Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Your characters’ thoughts and beliefs are the bedrock of their existence. Every action should flow naturally from them, every piece of dialogue or gesture should be written with them in mind. Eventually, though, it’s time to address the thoughts themselves – not as the foundation for other behaviour, but as the vital characterization they are. When that moment arrives, many authors come unstuck, struggling to address such a core element of their characters and story.
That’s why in this article I’ll be telling you everything you need to know about how to express your characters’ thoughts, from the accepted way to put thought onto the page to the most effective methods of communicating your characters’ worries and desires. I’ll end with some useful exercises that you can use to experiment with and explore my advice.
Thought in font
There are several ways to express thought on the page, but when directly relaying it like speech, there’s an accepted style of formatting that authors should observe. This, quite simply, is to present direct thought in italics, often followed by the phrase ‘I/he/she/it thought’.
There are several reasons to do this, but the most important is clarity. Not marking direct thought can lead to it being misunderstood – the reader only knows they’re reading a thought once they’ve finished it, leaving them to become confused or make incorrect assumptions in the interim. As an example, consider the text below.
Claire stands on the edge of the building, eyes fixed on the cold, distant ground. She deserves to fall, thinks Edward.
Here, it’s easy for the reader to read a thought as something that’s being expressed by the narrator. So if thoughts need to be marked out, why not use speech marks? The answer is that speech marks are already taken up by speech – we even have two types of quotations, single and double marks, so that we can differentiate between when the reader is hearing speech in the moment and when they’re hearing it quoted later. Using speech marks for thought can mean that the reader wrongly assumes something has been said out loud. Even marking thoughts with ‘she thought’ doesn’t fix the problem – it limits writing style, and can be missed by a reader who’s ferociously devouring your book. This could easily be the case in this example:
“I think you should be a little more appreciative,” said Miss Bellow.
“Yes Ma’am,” I replied.
“I do a lot for you that you don’t know about,” she continued.
“There’s no reward for it, you know. It’s all off my own back.”
“I wish you’d get off my back,” I thought.
“You’re an ungrateful girl, you really are,” she said.
Italics allow you to tell the reader ‘this is a thought’ before they’ve read a single word. They also allow you to throw in thoughts whenever you want, without having to clarify that no-one heard them, as in the example below.
She told us how she’d be spending the money and one by one our faces fell. She explained how the initial outlay would bring in new clients, people who’d be profiting from our generosity. That was just phase one, though, and in phase two she’d use her natural charm to get them on a permanent contract that would swing things the other way. In your dreams, princess.
Italics are the most effective, most useful tool for communicating character thought, and if you keep reading I’ll tell you exactly why you should never use them in your writing.
Communicating characters’ thoughts via point of view
First, though, it’s important to acknowledge that the point of view from which you write can have a huge influence on how you express thought. That’s why it’s important to take a moment and discuss the differences when expressing thought in first person, third person limited and third person omniscient narration.
Don’t worry, though – if you’re an author who works strictly within one of these categories, almost all of what I have to say will still be relevant, and that’s also the case if you’re a non-fiction or even memoir writer.
First person thinking
Many authors are confused by thought in first person writing – if the story is narrated by one or more characters then surely everything they say is thought? Not necessarily, since there are lots of reasons that directly communicated thought might differ from narration.
The first of these is tense: If a thought is being relayed directly from the character then it should be in the present tense.If a thought is being relayed directly from the character then it should be in the present tense. Click To Tweet
This may sound simple, but it’s an easy rule to forget. Lots of first person narration occurs in the past tense, with the narrator looking back at events that have already happened, but it’s important to remember that, like dialogue, their thoughts occurred in the moment. Consider these examples:
Billy arrived, spinning some stupid story about how his old man had confiscated his car keys. When Kara rocked up she was no better, bringing a measly bottle of wine and fifteen packets of salted nuts. It was only when Danny strolled in, an hour late but lugging an untapped keg of beer, that things started looking up. Now we were talking.
Kongo began foaming at the mouth, striking out at the bars of his cage and whooping madly. What the hell was wrong with him?
