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How to Punctuate Thought

Character’s Thoughts: Punctuating and Formatting

The following is an excellent article from Writers Relief.com on expressing characters’ thoughts. I have interspersed a few comments of my own shown in italics.

Knowing how to punctuate or format your character’s thoughts can be difficult. Should you use italics? Quotation marks? Underlining? I have never seen underlining as a way to show a character’s thought, so I doubt your reader would understand the significance of the underline. What is the best way to show that a character is thinking within a given sentence or paragraph?

When the protagonist of your story pauses to think something, you need to set it apart somehow from the regular text and dialogue.

Methods for formatting characters’ thoughts:

There are three main ways to show thought. They are:
1. Express thought as part of the narrative without quoting directly from the character’s head.
2. Use italics
3. Use quotation marks, either double or single. Use of single quotation marks is not recommended. Each of these methods is explained in more detail in the Writers Relief article.

1.The most straightforward way to do convey thought is to paraphrase the characters’ thoughts into the narrative. Sometimes, you don’t need to do anything to make it clear that a character is thinking, because the character’s thoughts will appear as if they are a part of the narrative—so that the line between the character and the “narrator” is thinned nearly to invisibility.

Example:
When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. Why hadn’t they gone home first to change into play clothes? Oh well, they were already in trouble for being late for dinner, and they might as well get it over with. The trio trudged home reluctantly.

2. Another useful technique is to use italics to format thoughts, which is an effective tool when thoughts and spoken dialogue are interspersed. This technique is becoming standard practice among publishers—and for good reason. The different type style makes it quite clear when a person is thinking versus speaking aloud.

Example:
When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. Why didn’t we go home first to change into play clothes? Roger thought. “We’re already in trouble for being late for dinner, so we might as well get it over with,” he told his brothers, and the trio trudged home reluctantly.
This style is also popular with science fiction and horror writers, who use italics to show telepathic communication between characters.

3. Some writers use quotation marks to set off thoughts, but this can get complicated, especially when thoughts and spoken dialogue are mixed.

Example:
When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. “Why didn’t we go home first to change into play clothes?” Roger thought. “We’re already in trouble for being late for dinner, so we might as well get it over with,” he told his brothers, and the trio trudged home reluctantly.
As you can see, there is nothing to differentiate between the spoken sentence and the thought.

4. The problem caused by using double quotation marks can be avoided by using single quotation marks around the thought, but this is an awkward fix, and we don’t recommend it. The only grammatically correct use for single quotation marks is a quote within a quote. You’ll see that the example of how to format characters’ thoughts below is difficult to read.

Example:
When the brothers climbed up the riverbank, their school clothes coated with mud and filth, it occurred to them for the first time that their mom would be furious. ‘Why didn’t we go home first to change into play clothes?’ Roger thought. “We’re already in trouble for being late for dinner, so we might as well get it over with,” he told his brothers, and the trio trudged home reluctantly.

A few more notes:

If your character is thinking something to him or herself, it is redundant to say so.
Wow, that sure is a small car, the large man thought to himself.
But if he is thinking out loud, tell this to your reader.
“Wow, that sure is a small car,” the large man thought aloud.

Finally, whichever style you choose to follow, make sure it stays consistent throughout your work, and make it easy for your reader to follow what your characters are thinking, as well as saying.

From Writers Relief article posted July 3, 2008.