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Internal Dialogue: Italics or Quotes?

Internal dialogue is used by authors to indicate what a character is thinking.

Direct internal dialogue refers to a character thinking the exact thoughts as written, often in the first person. (The first person singular is I, the first person plural is we.)

Example: “I lied,” Charles thought, “but maybe she will forgive me.”

Notice that quotation marks and other punctuation are used as if the character had spoken aloud.

You may also use italics without quotation marks for direct internal dialogue.

Example: I lied, Charles thought, but maybe she will forgive me.

Indirect internal dialogue refers to a character expressing a thought in the third person (the third person singular is he or she, the plural is they) and is not set off with either italics or quotation marks.

Example: Bev wondered why Charles would think that she would forgive him so easily.

The sense of the sentence tells us that she did not think these exact words.

Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2008, at 4:47 am


70 Comments

70 Responses to “Internal Dialogue: Italics or Quotes?”

  1. delaney says:

    what if you are telling the story and its past tense but then the internal dialoge becomes present tense of what you thought at that time? do you make a new paragragh everytime you use ihte internal dialoge as well?

  2. leah says:

    What if I’m using italics but not using a proper pronoun (with no obvious capitalization), and my thought ends in punctuation other than a comma? Do I leave the pronoun lowercased, as I would if it were in quotes? Or do I capitalize it?

    For example, which would be correct (picture the thoughts in italics, if the HTML doesn’t process):

    What is that? she thought.

    or

    What is that? She thought.

    I can’t seem to find this type of example anywhere, and I’ve run into it several times with my historical fiction novel I’m writing! Thanks for your help!

  3. Michelle says:

    What about POV. In first person you would do neither, correct.

    Ex: I can’t believe he said that. What am I going to do now?

  4. Duncan says:

    I will concede either/or only insomuch that it may apply differently between MLA and novelization, but italics are still the acceptable form moreso than quotation marks, yes?

    • Jane says:

      There seems to be quite a difference of opinion on this subject. According to The Chicago Manual of Style (13.41), “Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference.” They do not even mention the use of italics. Also, AP Stylebook says, “So, is an unspoken thought always worthy of quotation marks? Writer’s choice on that.” I would not say that either one is more acceptable than the other.

  5. bigsonny says:

    So what if you’re writing from a 1st person POV. How do you distinguish between internal dialogue and simply giving an opinion.

    For instance:

    I looked around this scene and thought that everyone was caught in a suspended reality…

    vs.

    I thought “how creepy”

    vs

    My room was bare. I had always wondered what they said about me. Did I lack essence?

    How do I format each?

    • Jane says:

      In your first sentence, the word that indicates that it is not actual internal dialogue. I looked around this scene and thought that everyone was caught in a suspended reality…

      If it was actual internal dialogue, the sentence would be written like this:
      I looked around this scene and thought, “everyone was caught in a suspended reality…” OR
      I looked around this scene and thought, everyone was caught in a suspended reality…

      Your second and third sentences are both examples of internal dialogue since they are the exact thoughts of the character.
      I thought, “how creepy.” OR I thought how creepy.
      “My room was bare,” I thought. “I had always wondered what they said about me. Did I lack essence?” OR
      My room was bare I thought. I had always wondered what they said about me. Did I lack essence?

      If they were not internal dialogue they would be written like this:
      I thought that it was creepy.
      I thought that my room was bare. I had always wondered what they said about me. Did I lack essence?

      • bigsonny says:

        Thank you very much Jane.

        So just to drive the point home. As an author, I find myself unsure of the proper format when I write from a first person POV because I am developing a character who is omniscient while also having the first person POV. So while third person Omniscient POV is common, the first person POV isn’t…as far I know. While I don’t mind breaking the rules (if it’s uncommon), I want to make sure that I format the text properly so that I may guide the reader as logically as possible.

        As such, If I take myself to be the first person, then, every statement is technically my thought. As such, I created rules to differentiate between my thoughts, my dialogue and my description of what I am calling objects (So non-thinking entities in the story (eg. anything from a table, a room, an action,etc…).

        The issue presents itself when a table is described as “a beautiful table which perfectly complemented the room for instance.” This is technically my opinion and also an observation. I am unsure how to proceed there.

        Any ideas or existing rules that I can follow.