In these paragraphs, the thoughts expressed as italics are in the same tense as the narration and that’s a problem. The characters above would never have thought ‘What the hell was wrong with him?’ because they’re experiencing the action in the present and their thoughts should reflect this. ‘Now we’re talking’ and ‘What the hell is wrong with him?’ would be in a different tense to the narration, but that’s what frames them as thoughts the character is having in the moment. This reveals the major use of thought in a first-person, past-tense narrative – it gives you an insight into the narrator as they were when the events of the story played out.
Third person limited thinking
Third person limited narration is when the reader experiences the story via a single character, but not through that character’s eyes. It’s often described as perching on the shoulder of a character, seeing what they do without experiencing their direct input. Since the reader is hearing about the character secondhand, thoughts allow them a rare glimpse into the character’s mental state, as in the example below from Christopher Paolini’s Brisingr:
“You admit we are your people. Then do you still follow our customs and worship our gods?”
Here is the turning point, thought Nasuada. She could lie and claim she had abandoned the old ways, but if she did, the Varden would lose Fadawar’s tribes, and other nomads besides, once they heard of her statement. We need them. We need everyone we can get if we’re to have the slightest chance of toppling Galbatorix.
“I do,” she said.
Here, the author has access to the character’s reasoning and decision-making process, but her actual, literal thoughts are a different thing altogether. The important thing with the third person limited point of view is to appreciate the difference – communicating direct thought should be used to heighten the connection with a character, rather than as an easy way to explain their motivations.
If you’ve chosen a third person limited viewpoint then you’ve done it for a reason – this is the best way to tell your story. Directly communicating thought is something else entirely, and it’ll take over if you let it. In the extract above, the reader already understands the character’s situation. Her thoughts are communicated to underline her emotional situation – the pressure she’s experiencing – rather than to clarify the plot.Third person limited narration is when you experience a story via a character, but not through that character’s eyes Click To Tweet
Third person omniscient thinking
Third person omniscient narration has no limits. The narrator is an all-knowing, godlike presence who is detached from the characters. Note that this is not the same as a third person limited narrator who hops between characters – the difference is not just in how much the narrator knows, but how they present that knowledge to the reader. The limited narrator can see the thoughts of the characters and relays them as directly as possible to the reader. The omniscient narrator knows everything – the number of snowflakes in the sky, the political history of every kingdom – and is telling the reader everything they need to know about the most relevant events.
Because of this, communicating thought in italic form can be incredibly effective for the omniscient narrator. Less caught up in characters’ inner workings, directly sharing their thoughts is an easy way to perform characterization and share limited information (which the narrator themselves understands, and could expound on, in full).
Again, though, remember that you chose an omniscient narrator for a reason. If you’re telling a story that wasn’t going to find its best form when told by a character, then including too much of their inner narrative isn’t going to help.
You may have recognized by now that, while italic thought is an accepted literary device that answers many authors’ prayers, I’m not a big fan.Third person omniscient is not the same as a third person limited narrator who hops between characters. Click To Tweet
Beware the soliloquy
Originating in theatre, the soliloquy has become a cliché in modern times – a type of monologue in which a character steps out of the narrative and explains their thoughts, drives and true intentions to the audience. It’s a common staple of Shakespeare, and there’s a reason for that.
The type of play that utilized soliloquy was often performed to huge audiences with no way of getting a close look at the actors. It circumvented expression and gesture because those tools were no good to the groundling at the back of the theatre, who simply couldn’t see such subtle expressions of the character’s thought.
Today, the soliloquy is a relic, most often invoked as a joke, or as a deliberate reference to plays gone by. That’s doubly the case in TV and movies, where the camera can focus in on a character’s expressions, obsess over their smallest gesture or act, and communicate the same information in an infinitely more engaging manner.
The thing is, authors have always been able to use this kind of close-up. The author is a director without equal, with complete control over the set dressing, direction, acting and even the attention of the viewer. To fall back on italics is to invoke a soliloquy, and with so much control it’s almost never justifiable.
