Common Grammar Errors, Part 2: Italicized Internal Dialogue

This blog series addresses grammar and style errors many authors make.

Part 1 of this series is about how to properly punctuate dialogue tags and action tags. Click here to check out that post.

For Part 2, let’s talk about a related subject: italicized internal dialogue. (The errors here are more in style/tense/point of view than grammar, by the way.)

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

Introduction: Internal Dialogue

What is internal dialogue? Internal dialogue refers to the thoughts that occur in someone’s head. Examples: Wow, I look great in this shirt, or How dare my boss say that to me?

A couple of notes:

  • Not every author uses italics for their internal dialogue. It’s a style choice. I like writing in that style, so this blog post is written for others who like formatting their internal dialogue in the same way.
  • Internal dialogue isn’t the only way to share a character’s thoughts! Below, we’ll talk about properly sharing your character’s thoughts in two ways: through italicized internal dialogue and through narration.

Method 1 of Sharing a Character’s Thoughts: Italicized Internal Dialogue

Here’s the easiest way to think about italicized internal dialogue: it’s just like spoken dialogue; it just happens to be in a character’s head instead of spoken aloud!

That means italicized internal dialogue is…

  • …punctuated like spoken dialogue. The one difference is that the spoken part is italicized instead of being “in quotes.” To refresh your memory on how to punctuate dialogue, when to use capital letters, etc., go back to this post.
  • …written in the same point of view and tense as spoken dialogue. Internal dialogue is what your character is thinking at that moment.
    • If she’s thinking about herself, she’ll speak in first-person point of view, even if your novel is in third-person point of view. (She’ll refer to herself as I.)
    • If he’s thinking about what’s happening at that moment, he’ll be thinking in present tense, even if your novel is in past tense.

Here are several examples of italicized internal dialogue:

  • Julio, she thought, you are in a world of trouble! (This would work in a novel written in third person, past tense.)
  • Wow, that is one massive alligator. (Depending on context, this would work in a novel written in third person or first person and in past or present tense.)
  • I can’t believe it’s so expensive! they think. (This example uses singular they as a pronoun. This would work in a novel written in third person, present tense.)
  • Who drank the last of the milk? Min asks herself. (This would work in a novel written in third person, present tense.)
  • With effort, I swallowed. I’m gonna be sick. (This would work in a novel written in first person, past tense.)
  • Abby dragged herself out of bed. Who could be banging on my door at this hour? (This would work in a novel written in third person, past tense. Note that we didn’t need a dialogue tag; the action tag told us who was having the thought.)

Let’s talk briefly about first person, present tense.

  • You probably don’t need a lot of italicized internal dialogue if writing in first person, present tense. Most internal dialogue fits right in with the character’s narration. Example: I walk up to the house. I can’t believe my stepmother pulled out my mom’s roses. That second sentence might be internal dialogue, but you probably don’t need to set it apart with italics.
  • There are still valid reasons to use italicized internal dialogue with first person, present tense. Example: I glare at my boss. You are the worst person I’ve ever known. The truth of that thought sears my mind, but I manage to keep the words to myself.

Method 2 of Sharing a Character’s Thoughts: Narration

A character’s thoughts can be relayed by the narrator (if the narrator is privy to those thoughts, such as in first-person, third-person-limited, third-person-omniscient, or “deep/close” point of view).

When a narrator is relaying the character’s thoughts, they come through the filter of the narrator’s description. We aren’t reading the exact words going through the character’s brain. We’re reading the narrator’s description of those thoughts instead.

Even if the narrator is the character (first person), we can still hear the narrator’s description of their thoughts, rather than the thoughts themselves.

Here’s the biggest thing to remember about thoughts relayed by a narrator: they need to be treated the same as all other narration.

That means thoughts shared by a narrator are…

  • punctuated and formatted normally. No italics, no dialogue tags or action tags.
  • written from the same point of view and tense as the rest of the book. Whether you’re in first person or third person, present tense or past tense, stay there if the narrator is describing the character’s thoughts.

Here are several examples of a character’s thoughts, shared by a narrator.

  • She knew Julio was in a world of trouble. (This would work in a novel written in third person, past tense.)
  • He marvels at the massive alligator. (This would work in a novel written in third person, present tense.)
  • They can’t believe it’s so expensive. (This example uses singular they as a pronoun. This would work in a novel written in third person, present tense.)
  • Min considers who might have drunk the last of the milk. (This would work in a novel written in third person, present tense.)
  • With effort, I swallowed. I was about to get sick. (This would work in a novel written in first person, past tense.)

Let’s talk about close or deep point of view.

  • Close or deep third-person point of view is a popular point of view in modern novels.
  • In this point of view, the narrator is so close to the character’s thoughts that there’s some blurring of the lines between narrator and character.
  • Example: Abby dragged herself out of bed. Who would be banging on her door at this hour?
  • Note that the narrator doesn’t say, Abby wondered who would be banging on her door. Words such as “wondered,” “thought,” considered,” etc. tend to be used less in deep/close point of view. In deep point of view, the narrator will often describe what’s in the character’s head without reminding us that’s what they’re doing. We know from the context of the book or scene that the narrator is very close to this character’s thoughts.
  • Let’s go back to that example: Who would be banging on her door at this hour? Note the use of “this hour.” Wait a minute…that’s a present-tense phrase! Narrators in deep/close point of view sometimes use short phrases that the character would use. Basically, the narrator is close enough to the character to dabble in a tiny bit of present-tense or first-person language. Here are more examples:
    • Ivan watched her walk through the parking lot. Why was she here, at his office? (Note the use of “here” instead of “there.” It’s a one-word journey into the character’s perspective.)
    • Suma gazed at the lights strung across the back yard. This would be the best birthday party ever! (Note the use of “this.” Without deep point of view, it might’ve been written as, She knew the party would be the best ever.)
  • Unsure about these deep/close shifts in tense/point of view? You don’t have to use them. The more books you read in deep point of view (and many current novels are written this way), the more these little shifts are likely to become second nature to you.
  • Some authors go so deep in their writing that they use internal dialogue without italics (in third-person writing), and it flows perfectly. Brent Weeks does this really well in his Lightbringer series. It’s not currently my writing style, but maybe someday it will be!
  • One more note: It’s okay not to write a whole novel in close/deep point of view. You might write some parts that are more distant/less deep (such as when describing a new setting), before “zooming in” close to your character.

Typical Errors and How to Fix Them

Error 1 (the one I see most often by far)

  • Mistake: Jessika strolled through the garden. She’d never seen such vibrant roses. They were prettier than ever this year.
  • This is italicized as if it’s internal dialogue, but it’s written as past-tense, third-person narration.
  • Two valid corrections: Jessika strolled through the garden. She’d never seen such vibrant roses. They were prettier than ever this year. or Jessika strolled through the garden. I’ve never seen such vibrant roses. They’re prettier than ever this year.

Error 2

  • Mistake: I think I’ll have a salad, Lam thought.
  • The dialogue tag shouldn’t be italicized.
  • Correction: I think I’ll have a salad, Lam thought.

Beth nodded and smiled. I bet these authors are writing some amazing books.

(See what I did there?)

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