        • Jane says:

          As an author it is up to you whether to choose quotation marks or italics for internal dialogue. Whether it’s first or third person just make sure you only use them when it is the individual’s exact words or thoughts. Overuse of quotation marks or italics can be distracting to the reader. I recommend that you try not to overthink the situation. If you have a writing instructor, perhaps he or she can provide some guidance and feedback if you are having concerns.

  6. Pam says:

    I can’t find the rule for punctuation after the word ‘said’. Can you give me the rule, if there is one. Thanks

    • Jane says:

      The word said can appear in either an indirect or direct quotation. An indirect quotation is a paraphrase of someone else’s words and does not require any punctuation. An example of this is She said that she would be available to start work next week. In a direct quotation the word said is followed by a comma as in the following sentence: At the end of the ceremony she said, “Congratulations!” If the word said is the last word in a sentence, it could also be followed by a period, exclamation point, or a question mark. For example: We could not hear what she said. Did you hear what she said? We did not hear what you said!

  7. Randy Lynn says:

    Rule 16
    Use commas to introduce or interrupt direct quotations shorter than three lines.
    Examples:
    He actually said, “I do not care.”
    “Why,” I asked, “do you always forget to do it?”

    I found the above examples on the COMMAS page
    http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/commas.asphttp://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/commas.asp

    Note: The quotation marks to open and the quotation marks to close appear to be facing in the same direction.

    • Jane says:

      Throughout our website, we have used “straight” quotation marks, i.e., in normal typeface they are vertical (just like the quotation marks in this sentence). The quotation marks you have pointed out are in a passage that is in italic type, therefore, the quotation marks are at the same slant as the italic type, e.g., “straight.” According to Wikipedia, “straight” or “ambidextrous” quotation marks were introduced on typewriters to reduce the number of keys on the keyboard, and were inherited by computer keyboards and character sets.”

      Since the hard copy of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation also contains only straight quotation marks, we would like to stay consistent on the website. However, when we proceed to print the next edition, I will be looking into converting to the more formal opening and closing quotation marks, also known as “typographic” or “curly” quotation marks.

  8. Nancy says:

    How do I create italicized emphasis with sentences/phrases within an entire paragraph that is already italicized because it is first person dialogue.

    For example:

    I was walking by the bar when an attractive gray-haired man said, “Hey, young lady, don’t I know you?” This old man is hitting on me, I thought.

    This paragraph is italicized for dialogue; how to I emphacize/punctuate the thought: He’s hitting on me, do I italicize or not?

    • Jane says:

      The entire paragraph should not be italicized, only the exact thoughts of the person.

      I was walking by the bar when an attractive gray-haired man said, “Hey, young lady, don’t I know you?” This old man is hitting on me, I thought.

      • George says:

        This is precisely the sort of thing I’d like to use to bring a greater sense of immediacy to that moment. I’d like to have some rule to judge by in choosing which would be internal narrative and which internal thought. Do you have any opinion on the matter?

        • Jane says:

          Sorry, but I have no advice other than my response to Nancy of June 8, 2012. You may be able to obtain more specific guidance by consulting a reference book on writing fiction and dialogue or by taking a creative writing course at a local college.

  9. Jeannie says:

    I am REALLY struggling with point of view and internal dialogue. Could you recommend something to help me master it?

    I feel like I can’t move forward because I get so confused when I start to write.

  10. Carol says:

    Can you please take a look at the italicized internal dialogue and capitalization here? I italicized: hi, Lena. Over here, Lena.

    I watch as Jae toddles from one kid to another. He gives each one a hug around the knees. I stand in the doorway. I wait for someone to say, hi, Lena. Over here, Lena.
    I feel small.

    • Jane says:

      The first word in your internal dialoge should be capitalized.
      I watch as Jae toddles from one kid to another. He gives each one a hug around the knees. I stand in the doorway. I wait for someone to say, Hi, Lena. Over here, Lena. I feel small.

  11. Jack says:

    How do i type in italics? Im a little new to the whole “Typing” thing.

    • Jane says:

      In many programs, such as Microsoft Word, there should be a slanted I at the top of the page. Click the symbol and the letters will be italicized. Click the symbol again to return to normal type. If you are using a different program and you do not see the slanted I for italics, you can click “Help” or perform an internet search.

  12. Max says:

    Hi Jane.

