Here’s a post at Writer Unboxed: Italics
[A]fter last month’s Onconference talk on dialogue, I could see there was still a lot of confusion about how and when to use italics. I think I need to step up.
First – and I can’t stress how important this is – there are no rules, not even with purely mechanical matters. When you try to handle italics by rote without paying attention to what’s happening in your story, you’re putting the rules ahead of the story. But if you treat italics as tools that, used properly. can help you tell your story more effectively, then your story is at the center of your thinking, where it belongs. So what can italics do for you?
First, your goal is to keep your mechanics transparent. As soon as readers notice how you’re telling your story, they’re no longer paying attention to your story. Which is bad. So however you use italics, you don’t want them to jump out at your readers.
What italics do best is mark some passage of dialogue or interior monologue as separate. …
And I paused there, because I don’t agree. I think that (a) it’s pretty easy to go wrong when using italics to mark out interior monologue, and (b) that obviously what italics do best is add emphasis.
If you use italics correctly, then italicized words DO jump out at the reader — a bit. Just enough to add the emphasis that you want. There’s a line from The Hands of the Emperor that demonstrate this perfectly and also made me laugh the first time I read the book and still makes me laugh during re-reads. This example leaped to mind at once in this context. I mean, I thought: Let me see, great example of italics to add emphasis, something that works perfectly, and boom, I immediately thought of this line:
Cliopher gestured discreetly at his Radiancy, who was smiling more sardonically than benevolently and thus did not look exactly like the state portrait hanging directly behind him.
That right there is how to use italics.
I read something somewhere — sorry, I don’t remember where — but an author was saying, “I used to use italics a lot to show the reader where I thought the emphasis should go, but these days, I just don’t. I let the reader decide where the emphasis should go.”
At the time I thought, Hmm, maybe that’s a good idea? But it’s not. The more I pay attention to how I and other writers use italics, the more firmly I conclude that this is a terrible idea. Look again at the bolded line and imagine it without the italics. The whole sentence becomes far less effective. No, lots of the time, you definitely do NOT want to leave the reader to decide where and when a word should be emphasized. That is YOUR decision as the author, and your decisions about that make a BIG difference.
How about interior monologue?
I think italics to mark out interior monologue works ONLY when you’re writing in pretty distant third person. I mean, maybe you’ll immediately think of examples where italics works great in close third or first, but if you’re IN the viewpoint of the protagonist, then practically everything is IN that person’s viewpoint and none of that can get marked out. Imagine trying to put “I thought, Thus and so and this and that” all through a first-person novel. No. I mean, really, no. That would make the novel practically unreadable, both by forcing too much of the text into italics, which would annoy the reader, AND by forcing the author to write the first-person narrative with an odd distance, moving away from the protagonist for everything that isn’t italicized and close again for interior monologue.
But more than that, even in third, even in distant third, if you start to italicize too much, you’ll definitely annoy the reader. Lots of people find italics unpleasant to read if it goes on and on. I think that only the most direct thought and only very brief direct thoughts should ever be italicized.
Let me see what the author of this post says about using italics for interior monologue …
The most common use – and the most misunderstood – is with interior monologue. Some clients have taken it as a given that all interior monologue should be in italics. The problem is that, when you mark off the interior monologue, then you’re saying that your narrative voice – the one you use for descriptions – is different from the viewpoint character’s voice – which is where interior monologue comes from. You’re putting distance between your narrator and your character.
I was thinking of this more as putting distance between the author and the character, or maybe between the reader and the character, but I think this is exactly the same idea.
Oh, but look at this piece of advice:
Just keep the interior monologue in normal type and in the same tense and person as your descriptions – what’s true of italics for interior monologue is also true of a shift from past to present tense or from third to first person.
I really wish this person — who is this? Dave King. He’s an editor, I see, and he writes books about writing and about editing your own writing. Well, I wish he’d provided an example of what he’s talking about, because I think maybe I agree? Or maybe I vehemently disagree; it depends on what he has in mind. I think I agree, because I think he’s saying not to do anything at all to set off direct thoughts.
