I’ve heard some discussion about the use of italics, and today I ran across an example of what I think it a good use of italics in my current reading. This excerpt is from A Wanted Man: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Child.

McQueen waited. Reacher looped around the trunk. He paused, gestured, right-handed, open palm: Go ahead. After you. A precaution, not politeness.

A precaution, because Reacher wants McQueen to go toward the building first. He knows that McQueen has a gun but McQueen doesn’t know yet that Reacher knows. Reacher wants the man with a gun in front rather than behind him.

The italicized text is meant to stand out, to be obvious that it is not normal text. Child wants to be very clear what Reacher is trying to communicate visually so that he can contrast it in the normal text and tell us that Reacher is not doing this out of ordinary politeness.

So Child is using italics as a separate level of communication; different from dialogue, different from Reacher’s thoughts (Reacher novels are always first person, past tense), special compared with other physical actions, and in this case as superficial communication and as a lie, since Reacher is not doing this for the usual reason of politeness.


The discussion about the use of italics was initiated by a writer of, I suspect, limited reading experience, who criticized another writer for not italicizing the inner thoughts of his characters. He was very adamant about this, saying that he found the submission very hard to read because of this omission. (I’ve had similar reactions to cases of extremely poor grammar and no control over tenses, but that’s another story) I’ve heard this type of complaint before and find it hard to understand, but I suspect my lack of comprehension is due to not limiting myself to specific genres or writers. In other words, I think that there are specific genres and writers who always italicize the inner thoughts of characters but I don’t limit myself enough to believe that the rule is the norm. I can only vaguely guess that it was in some science fiction, perhaps some issues of Asimov’s, where I’ve even seen this rule used.

Interestingly enough — perhaps not to anyone but myself — the last use of italics for inner thoughts that I remember is “Fifty Shades of Grey”, that atrocity of writing that shouldn’t have made it past Wattpad. I know of writers who have adopted Dan Brown as their personal whipping boy, the writer whom they lash out at because his writing makes them cringe, and I may adopt Fifty Shades as mine. But I didn’t have a problem with her use of italics, other than the fact that it was always the same sort of things that came out of her italicized thoughts; “Holy shit.” “Crap.” Mental ejaculations.

And of course anything is possible if you have a reason for it and it works. Before the Reacher story I read a novel where the author did not use quotation marks for dialogue and I didn’t have an issue with it. Writing without quotation marks and in first person requires extra care to be clear when the main character is quoting and when he is thinking, but it’s definitely doable. It has the potential to make the story more intimate, to instill a dream-like quality, but another author who used that writing style said that she felt as if her characters were always mumbling.

If you can write clearly without quotation marks around dialogue, I don’t see why you can’t write without using italics for inner thoughts. And, personally, I’d rather follow the lead of Lee Child over the author of Fifty Shades, though I have a rather large list of authors I’d put ahead of Lee Child too.


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