Jun 232009

Recently, I found comments from folks regarding the use of italics when writing thoughts. I was surprised to find that some people don’t think these are necessary. Well, I suppose they’re not, really… but then, neither are quotation marks. However, both are used for similar purposes.

Similar purposes? you ask. Why, yes. Because italics are the quotation marks of thoughts.

Most people understand direct and indirect speech. Did you know that there are direct and indirect character thoughts? Understanding the similarities will help you understand when to use italics and when not to.


Indirect speech: He said he didn’t know. (in first person: I said I didn’t know.)
Direct speech: He said, “I don’t know.” (1st person: I said, “I don’t know.”)

The difference is that indirect speech isn’t the speech itself. It is the narrator narrating or reporting the speech. It doesn’t need to be the exact thing the character would say:

Indirect: He said, in his own way, that Charlie had stolen the horse and escaped.
Direct: “Charlie, that boy,” he said. “He jump the fence. Pony just standin’ there, eatin’ dinner. Along come Charlie – jump on his back! Then jump that fence! Just like that! And whoosh – he gone!”

Indirect: He said he was going to the store to buy breakfast.
Direct: He said, “I’m going down to Loblaws to get some Poptarts.”

Notice the biggest differences between the two – easier seen in the second example:

Verb tense

Because indirect speech is part of the narrative, it’s in the same tense as the narrative. Since most narrative writing is in past tense, most indirect speech wil be past tense. [note: do not attempt to write any narrative in present or future tense unless you understand verb tenses really well. And even then your readers may revolt.]

Direct speech, however, takes place in the character’s tense. Even though we write the past tense, the characters live in their own present, and so they speak from the present tense.


If the narrator is speaking in third person, the indirect speech will also be in third person:

He refused to go.

In direct speech, the speech is coming from the character, not the narrator, so the character uses first person:

“I’m not going!”

If the novel is written from the first person throughout, only the verb tense shows indirect vs direct speech:

Indirect: I explained I wasn’t going because the band wasn’t very good.
Direct: “The band sucks, so I’m not going.”


Now, how does all this translate to thoughts?

Thoughts are a character’s speech to themselves. The only difference is, you use italics instead of quotation marks.

Indirect: He thought he wasn’t going to make it.
Direct: He thought, I’m not going to make it

Of course, as with dialogue tags in speech, if you use ‘he thought’ too many times, it drags. You don’t need the tags:

Indirect: He couldn’t believe she said that.
Direct: I can’t believe she said that.

So how do you tell direct from indirect thoughts? Verb tense and person. If the thoughts are third person past tense, it’s narrative. If they’re first person present tense, they’re direct thoughts and, therefore, need to be italicized.

The best thing about this is you can usually write the indirect thoughts, then use the direct, italicized thoughts only for emphasis:

The building was dark, but he found the safe in the basement. He carefully keyed in the code he’d memorized. Or thought he’d memorized. He tried again. Come on, baby! The door opened smoothly.

Sometimes, yes, deciding if thoughts are direct or indirect can be picky, especially in sentence fragments without verbs. In cases like this, it’s often up to the author’s preference.


He turned at a sound. Dang. Where had that come from?
Dang! He had to get out of there — fast.

Two questions you can ask when trying to make this decision:

Does it feel like the character is saying this?
Does it feel like it’s in third or first person?

So, a quick overview:

Direct speech: “I have to get out of here.” (present tense, first person)

Indirect speech: He said he had to go. (past tense, third person)

Direct thought: This place sucks. (present tense, first person)

Indirect thought: He needed to go somewhere else – fast. (past tense, third person)

Hope people find this useful!

Example using question marks:

Well, I don’t think that question marks would be any different than periods, really. When the question mark is part of the thought, it will be italicized like the rest of the thoughts.

Indirect: She wondered who he was.
Direct speech: “Who is he?” she asked.
Direct thought: Who is he?

Is this what you were looking for?

  20 Responses to “Indirect vs. Direct Speech and Thoughts”

  1. No problem! Happy to help. 🙂


  2. Thank you for the reply. I was uncertain because I’ve seen it both ways and needed clarification.

  3. Ahh. That would be: What happened? she thought.

    (let’s see if the italics work here…)

    Hope this helps. 🙂


  4. What happened? she thought. Or What happened, she thought? Which is correct pleases?

  5. I put the examples in the main post – it’s a bother (if it’s even possible) to put italics in a comment!

    I hope that’s what you were looking for.


  6. thanks for the information on direct thoughts and italics. Would it be possible for you to provide some examples using question marks in the text?

  7. Thank you for your kind words!


  8. Love, love this post! So clear and simply put. Thanks so much.

  9. ‘He thought’ is as useful as ‘He said’ — can be useful, but isn’t always.

    But I can see, in your case, where the reader may not understand this convention yet, it would be very useful to point out that it’s his thoughts.


  10. I think it may depend on the age group you are writing for. I’m writing an begining chapter book. I’m using italics followed by he thought or David thought. Of course only the main character has the option of expressing his thoughts.

    Good post and quite timely for me.

  11. Thank you for your kind words!


  12. Very nice post… I’m glad that, for once, I read a blog addressing writing and I find myself comfortable with my own writing. Seems that time and pr active have indeed left their impression. Thanks for the great post!

  13. Happy to help!


  14. Thank you for a great post! I, too, have been told not to italicize thoughts. The statement, “italics are the quotation marks of thoughts” is my new favorite sentence. I might even frame it and put it on my wall.
    Back to my wip. I need to go back and sprinkle some thought spice in there. LOL.
    Larissa 🙂

  15. Direct thoughts should always be italicized. Indirect thoughts/exposition are not italicized. If you prefer direct thoughts over indirect thoughts, that’s a style decision the writer makes.

    I don’t write YA, so I don’t know whether direct thoughts are more useful than indirect thoughts for that area of writing. An editor who is familiar with YA conventions would be able to help you better.

  16. Tara,

    Thanks for good thoughts on a sticky subject. I write first person almost exclusively (like to be in my character’s head, I guess) and I use italics for direct thoughts. My reason? I write YA fiction. For YA, I feel that the italics help a younger reader distinguish the thought where it might not otherwise be clear. Would you agree?



  17. Tara,

    It’s one of those things that is best used in moderation. I know some people don’t like reading a lot of italics — they can be difficult to read. Others feel too much direct thought, with it’s change of tense, can be confusing.

    Direct thoughts can be used to great effect, though, when they’re sprinkled in wisely, like a spice. Too much is too much, but the right amount can add the perfect flavour.

    Good luck! It sounds like your writing is coming along well.

  18. I prefer to use italics for thoughts, but I did receive feedback from my Betas that I’d overindulged in direct thought in my wip. I cut back some of the direct thought and put in a little more indirect exposition.

  19. Thank you! I read a blog recently where people were discussing the pros and cons of italicizing thoughts. It was clear most commenters didn’t know how to use the italics properly. When a friend was looking for a good website on when thoughts should be italicized, I decided it was time to set the matter straight.

    Thank you for your kind words.


  20. BJ,

    I, too, have been surprised to read recently that italics aren’t necessary for direct thoughts. I agree with you completely and love this statement: “italics are the quotation marks of thoughts.”

    Lillie Ammann
    A Writer’s Words, An Editor’s Eye

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