Frank Herbert’s sci-fi bestseller Dune employs frequent use of italic thought, often invoking it in a style that seems directly based on Shakespearean soliloquy.
He closed the book, handed it to Paul. “Try it.”
Yueh watched Paul work the page adjustment, thought: I salve my own conscience. I give him the surcease of religion before betraying him. Thus may I say to myself that he has gone where I cannot go.
“This must’ve been made before filmbooks,” Paul said.
“It’s quite old. Let it be our secret, eh? Your parents might think it too valuable for one so young.”
And Yueh thought: His mother would surely wonder at my motives.
While this scene is compelling, it still amounts to one character speaking to another and then whispering his true intentions behind his hand so the reader can keep up. Yes, it works in terms of communicating information to the reader, but it’s an easy way to do so that reduces the impact and lessens the chance of a reader becoming ‘active’.
An ‘active reader’ is one who is emotionally involved in the story rather than simply experiencing it. Invited in by the author, they engage fully, drawing their own conclusions and becoming aware of truths that the author hasn’t directly communicated.
Being an active reader isn’t a matter of effort, but about how much space the author leaves for the reader to become involved. Consider the following examples.
“I want to buy what you won’t sell,” he said calmly. “It’s all I want to own and it’s all that will make me leave.”
He’s terrifying, thought Clement. What he wants is Davina, and I’ll never part with her.
“I want to buy what you won’t sell,” he said calmly. “It’s all I want to own and it’s all that will make me leave.”
As the man paced back and forth, Clement smiled and, heart pounding in his chest, tried to position himself such that the photo of Davina was never in the monster’s sight.
Both versions of this scene communicate the same ideas – the reader learns what’s going on in Clement’s head – but in the second they’re asked to use his physical state to intuit his emotional experience. It’s not a difficult task, but it invites the reader to become active in a way the italic thought doesn’t.
It’s not that the italic thought isn’t interesting, it’s that it simply doesn’t give the reader the chance to work out what’s happening. This is why I’d advise authors to use italic thought as little as possible – not only does it take up the space of a far more effective device, but it actually encourages the reader to experience the story passively.
Not only that, but humans simply don’t think in clear, full sentences. Thoughts are our personal narrative and we understand the context of our own life so thoroughly that we rarely feel the need to summarize. Italic thought therefore gives the reader less to do and provides a less realistic, and less believable, account of a character’s inner life. In the extract below, a character considers his own position in a way which, if considered as the actual words inside someone’s head, becomes laughable.
Suddenly Tom was surrounded by men and women with angry faces and accusing eyes. One of the men curled his hands into clenched fists.
They don’t understand, Tom thought. And I can’t explain. What am I going to do?
– Adam Blade, Beast Quest: Vipero the Snake Man
Finally, many people (and certainly the most compelling characters), don’t completely understand their own motivations. Real people don’t always know exactly why they’re angry, or what’s worrying them, in fact they’re frequently completely wrong about their own motivations. There are ways to communicate this with italic thought, but it’s harder than with other devices; readers will find it difficult to resist a character’s direct account of their own feelings, even when they should.
Of course any absolutist stance becomes absurd when applied to art – Herbert uses the Dune soliloquy to deliberately invoke a Shakespearean sense of intrigue and betrayal, and often it’s a simple way to deliver some helpful exposition or punctuate a key moment, as in the extract above.
The crux of the matter is that italic thought is never going to be the best way to communicate thought, and it should be used with that in mind. It’s a poor tool but, in an emergency, that might be exactly what you need. Use it to support your whole narrative, though, and you’ll end up with something flimsy.
But if I’m going to rail against the use of direct, italic thought then I have to offer some alternatives, right?
Narrator description of thought
Narrator description suffers from many of the same problems as direct italic thought, but, crucially, sheds its very worst traits. In narrator description, the narrator describes the thoughts or motivations of a character without adopting their own words. This is possible in third and first person writing – ‘I was devastated’ or ‘he was devastated’ instead of Oh God, I’m devastated.
