Italics Will Never Love You
By J.D. Mersault
Part One: Interior Monologue
Grammar is a subject about which it is easy to be pedantic, especially for those of us who study or produce literature. These days it comes with the territory—it’s difficult to get through one of the brick-like, doorstop novels of the post-modern canon without being able to navigate the minefield of grammatical style within, not to mention the similar feat required if you want to write one yourself for some reason. Yet when the craft of writing seems to count for less and less each day in the face of declining publisher revenues, disturbing global political trends, and the omnipresent twitter bot, a nitpicky focus on grammar could be seen as at best gauche and at worst distracting. Nowadays, even mentioning the proper position of a comma, semicolon, or apostrophe outside of the lecture hall or editorial meeting is the fastest way to roll an eye. And do you think Tao Lin cares, between taking hits of acid at his New York readings, if his participle is dangling?
Imagine still, the literary type, devoid of any other reasonable means by which to prop up our aimless lives, using grammar as a kind of bridge to the real world. At least, all things being equal, companies downtown still need copywriters. And if you write copy, that’s one thing you’ll always be able to safely condescend towards the engineers: your unflinching grasp of grammar. “You might make eighty thousand dollars more a year than I do, and know how to design a jet engine,” you’ll say, “but my syntax is flawless.” Per ardua ad aspera.
Anyway, what does all of this have to do with italics? Almost nothing, except that deliberate and sensitive italics use wasn’t taught in grade school, and is glossed over in most post-secondary creative writing courses. This of course leaves out the university writers that end up publishing the most, the journalists and scientists, who are discouraged from using the style entirely, nullifying it further. And the poets? Well, the poets can do whatever they want, so they’re exempt.
Long introduction short: no one taught you how to use italics well. And I use the word well deliberately—using italics “correctly” is a matter of taste. And that’s why seeing a good use of italics is rare, especially as an editor fielding large volumes of slush manuscripts, or judging for a short story contest, where you’re likely to have to wade through all manner of wickedness and depravity. It’s like selecting fruit at the supermarket: for each pristine pink lady apple there are fifteen that use italics for interior monologue, to mix a metaphor. You must throw them back.
The articles in this series can act as a standing guide on how to recognize some of the bad apples, especially if you’re unsure if your apples are completely rotten or just a little bruised. If in moments of weakness you find yourself reaching for that control button and hovering over the “I,” I invite you to follow along. Overuse of italics can lead to taking disastrous, lazy shortcuts through a manuscript that will leave both you and your reader lost in the dark woods of style. Or it might not, but at least if you know you aren’t on the bad side of an italic used for onomatopoeia, whatever you wrote might be able to stand on its merits alone. Remember merits? Imagine.
However, considering poor italics use is just one of the million editorial idiosyncrasies which are designed for the sole purpose of rejecting manuscripts, that isn’t statistically likely. But you’ve got to start somewhere. It might as well be here. Let’s begin.
Italics used for interior monologue may be the worst, first, and most elemental offender of all. At some point, somewhere in history, someone taught someone else that if a character is speaking in their own head, either to themselves or to someone else who cannot hear them, that monologue should be written in italics. Similarly, if it’s unclear whether or not the character is speaking inside of their head or with their mouth, use of italics can be used to denote the former. After this, at some point before many hundreds of thousands of books were written in this style, these ideas became unwritten laws.
The problem with this is threefold. First, if there is no tonal difference between your character’s thoughts and the words they speak, you may have a problem with writing complex dialogue: often our thoughts are more nuanced (or sometimes, far simpler) than our words, and this should be reflected in each form of expression. The second problem is that if your character’s dialogue looks fundamentally the same as their thoughts, you’re implying that the character is either somewhat slow, or has alternatively achieved a rarified level of mental clarity. Put more simply: if a character says what they think and thinks what they say in an identical fashion, this tells us something about them, and what it tells us might not be what you intended. The third problem is that it’s lazy. By pressing that control key, you prevent yourself from really doing the hard work of getting into your character’s mind, mapping out how it works and feels and sounds, and then displaying these things for your reader.
Our thoughts are splayed out in a constellation of many different emotions, considerations, and contexts, not to mention all the variant forms of white noise, anxiety, and Beyoncé lyrics that form the background. All of this competes for the same mental bandwidth as the concrete idea that the salad you plan to make later could use an avocado. This is why realistically conveying a character’s thoughts in an understandable, patterned manner is one of the higher level challenges of writing. Ask yourself: what would my thoughts look like if I wrote them out on paper? Can you imagine what they look like? Can you even read them? If you can read them, do they look just like regular words, only slightly sideways? There may be no right answer to this question, but if we admit that italics are just a short form for designating the process by which we subconsciously, even when we aren’t writing, granulate our thoughts into a manageable size, we have to do so in good faith. If we chose to use italics for interior monologue, we are admitting to taking this shortcut as we write. The questions then becomes why take a shortcut?
If you’re taking a shortcut because the kind of thing you’re writing doesn’t call for getting deep into the heads of the characters that populate its pages, then why bother having interior monologue in the first place? If you’re signaling that what’s going on in the character’s head is important by letting your reader listen in, at least do the character a favor and think, as a writer, what their mental landscape might look like. If you’re the kind of person that always seems to write less than you might want to, this could be a reason why. Simple thoughts take up a large part of our interior life, and there’s no reason your characters shouldn’t be the same. Focusing on how a character’s thoughts form adds a lot of meat to the bones of a manuscript, and a lot of context to a character, if done well.
