How to Mention a Real Newspaper, Book, or Song in Fiction

Narrators and characters in novels and other creative writing can talk about whatever they want. A character might read the Chicago Sun-Times; they might say they like to sing “Drivers License” while brushing their teeth. A narrator might mention a famous poem or novel or TV show: “The host didn’t mention that he’d heard the same joke on The Simpsons.”*

Writers often ask how to style such titles. With italics? Quotation marks? Title caps?

The Chicago Way

Many writers don’t know that the default guidelines for styling the titles of works in fiction and other kinds of creative writing are the same as for works of nonfiction, as laid out in CMOS 8.156–201.

Here’s a rough guide (CMOS gives much more detail and many examples):

Titles of books, newspapers, magazines, plays, lengthy poems, movies, television series, and long musical works such as operas are in italics and headline caps: Native Son (novel), the Hyde Park Herald (newspaper), Womankind (magazine), Dune (movie, book), Hamilton (musical play), etc.

Titles of book chapters, stories, magazine and newspaper articles, television episodes, short poems, and songs are in quotation marks and headline caps: “Cyrus and Jeanette” (book chapter), “How to Fix a Flat Tire” (newspaper article), “And Still I Rise” (poem), “ ’Round Midnight” (song), etc.

It’s a longstanding convention in publishing that all titles of the same kind of work (book, magazine, song, etc.) should be styled consistently. Thus, for instance, every book title mentioned in a manuscript will be in italics and title caps. Likewise, all titles of magazine articles in a manuscript will be in headline caps and quotation marks. The alternative—allowing inconsistent styles for the same kind of work—doesn’t sit well with editors.

Here’s a passage from “A Fire in Winter,” a chapter in Clifford Garstang’s story collection House of the Ancients, and Other Stories (2020) that mentions two book titles:

The encyclopedia keeps burning, but doesn’t do enough to combat the cold. He pulls books from the shelves at random: Three Men in a Boat, from 1889, is ashes in minutes; The Story of the Typewriter, from 1923, lasts a bit longer. (93)

And here’s a passage from the novel Death at Greenway by Lori Rader-Day (2021) that mentions a newspaper and a book title:

The first news of Agatha Christie’s death reached Bridget the next day on the Tube, from the Daily Mirror held by a young lady with dark, flaking nail polish and messy hair. . . . Bridget dug into her carry-all and brought out the book she’d brought along. Dead Man’s Folly, her favorite. (409)

TIP
Chicago style for the titles of real works also applies to imaginary works.

Creative License

You might feel certain you’ve read novels or stories where titles of works were not styled according to Chicago’s preferences. You’re probably right, and there are several possible reasons for that.

The text is old.

Classic writers in English like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen often referred to current-day or historical newspapers, magazines, and musical works in their writings. Their styling of titles, needless to say, was not according to CMOS. Modern publishers of the classics must decide whether to follow the writer’s original manuscript (if it exists), reproduce an early-edition styling, or impose modern styles.

In more than one modern edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey that I checked, for example, the titles of popular novels appear in simple title caps, as they did in the book’s first edition in 1818. For example,

“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries.”

Pages 68 and 69 of Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen (London, 1818).

In context, the titles work fine without italics. Clearly, the simpler style is an option as long as it doesn’t cause problems elsewhere.

The writer or editor objects.

Some writers and editors argue that people “can’t speak italics,” and that therefore titles within dialogue must remain in roman type. But people don’t speak in punctuation or capital letters either, yet we rely on those symbols to convey meaning in written dialogue. And how would it be a good idea to use italics for titles in narrative, but not in dialogue?

In any case, in contemporary creative writing, it’s usual for titles of works to appear in italics even within dialogue:

“You read the Mirror? Those headlines will get to anyone.” (Lori Rader-Day, Death at Greenway [2021], 411)

“Remember the famous trials of Madame Bovary, Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita?” (Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books [2008], 129)†

 “No one reads Harper’s, anyway,” Daphne said. (Cathleen Schine, The Grammarians [2019], 216)

Slightly more convincing is the objection that italics should be reserved for conveying emphasis, but I give readers enough credit to know that the police chief isn’t shouting the name of the newspaper when he says, “Burke, have you seen this morning’s Star?” In fact, italics help clarify that the chief isn’t inviting Burke to look at the sky.

The publisher doesn’t use Chicago style.

Although CMOS is used around the world in English-language publishing, some publishers have their own house guides. And sometimes a style asserts itself regardless of house preference. In this bit of dialogue from Agatha Christie’s 1970 Passenger to Frankfurt, enforcing Chicago style would result in a tangle of quotation marks around the song titles (CMOS 8.194). However, someone made a good call in favor of italics:

“Not any tune I know,” said Jim Brewster. “It might be the Internationale or the Red Flag or God Save the King or Yankee Doodle or the Star-Spangled Banner. What the devil is it?” (173)

Takeaway

Readers appreciate consistency in the way titles appear in a text. Although certain styles have become more or less standard and expected, creative writers may have reasons to depart from them. A style guide and/or copyeditor can help you choose the best solution for your book or story. Smart writers and copyeditors keep track of exceptions on a separate style sheet.

Sources

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. New York: Penguin Classics, 1995. First published in 1818.

Christie, Agatha. Passenger to Frankfurt. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970.

Garstang, Clifford. “A Fire in Winter.” In House of the Ancients, and Other Stories. Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53, 2020.

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2008.

Rader-Day, Lori. Death at Greenway. New York: William Morrow, 2021.

Schine, Cathleen. The Grammarians: A Novel. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2019.


* You don’t need permission to mention the titles of other works in a story or novel. However, if you quote from them, you may need to obtain permission from the copyright holder. Sometimes a fee is involved. In the young adult novel Overboard, by Elizabeth Fama (Chicago: Cricket Books, 2002), permission was needed because the main character, Emily, sings eight lines of the Beatles song “Blackbird” on one page (61), and thinks four lines of the song elsewhere (63). Here’s the permission acknowledgment on the copyright page of Overboard (which incidentally eschews Chicago style for the song title):

Blackbird, by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Copyright © 1968 (Renewed) Sony/ATV Tunes LLC. All rights administered by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, 8 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37203. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

† In academic writing, a title within a title calls for typographical distinction. Thus, in a Chicago-style source citation, the title of Nafisi’s memoir would be styled Reading “Lolita” in Tehran. See CMOS 14.94.

Top image: Watercolor of a man reading the news of the Emancipation Proclamation (detail), by H. L. Stephens, ca. 1863. Library of Congress, Cabinet of American illustration.

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.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

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2 thoughts on “How to Mention a Real Newspaper, Book, or Song in Fiction

  1. This has come up a few times recently for me. I am especially interested in this part: “It’s a longstanding convention in publishing that all titles of the same kind of work (book, magazine, song, etc.) should be styled consistently. Thus, for instance, every book title mentioned in a manuscript will be in italics and title caps.” Writers have been telling me they wish to respect the preference of the author of the quoted work in terms of capitalization, so you might have a title in all lower-case, one with caps for The or An, etc. But it seems to me there’s no Original Title to go back to: it can be different on the title page, the cover, the publisher’s website, the ISBN record, and so on. And if you “respect” all the preferences of all the authors, you end up with a dog’s breakfast. What do you think of the respecting-the-preference argument?

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