Here, the reader doesn’t face the often frankly unbelievable phrasing of direct thought. There’s also more room for the reader to fill in the specifics of a character’s experience, or disagree with the account they’ve been given. This is the case in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest:
She hesitated. For two years she had kept as far away from Mikael Blomkvist as she could… She looked at him for a moment and realized that she now had no feelings for him. At least not those kinds of feelings… Then she made up her mind. It was absurd to pretend that he did not exist. It no longer hurt her to see him. She opened the door wide and let him into her life again.
Narrator description beats italic thought because it’s easier to circumvent the distancing effect. The emotions described don’t particularly invite the reader’s active engagement, but they do leave space for it. The reader can reflect on the specifics of the character’s experience, even if they’re being directly told some of the wider information.
To use theatrical terminology, narrator description is the narrator voiceover to italic thought’s soliloquy. Still a pretty cheap and easy device, but one that you’ll notice is still used in modern, technologically advanced productions.
Despite these superior qualities, it’s still not the ideal device, and yet there is one to be had. In fact, it’s right there in the last line of Larsson’s extract.In narrator description, a narrator describes a character's thoughts without adopting their words. Click To Tweet
Thought by implication
Thought by implication is the ideal way to communicate thought, not just leaving room for reader engagement but actively inviting it. It was present in the second ‘Clement’ paragraph I used earlier, and it’s almost what Larsson does in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest.
The last line of that extract is:
She opened the door wide and let him into her life again.
Here, the reader is very nearly allowed to read into the opened door for themselves. It’s a moment that could be incredibly powerful, and one that readers would have no trouble interpreting – after hesitating about whether she can trust Mikael, the protagonist opens a door to him. It’s a clear metaphor that communicates her exact emotional state, a specific thought that the reader could be allowed to discover and ‘own’, but the narrator can’t help but spell out what it means.
Communicating thought through gesture and implication is incredibly powerful, and the most engaging characters are those who readers have ‘figured out’ for themselves. This is even the case when the implication of a gesture is completely clear – the reader doesn’t want to solve the character like a puzzle, they just want a connection that isn’t completely dictated by the narrator. They want to take a step, even a small one, towards the character, claiming a personal understanding of their emotions and thoughts.
Returning to theatre and film a final time, this is the work for which actors become acclaimed. Small expressions and near-imperceptible acts that communicate their characters’ thoughts without dialogue, narration or any other cues to understanding.
But what about when that isn’t possible? What about when an author has no way to communicate a character’s specific thoughts or emotions? Well, it might happen, but only once in a blue moon. The author controls not just the characters but the whole world of the story. They can set the scene, tweak the moment, and steer the dialogue into any configuration.
In How to Improve Your Writing by Cutting Eight Words I shared the following quote from Stephen King’s On Writing:
Consider the sentence ‘He closed the door firmly’… You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between ‘He closed the door’ and ‘He slammed the door’, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before ‘He closed the door firmly’? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door?
King is talking about the use of adverbs, but the same is true of these small, implied moments that communicate thought – it’s not just the moment or act that should communicate what’s in the character’s head, but everything that’s gone before. How have they behaved in the past, and what would different behaviour tell the reader now? This kind of writing is exemplified in the final pages of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, where the protagonist admits his misdeeds to his stalwart secretary.
Her voice was queer as the expression on her face. ‘You did that, Sam, to her?’
He nodded. ‘Your Sam’s a detective.’ He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. ‘She did kill Miles, angel,’ he said gently, ‘offhand, like that.’ He snapped the fingers of his other hand.
She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. ‘Don’t, please, don’t touch me,’ she said brokenly. ‘I know – I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now – not now.’
Spade’s face became pale as his collar.
The corridor-door’s knob rattled… She said in a small flat voice: ‘Iva is here.’
Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly. ‘Yes,’ he said, and shivered. ‘Well, send her in.’
Notice how this passage paints a clear picture of every character’s emotional state without once mentioning their thoughts or emotions. It’s even more powerful in the context of the story, where the secretary has had full, flirtatious confidence in the protagonist, and where he has met every challenge so far with either brazen confidence or bullish anger. To see her withdraw from him, and to see him reduced in stature, speaks volumes.
