The secrets of writing thoughts.

You can dress up a character any way you like. Have him do characteristic things for the type of person he is. But we won’t really know him, unless you let us inside.

Interior monologue should resemble the jumbled way thoughts pass through our minds and the reader is expected to follow along.

You show the inner world of your character by telling the reader his thoughts, emotions, attitudes, fears, longings, neuroses, drives and compulsions. There are two kinds of thought your character has: (1) thoughts about events that have occurred and (2) peripheral thoughts.

Thoughts should meet these requirements to be interesting to your reader

  • show how events have affected your character
  • thoughts solely to show character should be brief
  • the thoughts should drive the plot
  • the thinking style should match the dialogue style!

Don’t let your character just stand there and think to himself for endless pages long. Thoughts should still be intertwined with actions (life goes on) unless an event was so shocking that the character is frozen in place. The world keeps turning even when you stop to think about it.

Format Styles of writing thoughts into the story

There are five styles to embed thoughts into the story, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

Jane stared at the chipped teacup. How could they give me a broken cup, she thought, have they no respect?

Note thoughts are written italicized, first-person, in present tense and tagged with “she thought”.

Jane stared at the chipped teacup. How could they give me a broken cup? Have they no respect?
"Why do you date guys like that?" Jane asked. "They're trash."
"He's a sweetheart actually." said Mary.
"You could do better." said Jane.
"He makes me happy." said Mary.
"C'mon, he's not husband material is he." said Mary.

Above shows thoughts are written italicized, in present tense and first-person as before, only not tagged.

Jane stared at the chipped teacup. How could they give me a broken cup, she thought. Have they no respect?

Above shows thoughts are not italicized, in present tense, first-person and tagged.

Jane stared at the chipped teacup. How could they give me a broken cup, she thought. She felt disrespected.

Above shows here thoughts are shown through third person perspective, in past tense, not italicized and tagged.

Jane stared at the chipped teacup. They had given her a broken cup. She was offended.

Above shows thoughts are in past tense, third person, not italicized and untagged. This is also the most distant method.

You notice the elements at work here: present or past tense, italicized or plain, tagged or untagged. Present tense make the thought more active, even though thinking in itself is rather passive. Italicized writing stands out from the text and makes it easier to recognize. Italicized thoughts always means you switch tense (from past to present) and person (from third to first). Tagging makes it clear who is thinking, but your reader should get to know your character well enough to recognize him without the need for many tags.

What if your character thinks… a lot

Using italicized thoughts in long passages may come across as intrusive to the reader. It literally looks bad. Italicized thoughts work better for short thoughts. Long passages are smoother in first-person perspective (in third person narrative), not italicized, with the “she thought”tag. The tag helps remind the reader that he is reading thoughts, not narrative.

Writing First Person Thoughts

  • Every word somehow reflects his point of view
  • Things that don’t affect him, aren’t noticed, thus aren’t mentioned.
  • Everything that is mentioned is thought about and thus conclusions are drawn about it.
  • He is never neutral, he has his own agenda, he is biased.
  • He can never say for sure what someone else thinks or feels.

The don’ts of writing thoughts

Do not switch between styles. Pick one (think about it, pick wisely) and stick to it. Let the reader know what your style is so he doesn’t have to think about it anymore after a few pages into your story. Writing thoughts is like acting in a way. When the actor reminds you that you’re watching a tv show, he has made a mistake. A good actor keeps you in the story. The same goes for writers and characters. Whenever a reader is reminded that he is reading, rather than living along with your characters, a mistake has been made.

Do not use quotation marks. This is a beginner’s mistake in writing. No, not even single quotation marks. It only confused the reader. The reader will need to keep the read thought in mind until a tag has made clear whether it was said aloud or thought silently. Thus, the reader has to adjust the mental picture in hindsight. This takes him out of the story and back to reality.

Do not tag when it is not absolutely necessary. Ideally, your writing brings the reader so close to your protagonist that he knows when something is a thought. He will know because he has gotten to know your character and recognizes his thinking.

Tags you can pretty much cut without a second thought:

  • his thoughts drifted
  • he wondered
  • he realized
  • he remembered (when)
  • he contemplated
  • he mused

Anything that follows these statements (or came before it) should be written in a way that makes it clear whether the thoughts was musing, contemplating or a massive realization without the need for explanation.

Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.
Kress, N. (1998) Dynamic Characters

Noble, W. (1987) Shut up! He explained.