Diving Back into Dialogue: Part II



Part One of our current discussion on dialogue concerned format, punctuation, and attribution in written conversations. Part Two will center on internal dialogue that conveys what characters are thinking as opposed to speaking.

An earlier article on the subject pointed out that direct internal dialogue is expressed in the first person (I, we) and written in either quotations or italics:

“Why is he just standing there? I really wish he’d open the window.”
Why is he just standing there? I really wish he’d open the window.

Indirect internal dialogue, on the other hand, conveys another character’s thoughts in the third person (he, she, they); it suggests more of the author’s speculation rather than a character’s personal observation. It is not set off by quotation marks or italics:

Marianne wondered why Robert would not open the window.

Most inquiries about internal dialogue we receive at GrammarBook concern whether to use quotations or italics to write it.

Our current answer is that quotation marks, italics, and standard type are all acceptable formats according to the writer’s style and preference, particularly when writing fiction.

Let’s look further at how we might apply the different formats for direct internal dialogue.

Quotation Marks
If we envision direct internal dialogue as something audibly spoken within a character, we might treat it with quotation marks. This format also often makes the dialogue less up-close and more descriptive.

“What is wrong with me?” Robert thought. “Why is it so hard to just say what she wants—no, needs—to hear?”
But then she might start believing, “Now I’ve finally got him. After years of trying to reach him, to gain his silent approval, he’s given me what I want and now I’m the one in control.”
His thoughts shifted from “I’ll say it” to “Never.”

Italics
We might use italics for direct internal dialogue if we picture the thoughts as being deeper within, and thus more personal to, the character. Rather than conveying something spoken as audible to the character alone, the italics establish a mental voice with a more immediate and intimate effect.

What is wrong with me? Robert thought. Why is it so hard to just say what she wants—needs—to hear?
But then she might start believing she’s got me. After years of trying to reach me and get my silent approval, she’ll have what she wants and then she’ll be in control.
Never.

Standard Type
Some writers may forgo both quotation marks and italics and simply stay with roman type for direct internal dialogue.

The effect is similar to italics’ in conveying a greater immediacy and intimacy with a character’s thoughts, particularly if the story is presented from that character’s point of view.

What is wrong with me? Robert thought. Why is it so hard to just say what she wants—needs—to hear?
But then she might start believing she’s got me. After years of trying to reach me and get my silent approval, she’ll have what she wants and then she’ll be in control.
Never.

This style can be distinctive if skillfully applied, as in author Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club.

New questions and choices may still often surface when we’re writing internal dialogue. As long as we remain consistent with the style we select for effect, we can make the words from within resonate with our readers.

Posted on Tuesday, December 3, 2019, at 11:00 pm

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2 Comments on Diving Back into Dialogue: Part II

2 responses to “Diving Back into Dialogue: Part II”

  1. Andy Mather says:

    If you use italics (consistantly) for internal dialogue, like What is wrong with me? you don’t need the tag (Robert thought). The reader will understand that this is not spoken, and that the chapter’s POV character is the one doing the thinking.

    • It depends on the point of view of the scene or the story. If it’s obvious whom the interior dialogue belongs to, then we wouldn’t need attribution. If however two or more people are having a spoken conversation and then it switches to interior dialogue, the attribution might be needed to help clarify who is doing the thinking.

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