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Unspoken Thoughts And The Inner Voice

Readers and writers, I need advice!

What’s the best way to represent unspoken thoughts in first person, past tense?

My work in progress contains unvoiced thoughts and interior monologue, as the first person narrator shares her private thoughts with the reader and holds debates with herself.

Like dialogue, the narrator’s uncensored, unvoiced thoughts must be in present tense. The problem is that readers may perceive them as random departures from the prevailing past tense, i.e., as mistakes.

Which leads to these two questions:

a) Are unvoiced thoughts confusing or distracting for the reader, and therefore best avoided?

b) What’s the best way to tell the reader This Is An Unvoiced Thought?

Three possibilities:

  1. Incorporate the statements of the Inner Voice into the past tense narrative, with the tag “I thought” as the signal (same as the “I said” tag in spoken dialogue).
  2. Put the unvoiced thoughts in italics, in present tense.
  3. Unvoiced thoughts in present tense, but without italics or any other signal.

EXAMPLES:

She clattered downstairs, all gussied up for her big night out.

“What do you think?” She twirled around, the short pink satin number revealing her thighs.

“You’ll wow ’em, for sure.” Too short, too tight, too shiny, I thought.

“It doesn’t make me look fat, does it?”

“You look great!” Only like a sausage about to burst its casing, I thought.

The door closed behind her. Why am I so judgmental? I wondered, turning back to my crossword.

OR

She clattered downstairs, all gussied up for her big night out.

“What do you think?” She twirled around, the short pink satin number revealing her thighs.

“You’ll wow ’em, for sure.” Too short, too tight, too shiny.

“It doesn’t make me look fat, does it?”

“No, of course not!”  Only like a sausage about to burst its casing.

The door closed behind her. Why am I so judgmental? I turned back to my crossword.

OR

She clattered downstairs, all gussied up for her big night out.

“What do you think?” She twirled around, the short pink satin number revealing her thighs.

“You’ll wow ’em, for sure.” Too short, too tight, too shiny.

“It doesn’t make me look fat, does it?”

“No, of course not!” Only like a sausage about to burst its casing.

The door closed behind her. Why am I so judgmental? I turned back to my crossword.

OR?

My thoughts on this: I don’t like the first technique, of adding “I thought” and similar phrases. It works if the unvoiced thoughts are brief and few. It’s awkward if the thoughts are longer than a single sentence, or are frequent enough that a phrase other than “I thought” becomes necessary. “I thought” is more obtrusive than “I said,” and becomes irritating with repetition.

I favour using italics to designate any thought that’s not spoken aloud (#2 above). But I’ve heard that italics can be confusing or irritating.

A fairly extensive treatment of this matter, mainly with regard to third person narrative, however, may be found here. It suggests the technique used should reflect the intensity or importance of the unspoken thought, with italics kept to a minimum. Given all the unvoiced thoughts and interior monologue in my WIP, I will have to keep this in mind when I work it over once the first draft is complete (soon, that will be!)

So what do you think? Here are the two questions again:

a) Are unvoiced thoughts in a narrative confusing or distracting for the reader?

b) What is the best way to tell the reader This Is An Unvoiced Thought?

 

 

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22 comments

    1. Seconded! Points to use an intermittent reminder could be the thoughts that are most important in past tense, like if it’s an opinion that’s changed since the initial incident.
      (I’m fond of italics too, but since they mean different things in different books, I understand why some readers find it confusing.)

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I use italics, generally, but have to be careful to avoid over-use. Although the suggestion above – use ‘she thought’ once, then give the reader the benefit of the doubt – is something I will play with.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I have thoughts, I usually put them in italics. No one has seemed to have a problem with that so far. (But my submissions have all been for read and critique groups, not publication.) Hope this helps. Pat

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve written two novels in 1st person past tense. Call me dum but if it’s 1st person isn’t everything an unspoken thought? I can see where you’re coming from, but if the narrator wants to tell the reader something is a specific thought in that moment then wouldn’t that thought be part of the ongoing narrative along with all the other descriptions, emotions and responses?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, it would be, but only if the whole thing is in first person, present tense. If it’s in past tense, and the unspoken thought is in present, it looks like a mistake, unless there is a signal to the reader. I think inserting unvoiced thoughts provides a bit of immediacy, and can furnish a contrast to the narrator’s spoken thoughts. Like many other devices in writing, though, this is one best used judicially, sort of like pepper in cooking.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Present tense is not something I’ve used apart from a recent short story and that was third person. For some paranormal scenes I’ve switched tenses to create a sort of disconnect, but they tend to be several paragraphs and look deliberate.

        I think if you’re separating spoken dialogue with speech marks i’t would probably be consistent to separate unspoken dialogue (even though it’s one person speaking to theirself) too. My preference would be for italics.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Italics certainly indicate “Something’s different here.” I have a feeling I’ll keep using them as I have been, but I’ll consider some of the other ways of dealing with unspoken thoughts as I work over the first draft. Italics, like exclamation points, should be exceptional.

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  4. I think I lean toward No. 3, minimizing “I thoughts” and steering away from italics. I say this because over the course of a book, readers will tire of all these italics asides. But I agree that a mix of approaches is probably even better, sometimes throwing in “I thought” for rhythm.

    Also, I always think of first person as pretty flexible because it’s a character telling her story to the reader. There’s room for a lot of variation.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A bit late to the conversation, 🙂 but my vote’s for italics. It doesn’t really matter if it’s first person or whatever tense, really. But it has to look different from the rest of the text. Some people bracket the text with symbols, <>, or [[words]], etc, but the overall idea is to provide a visual clue that something has changed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That was my initial thought, and several commenters agree. The point is not to go overboard with the italics — sort of like adverbs, adjectives and other devices. But writing is an Art, after all, so there’s no one right way.

      Liked by 1 person

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