Home » Writing Advice » Writing Fluid Fiction: How To Use Italics

Writing Fluid Fiction: How To Use Italics

I’ve put on my editing hat before to break down the difference between passive and active voice, discuss grammatical aspect (the progressive and perfect forms of verbs), and even to give an overview of good and bad repetition. Today I’d like to discuss a topic I don’t read about too often: how to use italicized text effectively in your writing.

Writing Fluid Fiction: How to Use Italics

This is what an overkill of italics looks like to an editor.

I see the overuse of italics most often in novels that are supposed to be from the third-person limited POV. Newer writers may rely on  first-person internal monologues because they have not yet mastered the voice of their character or because they do not fully understand how to write from a tight third-person POV. But as a rule, in stories written from the third-person limited POV, unspoken discourse does not require (and in fact should not have) large amounts of exposition in the form of italicized first-person thoughts.

Why is this? Well, it’s both a.) distracting (italics is physically more difficult to read, and readers may be inclined to skip it) and b.) a sign that you’re telling the reader instead of showing.

So when are italics used successfully?

For emphasis:

To remind the reader of previously said information (and its importance) or to emphasize a memory:

[Shadow’s] fingers closed around the Liberty dollar in his pocket, and he remembered Zorya Polunochnaya, and the way she had looked at him in the moonlight. Did you ask her what she wanted? It is the wisest thing to ask the dead. Sometimes they will tell you.

“Laura . . . What do you want?” [Shadow] asked. – Neil Gaiman, American Gods, pg 220

The memory of what Zorya told him prompts Shadow to ask Laura the question (essential for story progression). The rhythm doesn’t miss a beat.

To show the reader something said or shown to the character in the past that doesn’t necessarily qualify for quotation marks:

You always knew when you were playing one of those because a little Coelacanth symbol would come up on the screen. Coelacanth. Prehistoric deep-sea fish, long supposed extinct until specimens found in mid-twentieth. Present status unknown.” – Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, pg 81

The italicized text shows information a character has once seen and is now recalling. He’s more or less quoting it to himself, but the text itself doesn’t warrant quotations.

To stress a word in a particular sentence. This is much like punctuation in that it controls the way a reader reads a specific word.

“But I can assure you,” said Stone, with another smiley smile, “we are the good guys. . .” – American Gods, pg 212

To differentiate situations of alternating time, speakers, or speech:

To differentiate telepathy (mind speech) from normal spoken dialogue. It’s still important to use quotations, even for mind speech.

To differentiate from a position within the narrative to one outside of it:

[From the character Shadow] “Frontier times?”

“You might call it that,” said Mr. Ibis. “Evening Miz Simmons! And a Merry Christmas to you too! The folk who brought me here came up the Mississippi a long time back.” –  American Gods, page 281

We can see that Mr. Ibis has temporarily turned away from the conversation to greet Miss Simmons (who is outside the conversation itself and clearly interrupts it). But Gaiman doesn’t waste time telling us that. He could have written (and would have been forced to edit) something like this:

“You might call it that,” said Mr. Ibis, greeting Miss Simmons, who had just wished him a Merry Christmas, before turning back to Shadow. “The folk who . . .”

But that’s terrible, isn’t it?

Another example is when the character hears the voice of someone else in his head (as in hallucination). The character’s own thoughts remain in a regular font; the voice intruding from the “outside” would thus be in italics.

To differentiate thoughts from regular prose. When done correctly, a character’s thoughts will show something to the reader: his state of mind, some aspect of his personality, a deepening of his POV. But writers should be wary of having the character tell the reader his thoughts rather than showing them. Despite what one may think, there’s a huge difference. See below.

The Good:

But the thought of being there without her, surrounded by her things, her scent, her life, was simply too painful . . .

Don’t go there, thought Shadow. He decided to think about something else. He thought about coin tricks. Shadow knew that he did not have the personality to be a magician: he could not weave the stories that were so necessary for belief, nor did he wish to do card tricks, nor produce paper flowers. But he just wanted to manipulate coins; he liked the craft of it. – American Gods, pages 85-86

Notice Gaiman just gives us a taste; he relies on the strength of his own narrative voice to continue the scene. A dash of italics spices things up (like rhythm) but isn’t overkill.

The Bad (Mr. Gaiman, please forgive me for what I am about to do to your scene):

I don’t want to think about being there without her. It’s too painful. I’ll think about something else. He thought about coin tricks, even knowing that he did not have the personality to be a magician. I can’t weave the stories that are so necessary for belief. I don’t want to do card tricks or produce flowers either. I just want to manipulate coins. He liked the craft of it.

Compare the tight prose of Gaiman and then the mess I made of it by relying on an internal monologue. Do people ever think that way directly? It’s a train wreck.

For basic copy edit and other stylistic reasons:

  • Titles of novels, television shows, movies, and other things of that nature
  • Quotations heading chapters, whether they come from existing or invented fiction
  • Song lyrics, lines of poetry, and letters within the story
  • Foreign words and scientific names

What do you think? Do italics distract you? Have any examples of where they work? Any instances you’re unsure about? Let me know in the comments!


11 thoughts on “Writing Fluid Fiction: How To Use Italics

  1. I talked to Mr. Gaimon and he’s cool with what you did with his prose. Italics, when they’re done right — I love them because they do their job and show/remind me of something important. If they they’re done wrong, they pull me out of the story and I don’t like that.

    • Absolutely Marcy! Italics, as with many other literary devices, are like spices. Too much and it leaves a bad taste. But with just the right amount (and the correct usage), a writer can add a bit of flavor. Thanks for stopping by!

        • At best, when done in the extreme (as in my example), it reads like terrible 1st person POV with a hint of the 3rd person POV. But either way, when comparing the two examples, the one littered with italics tells nothing new to the reader that isn’t innately expressed via Gaiman’s actual prose.

  2. I find italics horrible distracting when grossly used. Fantastic post and hope that many writers take heed. You should write a book about all your grammar vices 😉 I’d love to have a copy!

    • Thanks! Commas and other punctuation is more subjective in fiction, but literary devices, when used incorrectly (or grossly), are less forgiving.

      When done well, they can really hit home. There’s an entire page of italics in Oryx and Crake where Jimmy breaks down the history of toast, but it’s rhythmic and serves a purpose. The last two lines are the emotive element that snap it all together — the history of toast with his own hopeless situation and his feelings about it. Unfortunately, however, most writers aren’t Atwood, and we’ve got to know the rules (and understand how to do them properly) before we can break them.

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