    I was taught that direct thoughts were to be written in italics not quotes. This helps distinguish them (as they’re quite different).

    Are you sure that quotes are used? Doesn’t this introduce a potential for unnecessary confusion, as readers don’t know it’s thought not speech until they reach the “she thought” tag?

    Max

    • Jane says:

      Our blog Internal Dialogue: Italics or Quotes? says, “You may also use italics without quotation marks for direct internal dialogue.” Either quotes or italics can be used. I would not say that either one is more acceptable than the other. As an author it is up to you to decide which one to use. If you feel that italics makes your sentence less “confusing,” you can use italics.

  13. Jen says:

    I have a question about capitalization. Would you capitalize the first word in a thought when it comes in the middle of a sentence and is italicized?

    For instance: I thought, What should I do now?
    Or should it be: I thought, what should I do now?

    Thanks!

  14. Steve says:

    Can you really call a discussion with oneself a dialogue?

    • Jane says:

      That is an interesting thought. “Internal dialogue” is a fairly common term when referring to what is being thought rather than said; probably relating the term more to the sense of an exchange of ideas or opinions rather than an exchange between two people. “Internal dialogue” would probably be a more accurate description if a person is really debating opposing positions, thoughts, alternatives, etc. with oneself. Otherwise, “internal monologue” may really be more accurate.

  15. Vanessa says:

    When editing thoughts, imagined dialogue, internal monologues, and interior dialogue, is it better to keep the text within the same paragraph as the narrative (or direct discourse), or will it have more impact when formatted as a separate paragraph?

  16. M says:

    Lot of varying thought on this with a number of people thinking it’s not necessary to italicise thoughts. I wonder, however, if there’s a difference between a thought which is in first or third person. ie.

    he thought, I never should have told her that. (Should this be italicised?)

    or

    He never should have told her that. (It’s implied it’s his thought, so does it need to be italicised?)

    or, in the case of a thought in third person, in order to avoid italics, does it really need the tag: He thought, he never should have told her that.

    I always thought that, when writing in third person, who was doing the thinking could be implied without italics and without a tag like ‘he thought’, so italics could be saved for special emphasis. Or should a ‘he thought’ tag always be introduced at the beginning to establish the POV.
    What are your thoughts on this?

    • Jane says:

      The exact thoughts of a character are generally considered a direct quotation, requiring quotation marks, although italics are also used by some. It’s the same with a character expressing a thought in third person. Therefore:

      I (or He) thought, “I never should have told her that.” OR
      I (or He) thought, I never should have told her that. OR
      I (or He) thought I (or he) never should have told her that.

  17. Billy says:

    What about implied dialogue? For instance:

    I wanted to say yes but instead said, “No.” Does yes get placed in quotes or italicized.

    Another Example:

    She’d be so thrilled that hugs and kisses and theatrical than-you’s would surely rain down upon me. Does thank-you’s get placed within quotes or italicized?

    • Jane says:

      In sentences like your first example, the yes and the no in the expressions say yes and say no usually do not require quotation marks or italics.

      The noun thank-you in your second example is not part of any dialogue. Therefore, “thank-yous” requires no special punctuation. There is no apostrophe in the plural thank-yous.

      I wanted to say yes but instead said no.
      She’d be so thrilled that hugs and kisses and theatrical thank-yous would surely rain down upon me.

  18. Courtney says:

    What would you use if you said something like..

    Then you think, What is happening right now?

    You think, oh maybe if I get this done I’ll get some sleep.

    etc.

    • Jane says:

      There are no universally agreed-upon rules about internal dialogue. So it is up to the author whether to write these sentences as you have them or choose quotation marks or italics for the words after “think.” Use a comma after words such as oh or well or hey that introduce a sentence. Also, use a comma after the dependent clause “oh maybe if I get this done” in your second sentence. When a quote is a complete sentence, it is customary to capitalize the first word. So to sum up, we would revise your sentences as follows:

      Then you think, “What is happening right now?”
      You think, “Oh, maybe if I get this done, I’ll get some sleep.”
      OR
      Then you think, What is happening right now?
      You think, Oh, maybe if I get this done, I’ll get some sleep.