Something I absolutely detest is a passage where we’re going along in third person past tense and then we have a direct thought, often in italics, and the verb tense STAYS IN PAST TENSE. This is incredibly jarring. I am using words like “absolutely” and “incredibly” here for a reason. I just do not know how to add enough emphasis to how tremendously jarring and off-putting this is. It works like this:
Atlanta is always steamy in August, so Esmeralda had expected to be uncomfortable, especially in a Regency-style ballgown with three petticoats and all the trimmings right down to elbow-length gloves. If she had to wear an outfit like this, at least Geoffrey might have provided a gilded coach with four matching black horses to draw it, not leave guests to walk the entire length of the park.
Then a coach just like that raced up the path behind her, all shiny black paint and gilding, spun to a halt, and the coachman — in livery, no less — sprang down to open the door for her. Geoffrey himself smiled down. Wow, thought Esmeralda. Geoffrey was definitely the handsomest vampire in Atlanta. Returning his smile, she let him take her hand and assist her into the coach.
Now, if you didn’t use italics there and also left out “thought Esmeralda,” then this would be fine. But because you did use italics, you’re telling the reader that this is Esmeralda’s direct thought. And if she’s thinking about Geoffrey right at this exact moment, why in heaven’s name is this in the past tense?
If that doesn’t seem horrifically jarring, then try it again in this passage:
“Oh, good morning, Geoffrey,” Esmeralda said. “Join us, by all means.” She added to her friend Elizabeth, “Geoffrey here was definitely the handsomest vampire in Atlanta, don’t you think?”
The guy is standing right there at this very second. Why are you speaking about him in the past tense? Because he used to be handsome, but something happened? Because he used to be a vampire, but now he’s not? Strange as it is to make a personal comment about someone who’s standing right there, it’s definitely much stranger to speak about him in the past tense. If your protagonist is directly thinking about someone, then she is thinking in story-present and the thought MUST be in PRESENT tense, even if the novel is written in past tense.
This is exactly like dialogue. When your protagonist is speaking to someone about events that are occurring right at that moment, she MUST speak in present tense, even if the story is written in past tense. Your protagonist can’t walk into the room, glance out the window, and remark to another character, “Oh, it was raining!” meaning that it’s raining this very second.
Because that would be ridiculous. OBVIOUSLY it would be ridiculous. If the character is speaking in story-present, then she has to speak in the present tense, and if she’s thinking in story-present, she has to think in the present tense.
Yet I’ve seen this exact kind of mistake lots of times. Once a copy editor tried to change a direct thought that I had italicized, exactly in the way we’re talking about here, into past tense. I wrote STET and then, trying not to be rude, a comment clarifying that it is impossible for a character to think in the present instant but in the past tense, just as it’s impossible for her to speak to someone in the present instant but in the past tense.
And that, perhaps, is one more reason to avoid italicizing direct thoughts. Because if you do, then you’d better think carefully about verb tenses.
Then a coach just like that raced up the path behind her, all shiny black paint and gilding, spun to a halt, and the coachman — in livery, no less — sprang down to open the door for her. Geoffrey himself smiled down. Wow. Geoffrey was definitely the handsomest vampire in Atlanta. Returning his smile, Esmeralda let him take her hand and assist her into the coach.
There you go, that works fine. So if this is what Dave King means when he says Just keep the interior monologue in normal type and in the same tense and person as your descriptions – what’s true of italics for interior monologue is also true of a shift from past to present tense or from third to first person, then I agree. But if you do switch from a more distant narrative style to a direct thought, then you need to switch verb tense as well as add italics.
I’d suggest that this is one reason it’s important to be aware of whether you’re using tags such as “he thought” or “she mused,” and how often, and for what purpose. Using a lot of tags like that means you’re writing in a more distant third person, and leaving them out means you’re probably writing in close third, and either way, the rest of the paragraph and the general style of the narrative need to agree with that.