How to Write and Punctuate Thoughts in Fiction Writing

When I was working under a big house editor awhile back, one of the things he told me was that he would toss out any manuscript that said:

… he thought to himself.

He said this was a rookie mistake for a writer to make. It marked the writer as someone who had not taken the time to write well.

Why?

Because, unless you are writing a science fiction or fantasy novel in which characters can communicate telepathically with their thoughts, there is no other way to think than to think to yourself. Stating so is superfluous, completely unnecessary, and thus, the mark of poor writing, or at least, weak writing.

There is no need to say someone thought to themselves, but rather that they simply thought.

WRONG:

Man, she’s one fine looking woman, he thought to himself.

RIGHT:

Man, she’s one fine looking woman, he thought, knowing he’d never stand a chance with her. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

In general, direct thoughts, those a person thinks inside their head, as though they were spoken but were thought instead, are written as italics without quotes around it, but tagged the same way as if they had quotes.

Example:
Mary thought, I think I’ll go to the store.

Mary said, “I think I’ll go to the store.”

Note two things about the example. 1) except for the quotes vs. italics, the punctuation is the same and 2) Mary didn’t think to herself; she just thought.

Also, when writing thoughts in fiction writing, you want to be sure that you are only italicizing those thoughts that are thought in the character’s head as though they were spoken inside their head.


For example:
Tom thought it would be a good idea to go to the store.

Tom thought, I think it would be a good idea to go to the store.

…….

Jason wondered whether going to the store was a good thing for Tom to do.

Jason wondered, Is it a good thing for Tom to go to the store?

Try to differentiate between telling the reader a thought and showing them one…remember, if you are not in omniscient point of view (POV) or the POV of the character doing the thinking, you can’t tell the reader that person’s thoughts anyway because the reader shouldn’t have access to them!

Thoughts are a tricky business in fiction writing.

Lastly, I want you to think about how YOU think in real life. When you think, you probably don’t really think in complete paragraphs like you would talk. You probably don’t really even think in complete sentences. In fact, much of our thoughts are more flashes and images with bits of words thrown in to complement them.

When you are writing thoughts for a character, you need to keep that in mind. DO NOT try to tell your story through a character’s thoughts. Now, it’s one thing if the character is the story’s narrator. That might come across as the character’s thoughts, but it’s really not. I’m talking about making your character walking around talking to himself inside his head – don’t do it. People don’t think that way. Find another way to write it if you catch yourself doing more than a couple of sentences of thought.

Remember, in order to write good fiction, you have to suspend disbelief long enough that the reader can be drawn into your world and be a part of it as though it is real. If your character carries on conversations with himself in his head, your reader will get bored quick.

So, to recap – the main point of this tip is: don’t he “…he thought to himself.”

This message brought to you in part by the manuscript I am assessing this morning.

Have a fantastic and editorially correct day.

Love and stuff,
Michy