Formatting Thoughts in Fiction

William Faulkner with thought bubble: "Be quiet, please. I'm thinking."

There are a few simple conventions for presenting thoughts in fiction, and these overlap with the conventions for setting off dialogue and other quoted speech or text—or anything that might normally take quotation marks.

Thoughts belong to what CMOS calls unspoken (or interior) discourse. The difference between spoken and unspoken discourse on the page is often as simple as writing “I thought” rather than “I said.” The thoughts themselves can be placed in quotation marks, like dialogue, but they usually aren’t.

These two conventions—using a signal like think (first convention), with or usually without quotation marks (second convention)—are covered in CMOS.

But what about italics? Italics are the other main convention for showing thoughts on the page. CMOS doesn’t mention this option, but that’s what Fiction+ is for. This post will show how the recommendations in CMOS might be adapted for something more creative than the typical historical monograph or other academic work.

Thinking in Italics

Though CMOS doesn’t mention the option of using italics for thought, this omission would be easy to fix. CMOS 13.43 says that thought, imagined dialogue, and other internal discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, depending on author preference and context; a thought that begins midsentence gets a capital letter. Here’s what that looks like, without quotation marks:

She thought, When this week finally ends, my troubles will be over.

Now here’s the same example, but with italics:

She thought, When this week finally ends, my troubles will be over.

In other words, simply add italics to the words that are intended to represent thought.*

Or don’t—because not only do we already have “She thought” to tell us what’s going on, but we also have the capital “W” in “When,” not to mention the comma after “thought.” With those three strong signals, the italics aren’t strictly necessary.

But in fiction, which tells a story and may have several levels of discourse and more than one point of view, italics can be useful. Italics have the power to tell your readers at a glance that you’ve switched from narrative or dialogue to something else.

Faulkner, Italicized

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, first published in 1936, features a ton of italics. The italic type works its way into the narrative slowly at first and then occurs more frequently as the narrator reaches back across decades to bring the Civil War era alive. Chapter 5, in the middle of the book, is almost entirely in italics.

The opening lines of chapter 5 in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936; New York: Vintage Books “Corrected Text,” 1987).

By that point in the book, the slanting, spidery print has started to feel like the handwriting of a ghost. But that’s no ghost. It’s only the author, transcribing the thoughts and memories and conversations of the haunted young fictional protagonist Quentin Compson, revealing layers of discourse beneath the “reality” of the narrative.

Let’s skip to a simple example from the very end of the book:

“Why do you hate the South?”

“I dont hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!

Don’t let the lack of apostrophe in “dont”—a modernist affectation that failed to catch on—distract you. But do notice the difference in how quoted speech and thought are treated:

“I dont hate it,” he said.


I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, . . .

The thought is in italics, but also notice the absence of a comma before “he thought.” There’s probably an editorial logic to that choice, and it’s true that the italics alone differentiate thought from narrative. But quotation marks do that also, and as an editor I would add a comma. If “he said” is a speaker tag, “he thought” is a thought tag. From the standpoint of syntax, thoughts and speech are identical and should therefore be subject to the same punctuation.

Comma usage aside, the italics in Absalom are effective. Because they look different from regular text, they start to sound different. Still, longer passages of italic text can be difficult to read, and many writers avoid them for that reason.†

Use Your Words

Italics can communicate several things:

Emphasis: Don’t walk, run.
Text as text: The letter x in xylophone.
Titles: Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

Italics can also be applied to words from other languages. But they don’t automatically demarcate thought, which is why it’s usually best to use italics in addition to the usual conventions for signaling discourse.

Trevor Noah’s recent memoir, Born a Crime (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2016), does this perfectly, right from the opening paragraph of the first chapter:

Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.

Pure CMOS, plus italics. These thought italics are used sparingly throughout the rest of the book, but they work. This is first-person memoir, so we’re already inside Noah’s head. But whenever he breaks into italics, it’s like hearing his voice.

Compare that with the approach in “Jack and Della,” a new story by Marilynne Robinson in the July 20, 2020, issue of the New Yorker. In that story, variations on the words “think” and “thought” occur forty-three times. But the entire story is free of italics of any kind.

The main character is a destitute alcoholic named Jack who struggles to square his thoughts and impulses with the reality of his circumstances:

He said, “That’s very nice,” and he thought, Don’t show it to me. Don’t put it down anywhere near me.

This is the opening of a paragraph that continues, sometimes in the voice of the third-person narrator, other times in Jack’s voice. An author or editor who tried to delineate these switches through italics would risk making the narrative harder to follow, not easier. My tolerance for typographic variety is relatively high, I thought, but even I might to start to see the italics as a gimmick. 😉

Some writers take a minimalist approach, treating thought, speech, and narrative all the same. And whereas devices like quotation marks and italics are supposed to help writers create the appearance of “real speech” and actual thoughts, leaving them out can feel somehow more authentic. Every word in a story is in some way the product of the author’s imagination, and if quotation marks are usually omitted for thought—which isn’t literally spoken—they can begin to seem artificial for spoken dialogue also, especially in the make-believe of fiction.

If that’s how you feel about quotation marks, then all you need to do is let your readers know who’s talking or thinking or texting or whatever. In other words, use your words.

Final Thoughts

To transcribe thoughts (or dreams or anything that’s like dialogue but not conventionally spoken), you have the following options:

  1. Use quotation marks for both speech and thought. Quotation marks will identify these words as actually spoken or literally imagined as thought.
  2. Reserve quotation marks for speech alone. (This is the most popular option.)
  3. Don’t use quotation marks for speech or thought.
  4. If desired, apply italics to thought.

The fourth option may be applied to any of the first three (though quotation marks plus italics for thought would be a bit much). Whichever option you choose, use thought tags to keep the reader oriented, just as you would for speech, and punctuate and capitalize thought relative to the surrounding text exactly as you would punctuate and capitalize speech. If you use an unconventional style for speech, you’ll probably want to do the same for thought.

Keep in mind that italics change the way readers experience the text; authors who favor a more neutral or spare approach to storytelling may want to avoid them. Editors can help by getting a feel for an author’s style and asking up front before doing anything radical.

* Note that indirect thoughts (and speech) are treated as ordinary text: “She thought when this week finally ended, her troubles would be over.” See CMOS 13.45.

† Blocks of italic text have been shown to be less readable and therefore less accessible than blocks of regular text. See Ted Page, “The Case against Banning Italics,” Accessible Digital Documents, January 7, 2019. Page advocates for the judicious use of italics.

Top image: William Faulkner (1954), Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, LC-USZC4-4907. Thought bubble and text added for post.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

~ ~ ~

Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition

Order the book
Subscribe online

Please see our commenting policy.

2 thoughts on “Formatting Thoughts in Fiction

  1. Good advice. Then there’s “free indirect discourse,” a variation of your first convention where the author dispenses with “think” or “thought,” leaving the reader with an even closer experience of the point of view consciousness.

    • Maybe that’s what’s really going on in the rest of that example paragraph from “Jack and Della.” The third-person narrator continues to echo Jack’s thoughts, but no longer directly—in an in-between zone where the point of view is too blurred for the precision of italics or any other definite signal. If so, it reads almost like a shared memory between the narrator and Jack, which is maybe the point?

Comments are closed.