Magnum Proofreading Blog | How to Write Your Characters’ Thoughts

How Do I Write My Character’s Thoughts in a First-Person Narrative?

 

Posted by Jake Magnum | March 27, 2018


 
When writing your characters’ thoughts, it is important to somehow set off direct thoughts from the rest of the text.

Here is what it looks like when a writer does nothing to separate thoughts from regular text:

I stood by as my friends surrounded Tommy and started teasing him. Soon, the teasing turned into shoving. Why do you guys do this to him? You need to stop.

It is not clear whether the thoughts — ‘Why do you guys do this to him? You need to stop’ — were thought at the time the event took place or if the character is having them as he or she writes (or if they are even thoughts at all).

This article will outline three common ways by which writers typically separate a character’s direct thoughts from the rest of the text.

First, though, I want to clarify the difference between direct thoughts and indirect thoughts.

Direct thoughts are word-for-word thoughts that a character has (or had) in the moment. These are the kinds of thoughts that will be discussed in this article.

If the piece is written in the first person and the character/narrator has thoughts while writing but did not have these thoughts at the time the event took place, the thoughts are indirect and are not relevant to this discussion. Similarly, paraphrased thoughts are not direct thoughts and are not relevant to this discussion.

Here are examples to show what I mean (with the thoughts underlined):

Direct thought: He tore up the contract right in front of me. Seriously? Did he really just do that?

Indirect thought: He tore up the contract right in front of me. Even now, I still can’t believe he really did that.

Summary of a thought: He tore up the contract right in front of me. Shocked, I had to stop and ask myself if he had really just done that.

Now, onto methods that writers use when they write their characters’ direct thoughts.
 

1) Turn direct thoughts into a summary of thoughts.

Let’s look again at that passage in which the thoughts were incorrectly written:

I stood by as my friends surrounded Tommy and started teasing him. Soon, the teasing turned into shoving. Why do you guys do this to him? You need to stop.

One way to fix this confusing passage is to write it as follows, with the thoughts written as a summary:

I stood by as my friends surrounded Tommy and started teasing him. Soon, the teasing turned into shoving. I wondered why they did this to him. I felt like they needed to stop.

Adding the introductory phrases ‘I wondered’ and ‘I felt like’ makes it clear that the character is having thoughts and, as these phrases are written in the past tense, the reader knows that the character was having these thoughts as the event was taking place.
 

2) Surround the thoughts with quotation marks, and notify the reader that these words are thoughts.

The above method works just fine, but it is not the most effective if you want the reader’s focus to be on the action. In a way, the above method momentarily removes the reader from the action and puts the reader into the character’s head.

If you want to keep the reader’s focus on the action, you can put the thoughts in quotation marks. You just need to make sure you clarify that the words are thoughts and are not being spoken aloud.

Here is how you would use this method to rewrite the passage we have been working with:

I stood by as my friends surrounded Tommy and started teasing him. Soon, the teasing turned into shoving. “Why do you guys do this to him?” I thought. “You need to stop.”

Compared to the first method, this one is shorter. The reader is able to keep their focus on the action over the two-word phrase, ‘I thought.’

If you are writing a story that has a lot of internal thoughts and relatively little external dialogue, using quotation marks to write thoughts is a good choice. However, if there is a lot of dialogue in the piece, it can be difficult for the reader to distinguish spoken words from thoughts if this method is used. The reader may think he or she is reading spoken dialogue, and then, upon reading the words ‘I thought,’ get confused and have to backtrack.

In such instances, you can use single quotation marks for thoughts and double quotation marks for spoken words as long as you are consistent throughout the entire work.
 

3) Use italics to express direct thoughts.

Using italics to write thoughts is especially useful when thoughts are interspersed throughout a section of heavy dialogue. It was just mentioned that single quotation marks can be used for thoughts in such cases, but using italics does an even better job at preventing confusion.

Additionally, using italics can also be more effective when the scene is fast-paced, as you do not have to continually write ‘he thought’ and other such phrases which slightly slow things down for the reader if used repeatedly.

Here is how our passage looks when this method is used:

I stood by as my friends surrounded Tommy and started teasing him. Soon, the teasing turned into shoving. Why do you guys do this to him? You need to stop.

One crucial detail to keep in mind is that whichever method you choose, you need to use the same method throughout the work. Otherwise, the reader will likely get confused, and you will have defeated the purpose of writing thoughts differently from the rest of the text in the first place.