Punctuation Punctuation Glossary 2016-10-07 00:00

How to Punctuate and Format Inner Dialogue

How to Punctuate Inner Dialogue

Inner dialogue is an excellent way to give your readers a peek inside the heart and mind of your characters. Readers can’t get this depth of character strictly from the actions you include in your story. You should give them inner thoughts to create 3-D characters with which your readers will fall in love.

We have an excellent article, What’s She Thinking? How to Use Inner Dialogue, that will give you a more in-depth understanding of the mechanics of using inner dialogue.

Now let’s talk about how to format inner dialogue.

The Bad News

There is no hard and fast rule about formatting inner dialogue. Depending on which author, editor, or publisher you talk to, there are as many ways to handle inner dialogue as there are people writing it.

The one thing that needs to be pointed out, however, is that you shouldn’t use quotation marks for inner dialogue. The majority of experts agree that punctuation should be reserved for regular dialogue because it would get too confusing for your reader to try to figure out if the character is thinking or actually saying it out loud.

The Good News

Formatting inner dialogue is a stylistic choice, for the most part. Here are 3 different ways you can handle it, depending on what you’re trying to do with the inner dialogue.

1) Use both italics and thought dialogue tags. Combining italics with thought tags is a clear and definite signal to your reader that your character is thinking something. Consider the following example:

  • Geneva bent down to pick up the sliver of metal. What could this possibly be from? she thought.

Your reader wouldn’t misconstrue what you have in mind here, so if you need it to be readily apparent that you’re inside a character’s head, this is the method to use.

2) Use italics without thought dialogue tags. A lot of authors nowadays use italics to denote inner dialogue, like Stephen King. I think he is one of the most adept authors out there at writing compelling inner dialogue. So if he uses italics, so do I.

  • Geneva bent down to pick up the sliver of metal. What could this possibly be from?

3) Use neither italics nor thought tags. If you want the least intrusive way to present your character’s thoughts that won’t pull your reader’s attention away from the words on the page, use this method. Compare this to the other examples listed above:

  • Geneva bent down to pick up the sliver of metal. What could this possibly be from?

Further examples for effect

Depending on the method you choose to punctuate, you can bring your reader closer in with the least amount of narrative distance. Here are 3 examples that have very different effects:

  • Margaret watched the man amble over to her side of the bar. He looks nothing like my usual choice of male companions, she thought. I should’ve never made eye contact. (Use this to give your reader some distance if you’re using an omniscient third-person narrator who can see inside everyone’s thoughts.)

  • Margaret tilted her head as the man ambled over to her at the bar. He looks nothing like what I’m interested in. She glanced around quickly. Is there anyone else I can talk to instead of this man? (This gets your reader a little closer to your character.)

  • Margaret saw with some alarm that the man was making his way to her side of the bar. Damn, why did I make eye contact? She jerked her head around, trying to find someone else to talk to. Maybe he’ll go away if he sees me talking to another man.

See how the third method keeps the reader firmly inside Margaret’s head with nothing to break the focus? There’s nothing to signal to your reader that something else is going on besides what you want them to know. The reader is firmly inside your character’s head at this point.

Imagine the impact the third method would have if you were using first-person narration. Your reader would be inside your main character’s head. Good stuff.

I started to hyperventilate when I saw him grab his beer and head my way. Damnit, why did I make eye contact? I searched desperately around the bar. I’ve got to find someone else to talk to so this guy goes away.

Final thoughts

Again, it’s a stylistic choice how you punctuate your inner dialogue. Just make sure you’re consistent. Whatever method you choose, stick with it throughout your novel. Using various methods will frustrate your reader, the last thing you want to do.

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