  19. cynthia-E says:

    Dear Ma’am,
    Your hints have been very helpful. I am a writer whose first book was published bY a publisher in New York. I later discovered that I was never edited before publication. I had taken for granted that they would do that. I spoke to them about it but they asked me to do it myself but my busy schedules have not allowed me do that. I am writing to ask if you would like to assist me with this: re-editing for republishing.
    Thanks,
    Cynthia-E

    • Jane says:

      We are flattered by your request, but our own enterprises do not allow us sufficient time for your project. On our website, we do make a recommendation of an editing service, and there are many more capable editors out there who could do a good job for you.

  20. Matt says:

    When expressing thought in italics, how can I emphasize a certain word that I would normally use italics to do so? I can’t simply choose to use quotations instead because I would have to change the whole book, nor do I want to underline because I have been using italics the whole book for emphasis.

    For example:
    “He was not going to get the best of me,” she thought.

    Or

    He was not going to get the best of me, she thought.

    (“not” being emphasized)

    Also, when writing in third person subjective, does one have to put a tag like “she thought” before or after internal dialogue when the there is only one character with internal dialogue throughout the entire novel? To use my first example:

    He was not going to get the best of me.

    Thank you in advance. You are great.

    • Jane says:

      If you’re already using italics and do not wish to underline, you could show emphasis by printing the word in roman. Your only other option would be to use boldface type to emphasize a certain word. Regarding writing “she thought,” as a writer it is your choice as far as wording and style is concerned. Just make sure the reader is not confused.

  21. Denise says:

    Great post, and thanks for commenting back on all the queries you get!

  22. Tammy says:

    When a character is remembering a conversation in his head, with a character who has since deceased, would that conversation have quotes for dialogue or italics?

    • Jane says:

      You are describing internal dialogue. Internal dialogue is used by authors to indicate what a character is thinking to himself or herself. Quotation marks and other punctuation are used in the same way as if the character had spoken aloud. Use of italics for internal dialogue is also acceptable. It is up to the author to decide between quotation marks and italics. There are no rules here, just conventions and tendencies. For instance, if an author wanted to convey internal dialogue by using all capitals, or a different font, who’s to say that would be unacceptable?

  23. Brooks says:

    How exactly would I go about punctuating this sentence when using italics to represent the internal dialogue?

    Why did he have to call me in here at quitting time on a Friday?, he thought to himself.

    The question mark followed immediately by a comma looks wrong to me. Would quotes be more applicable here? Thanks in advance!

    • Jane says:

      The comma after the question mark is unnecessary. Either italics or quotes is fine.

      Why did he have to call me in here at quitting time on a Friday? he thought to himself. OR

      “Why did he have to call me in here at quitting time on a Friday?” he thought to himself.

  24. Richard says:

    What about writing a series of idea heard but not necesarily attributed? I want to write about 5 different sentences heard by the main character from a random group of people.

    • Jane says:

      Unless the sentences are exact quotes or thoughts, they are indirect and are not set off with either italics or quotation marks.

      Examples:
      Sam wondered why the club members would think that he lost his job.
      Sam heard one of the members say, “I think Sam lost his job.”

  25. Bobbi says:

    Great info. Here’s my twist on it.
    The bulk of my story is first person narrative (memoir).
    Events are followed by my thoughts about the event, in italics.
    Within those thoughts, I include prayer.
    ie.
    I know it’s the dementia talking, but I don’t know how much longer I can stand this. Lord, is it okay to back off for awhile? Help me know what to do.
    Can this whole statement be in italics, or should the second and third sentences be in quotes?

    • Jane says:

      Since it is all internal dialogue, it can be italicized. Also note the correct spelling of a while.

      I know it’s the dementia talking, but I don’t know how much longer I can stand this. Lord, is it okay to back off for a while? Help me know what to do.

  26. Chrissy says:

    When you want to write dialogue, do you start a whole new paragraph? If you do, do you continue your story in a new paragraph? Also, do you have any tips for writing in the time of 20 minutes?

    • If the dialogue is relevant to the topic of the paragraph, you do not need to start a new paragraph. After the dialogue, if the speaker or the subject changes, you should begin a new paragraph. The phrase “20 minutes” can also be written “twenty minutes.” If you choose to use a numeral, you should be consistent throughout your story. If a sentence begins with “twenty minutes,” do not use a numeral.

