How do we write characters’ thoughts?

When we are writing about a character who is thinking, how do we write that character’s thoughts?

  • Do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  She thought, “Should I order the small or the medium fries?”  She pondered the consequences.


  • Or do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  She thought, should I order the small or the medium fries?  She pondered the consequences.


  • Or do we write:  Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  Should I order the small or the medium fries?  What will my weight be?


  • Or do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  Should I order the teeny-weeney barely-break-my-diet small fries or the back-to-size-14 medium fries?  What will the bathroom scales scream when I get home?  Oh you of little will power.

The first example is a combination of direct thought followed by indirect thought.  The direct thought is in quotation marks to set it off as thought.  This is an approach to showing thinking which was commonly used until the 20th century but which is rarely used today.

The second example is indirect thought.  This way of handling thought dominated the 20th century.  The thought is introduced by the words “She thought” or “She pondered,” but no quotation marks are used.

Another form of indirect thought is italics which were used by some 20th century writers and still are used by some contemporary writers.  With italics, there is no no misinterpreting which words are thoughts.  But increasingly, writers have dropped the italics.

The fourth example is also indirect thought, but all tags of thinking (she thought, she pondered) and all print markings (quotation marks, italics) are eliminated.  More so than in the other three forms, we hear the thoughts of the character only, not the writer.  Of course the writer has put those thoughts in the character’s head, but the thoughts are filtered through the personality of the character.

This last form is the most powerful because the writer is unobtrusive.  The writer is like a puppeteer without the strings.  He is still opening and closing Kermit’s mouth, but not with his hand–with an invisible wi-fi connection.  We, the readers, forget there is someone orchestrating this story.  We are aware only of the character and his or her thoughts filtered through his or her language and personality.

Compare this last approach to the one used by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein.  The monster tells his story to his creator, Victor, who in turn tells the story to the ship captain who in turn writes all this in letter form to his sister.  With so many filters, whose thoughts are we hearing directly?  Hard to say.

The approach without tags and print markings is more like hearing Hamlet on stage, alone, thinking aloud.  No apparent filters separate us from Hamlet’s thoughts.  Like a soliloquy, this kind of indirect thought is dramatic and—so far—as close as writers can come to eliminating their own presence in their narratives.

For more on how to write characters’ thoughts, read How Fiction Works by James Wood.


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