To imagine an example, let’s say that your character has had the thought that they should go to the grocery store later to buy an avocado. Are they actually saying to themselves, like italics use would imply, I should go to the store later and buy an avocado? Does that thought look exactly like that sentence, or is it more of a feeling? Perhaps the idea is similar, a thought about needing groceries, but unless your character’s thoughts formulate themselves in direct, concise sentences, their thoughts should look nothing like the words they speak. I’m going to hazard an assumption that most humans generally don’t think in complete sentences, or if they do those sentences aren’t always grammatically sound. And surely most of us often speak one thing but think another. So unless your character is one of those special people whose thoughts appear to them in ready-made, highly palatable sentences, they shouldn’t express their thoughts this way at all. If their thoughts do formulate this way, there should be a reason. The way the character thinks should be tailored to how they behave, how they speak, their personality, and all of the other things that might make two people different from one another.
This brings us to a somewhat obvious point which is exactly why it should be explicitly explained: there’s actually nothing wrong with having a character use the same tone and style for their thoughts and dialogue if they do indeed think and speak the same way and have a reason for doing so; the problem only arises when you use something artificial to denote the shift. This is because your reader should be able to tell, without the use of a grammatical aid such as italics, which kind of communication is happening based on the form of the communication itself, the surrounding dialogue tags, the sentence structure leading up to the thought, and the quotation marks if there are any. If it’s unclear whether or not your character is speaking out loud or saying something in their head, chances are the surrounding clues aren’t good enough. If it’s clear whether or not your character is speaking out loud or saying something in their head, then the use of italics is redundant.
To illustrate this point, let’s imagine we’re writing a sentence about someone contemplating a purchase of that delicious avocado. This sentence could look many different ways. Here are some examples:
- “I should go to the store and buy an avocado,” she thought.
- “I should go to the store and buy an avocado,” she said to herself.
- I should go to the store and buy an avocado.
- “I should go to the store and buy an avocado.”
- “I should go to the store and buy an avocado,” she thought.
- She thought she should go to the store and buy an avocado.
- She thought she should go to the store to buy something else to put in the salad for later, maybe an avocado, some almonds, or even some blue cheese. She wondered too if the arugula in the fridge was good or if it had become soggy, like arugula does after a few days, and had started to turn to black. Most green things eventually turn black, she thought, and then once black, begin to turn brown. Brown things turn beige. And beige things turn grey, where they stay grey forever. Maybe one day she would turn grey. She walked to the kitchen and stood in front of the fridge. She forgot about the avocado and stared through the window, out on to the street. The street too, was grey.
The first example is simply incorrect, although it appears frequently. While there are no italics, the quotations imply that the sentence is being spoken, not thought, even though the dialogue tag designates otherwise. This is an example of conflicting grammatical contexts around a thought, which is one of the tendencies which cause italics to arise, because they seemingly eliminate the need for dialogue tags and quotation marks in their feigned simplicity. Example two is closer, but it’s unclear whether or not she is saying the sentence out loud to no one, or “saying” it in her head. If she is truly speaking the sentence out loud, then the example is okay, but the dialogue tag could be modified to more accurately reflect this. Therein lies the ambiguity, again, and this is another draft of a sentence that could prompt someone to elide the whole process with italics. Example four is potentially dangerous because it implies that regular back-and-forth dialogue, the stuff that usually appears inside of quotation marks without dialogue tags is to be italicized, which can set a confusing precedent if dialogue appears again in the piece without a similar form. Example five is redundant if indeed italics are being used for interior monologue because the dialogue tag doesn’t need to be there. However, example three is the true enemy, because it hides all of these failed sentences inside of it, masquerading as a simple way to fix all of the problems that they suffer from. We still have the same questions about what is taking place, who is thinking and who is speaking, but the format of this sentence don’t allow any of those questions to be answered. The italics hide the detail.
I would suggest that the best method to write interior monologue is either example six or example seven. And the choice is yours, depending on your character, the overall stylistic sensibility of the piece and what the particular moment in the story demands which version you choose. You can go with the overly detailed approach of example seven, the spare and clean approach of example six, or really, anywhere in between. The major difference in example seven is that the character’s thoughts are integrated into the fabric of the piece by prose, and thus their thoughts become part of the story itself. By doing this we have made the character’s thought as real to us as it must be for them. We can tell things about them now by how they think. We can also use these thoughts, anchored in this interior monologue, to transition to other parts of the story and keep the narrative flowing, something we could never do with an italicized sentence. This is one of the secret evils of italics: because it designates itself as something outside of general prose, it prevents the writer from using it to write actual prose.
Writing actual prose is how you finish your short story, your book, or whatever you happen to be writing. Using italics for interior monologue to prevent yourself from writing prose is why you get that feeling that your work is unfinished, or you have something more to say. If you get this feeling anyway, without using italics, well, at least you can keep writing. And as long as you keep writing, you can keep getting better.
But if you thought thinking thoughts about how your character might think was starting to get complicated, wait until you try to translate those detailed thoughts into what realistic communication with another character might look like. Next month we’ll delve into the aberration that is italics use for general dialogue, and the real screaming can begin.