mike’s head from the first sentence, so that tag is likewise unnecessary. Better to write these this way–

John hesitated. I really should do this now before I chicken out.

Mike looked at the new girl in his class. I wonder if she has boyfriend. If not, maybe she’d go to the dance with me.

You’ll find “thought” tags in commercial novels. That’s doesn’t make thought tags right or necessary. No rule exists that says you MUST use a tag for thoughts. Personally, I find them annoying most of the time, and seeing them tells me either the writer hasn’t done his job, or he doesn’t trust the reader to get it. However, that doesn’t mean they might not be necessary in a few cases when there is no other way to make it clear whose thought it is. Note that I said whose. If you have a dialog going on and the “thinker” isn’t clear to the reader, THEN by all means use it. But you should exhaust other options first.

By the way, you will find some writers using direct thoughts that aren’t in italics. In that latter case, the writer is almost forced to use “thought” tags to indicate that they are thoughts. If he had simply italicized, the need for the tag goes away.

Although I said you normally don’t put thoughts in quotes, I can think of a possible exception: telepathic communication between characters (as might happen in a fantasy or sci-fi novel). In the case where two or more parties are communicating telepathically for some lines, but speaking other lines, you might put ALL their lines (even the telepathed ones) in quotes, but you should italicize the telepathic lines.

Some writers choose to put asterisks instead of around the telepathed lines. This is acceptable, but you should still italicize them for added clarity. I would advise against putting telepathed lines in all caps because that can be distracting to a reader and misinterpreted as shouting.

INDIRECT thoughts are another way to express a character’s feelings. What’s the difference? Instead of the thought being expressed directly by the character, as if he were saying it out loud, the indirect thought comes across more as a musing on the character’s part. Indirect thoughts are always expressed in the point of view (POV) of the story. By this I mean that if the story POV is third person, the indirect thought is also third person. I’ll use the same examples from above to show the difference.

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John hesitated. He really should do this now before he chickened out.

Mike looked at the new girl in his class. Did she have a boyfriend? If not, maybe she’d go to the dance with him.

(NOTE: Do not use italics with indirect thoughts.)

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I prefer indirect thoughts or direct ones most of the time for a couple of reasons. Italics can be distracting to readers, particularly if used too much. Indirect thoughts get the same point across, without the need for italics. Thus, indirect thoughts can feel smoother to the reader because you’re not shifting verb tenses or person. The reader is still in the character’s head and maybe even deeper because the italics don’t break up the flow. In most cases, you gain little by using direct thoughts. My preference is to limit direct thoughts to a word or two, such as when the character is swearing in his mind.

DIRECT thoughts are always written in the first person, since they come directly from the character, even if the narrative is in third person. But what if you’re already writing in first person? How do indirect thoughts differ? Let’s look at both past-tense and present-tense examples.

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I hesitated. I really felt I should do this now before I chickened out.

I looked at the new girl in my class. Did she have a boyfriend? If she didn’t, would she go out with me?

I hesitate. I really feel I should do this now before I chicken out.

I look at the new girl in my class. Does she have a boyfriend? If she doesn’t, would she go out with me?

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So, I hope this all makes sense. Practice using indirect thoughts. Once you get used to them, you may find them a more natural way to write most of the time. In any case, avoid I thought/he thought/she thought tags. After I had the differences pointed out in a writing workshop a number of years ago, I came to the conclusion that my writing seems to sound a bit more professional if I limit my direct thoughts and stick to indirect ones.

–Rick