Utilizing implied thought
This passage should also reassure authors that implying thought isn’t a matter of fiendish subtlety – The Maltese Falcon is no cerebral character study, but it grabs the reader by allowing them to interpret the characters’ thoughts, even if they’re working with immediately clear actions and words to do so.
Implied thought might sound difficult, but thankfully it’s not something that demands perfect, immediate execution every time you want to show what a character is thinking. In fact, you can even use italic thought in your initial drafts and, once the story and characters are firmed up, go back and replace these instances with subtler implied thought. It’s something that’s worth doing, since it can enhance your reader’s connection to a character a hundredfold and allow them to invest their own emotions and perception in a character.
Putting it into practice
Many authors may find that a mix of the techniques above works best for them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Implied thought is a fantastic tool and, if possible, should be your go-to technique for communicating thought, but even if you can only use it 10% of the time, it’ll still do a lot for your writing and characterization.
One way to build this skill is to try writing an italic thought scene, and then to attempt to rewrite it with several slightly different implied thoughts. Doing so will hone your ability to communicate precise motivations through movement, speech, tone and action. I’ve included a few practice sentences underneath to help you get started. First I’ll provide a scene that relies on italicized and reported thought, then some specific points to emphasize in your implied thought rewriting. I’ll also provide my own rewritten versions of scene 1 to compare and contrast with your own results. Remember when rewriting the scenes that you’re the author – you can extend, delete and alter as much as you like to get the perfect moment of implied thought.
Practice scene 1:
I stood with one foot on the diving board. Oh god, I thought, oh god, I’m going to crack my head open. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. Down below, half of my class were jeering and half were cheering me on. This would be so much easier without an audience. I could see Lara in the corner of the pool. Well, at least now I’ve got her attention.
Rewrite to emphasize
- The character’s fear of injury,
- The character’s embarrassment in front of his classmates,
- The character’s appreciation of Lara’s attention.
Fear of injury
I stood with one foot on the diving board, my knees shaking under me. I laced my hands over my head like the world’s least effective crash helmet and looked down. Gathered around the pool, so, so far below, half of my class were jeering and half were cheering me on. I could see Lara in the corner of the pool.
I stood with one foot on the diving board. Down below, gathered like the hyenas in the last scene of The Lion King, my class was waiting. I squinted until I couldn’t see them, but there was no way to block out the chanting, or to stop my stomach flipping over and over like one of those robotic dogs. I could see Lara in the corner of the pool.
Appreciation of attention
I stood with one foot on the diving board. Down below, half of my class were jeering and half were cheering me on. Spotting Lara in the corner of the pool I puffed out my chest a little, but she was too far below to tell if it’d had the desired effect. I strained a little, listening to the chanting, but couldn’t make out which side she’d fallen on.
Practice scene 2:
Owen snapped the antennae. Oh shit, he thought, I feel guilty already. His little brother, Barry, began bawling, overwhelmed by the injustice of it all. He’ll get me in trouble! screamed Owen’s mind, so he clamped a hand over the kid’s mouth.
Rewrite to emphasize:
- The character’s immediate guilt,
- The extent and nature of Barry’s sadness,
- The character’s panic at Barry’s reaction.
Practice scene 3:
Well, I deserve these, she thought, dropping the shoes into her basket. She spent a while longer trying on dresses, but in the end she only wanted the shoes. She felt a surge of pride as she placed them before the cashier, finally capable of treating herself.
“I’m afraid these are scuffed,” he said, “and they’re the last pair.”
“That’s okay,” she said, her heart plummeting.
Rewrite to emphasize:
- The character’s initial attitude to the shoes,
- The character’s pride at the checkout,
- The character’s disappointment with the cashier’s statement.
Once you’ve completed the exercise, share your new scenes in the comments – I’d love to see what our talented community of writers does with such seemingly simple setups.
For more on the inner lives of characters, check out Nail your character’s backstory with this one simple tip, or for authentic emotional writing, try Don’t let fake minor characters ruin your story.How to express your characters’ thoughts - with exercises Click To Tweet