  27. Dina says:

    What if the dialogue is supposed and comes from a pet? My example is:

    Chunk (a dog) lifted his brows at Ramone as if to ask, Is that all you got?

    Obviously, a dog cannot speak, and some may argue it cannot think-in human terms, that is. How should I punctuate this?

    • Imagined dialogue is treated the same way as internal dialogue. It is the same for a person, pet, or fictional character. Therefore, you can use quotation marks or italics.

      Chunk lifted his brows at Ramone as if to ask, “Is that all you got?” OR
      Chunk lifted his brows at Ramone as if to ask, Is that all you got?

      There are also some writers who would write it exactly as you did.

  28. KC says:

    What about punctuation marks within internal dialogue that I’ve shown as italics? Do the periods, commas, question/exclamation marks and quotes stay italicized? It’s a subtle difference, but should the last punctuation mark in the thought remain italicized or not?

  29. alexandria says:

    What if a character is thinking about a word/words another character has said/did say to them?

    ALSO, what would I do with the ‘s’ at the end of each word below?

    Ex: He liked her for her youses, y’alls and youse alls.

    (The character is Southern!)

    • If you are using quotation marks with direct internal dialogue, use single quotation marks inside double quotation marks when you have a quotation within a quotation.

      “How can Sandy be serious about breaking up? It seems like just yesterday that she said, ‘I love you,’ ” Fred thought.

      If you are using italics, use quotation marks around the words quoted by the other character.

      How can Sandy be serious about breaking up? It seems like just yesterday that she said, “I love you,” Fred thought.

      If it is indirect internal dialogue, use quotation marks around the words quoted by the other character.

      Fred thought about the time that Sandy said, “I love you.”

      You do not need to do anything with the “s” endings in your non-standard words, however, when a word or term is not used functionally but is referred to as the word or term itself, it is either italicized or enclosed in quotation marks.

      He liked her for her youses, y’alls, and youse alls. OR

      He liked her for her “youses,” “y’alls,” and “youse alls.”

  30. Amber says:

    What if the story I’m writing is in first person and two characters are talking and one starts telling a story about something that happened in the past. Like a flashback, but also there are other characters speaking inside of the dialogue. Would I use single quotation marks?

    • If one character is speaking about events that happened in the past and is quoting other characters, use single quotation marks inside double quotation marks for the other characters. Example:

      I told my husband, “Last week when I saw George, he said, ‘I had four job interviews last week!’ ” Then I added, “And later I talked to Frank who said, ‘I had two interviews at the same company and hope to hear back soon.’ “

  31. Yamuna says:

    Do I use quotation marks in the following internal dialogue as shown below.

    ‘Oh,Jack,’ she whispered. Looking down at the packed lunch, still in her hand, ‘I must let you to a doctor before the stress kills both of us,’

    • Since you used the word “whispered,” it is not internal dialogue. Internal dialogue refers to what a character is thinking. We assume you meant to write “get” instead of “let.” The paragraph could be punctuated as follows:

      “Oh, Jack,” she whispered, looking down at the packed lunch, still in her hand. “I must get you to a doctor before the stress kills both of us.”

  32. Ernest B. says:

    I’m currently involved in a very heated discussion on a forum for writers about an odd US use of quotation marks in story telling dialogues.

    Before I go to far I’ll agree up front that the usage of dropping the closing quotation mark in a multi-paragraph quotation that is a common things. However, as per some on-line resources like wikipedia and Purdue University the preferred presentation is in a block quote style and it only applies to where you’re quoting someone else’s speech or writing.

    The problem I’m having at the moment is where some new US authors are applying this same drop the closing quote thing in dialogue they are writing while also cutting the dialogue up without using identifier tags for short paragraphs using this system.

    From what I can see in wikipedia, Purdue, and a few other sources, and what I was taught in school, the convention of the dropped closing quote should never be used in created dialogue in a story. I checked your site on this and found it didn’t cover this conflicting usage. O note you mention the two most influential US style manuals, both of which are intended for use by print media and students and I’m sure they properly cover quoting other speakers, as in quoting a presidential speech, as against dialogue in a fiction story.

    Can you please advise how you see this situation.

    • We’re on your side, and so is The Chicago Manual of Style. In its “Speech, Dialogue, and Conversation” section on quotation marks, Chicago recommends a change in speaker be indicated by ending quotation marks and a new paragraph.

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