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What’s a rule and what is just style

Some thoughts on using italics for direct thought in fiction.

Too often, people pass along “rules” when all they’re expressing is a preference for a style.

For example, one thing that gets my goat as an editor of fiction: words of “wisdom” that some writers toss out at other writers, claiming some thing or other is “against the rules” when actually that thing or other is simply a matter of choice—of authorial style.

Consider the use of italics for direct thought in narrative fiction. I saw the assertion on Quora that use of italics for direct thought is not to be done. Ridiculous! It’s a stylistic choice.

Sometimes certain styles of writing are in or out of fashion. And fashions change. In 1965, Frank Herbert came out with Dune—in which he not only uses italics for direct thought but even changes point of view within a chapter, within a scene! (Oh, the horror! The horror!) And yet he makes it work. The shifts in point of view are never willy nilly. Herbert always uses the technique to add to the dramatic tension of the scene.

The problem—the challenge, I should say—is doing this well, and doing it at the right moment in the scene. It can be all too easy for a shift in point of view to completely deflate the tension of a scene.

Or worse, confuse the reader.

“Thou shalt not confuse.”

—Laura’s Rule #1

Anyway, back to the the use of italics as just one of a few different approaches to conveying a character’s thoughts. To illustrate, here’s a quickly imagined “bad example”:

Jane walked into the room and saw the roses Betsy left on the dining table. She’s trying to butter me up. She wants something. I wonder what?

Narrative in past tense, direct thought in present tense, set in italics. It’s perfectly clear what is happening.

Here is another approach.

Jane walked into the room and saw the roses Betsy left on the dining table. Jane figured she was trying to butter her up. Betsy wanted something. Jane wondered what.

All presented in past tense, roman typeface. Also perfectly clear. You may prefer one way or the other, and that’s okay. It is a stylistic preference.

Some will mix it up.

Jane walked into the room and saw the roses Betsy left on the dining table. She’s trying to butter me up, she thought, wondering for what occasion.

Any of these approaches is fine. They will also be familiar to readers, and familiar stylistic conventions can give the reader comfort. Readers come to books with expectations, and one is that they will be able to read the book without getting confused—and hopefully not bored.

“Thou shalt not bore.”

—Laura’s Rule #2 (borrowed shamelessly from Frank Capra)

There are rules of grammar and punctuation that we must follow lest we leave the reader confused. However, many of what are considered rules really are simply conventions. There is no reason an author cannot break with convention. James Joyce set off dialogue with em-dashes. Cormac McCarthy didn’t set off dialogue at all. Samuel Beckett used fewer commas in his later books than some writers use in a single page. N. K. Jemisin wrote entire chapters in second person. But they made it work.

When an author breaks conventions, it’s not wrong, but it has to work.

And as for italics? Follow your bliss.

Just don’t confuse us.