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Why Italics Are a Problem in Fiction

2016 August 10

The Problem with ItalicsIn writing a story, the key to reader participation is point of view. Whether an author agrees that a simple point of view (simply keeping the viewpoint in the head of the lead character for the scene) or a deep point of view (drawing the reader into the story to experience it with your characters) is best, authors are still finding ways to draw their reader out of the story.

The most popular, annoying, irritating, exasperating, for-crying-out-loud-stop-it habit has become italics.

My gut wrenches when I see italics inundating a published book or submitted manuscript. Yeah, it’s that bad.

So, why are italics a problem?

Before we get down to the problems with italics, let’s look at the reason italics are used in fiction: 1) authors use italics to indicate internal monologue; 2) words are italicized by authors to provide emphasis; and 3) italics show that a word is being defined. We won’t get into that because when this occurs the italicization is correct.

Now, we can dissect the problems with the first two uses.

No matter the reason they are used, italics jar a reader out of the story. In internal monologue, italicized thoughts remind the reader that they truly aren’t a part of the story. They are simply reading what is going on.

For italicized emphasis, the author is telling the reader one of two things (and possibly both in some instances). Either the author isn’t confident in his or her ability to get the dialogue across without the emphasis or the author isn’t confident in the reader’s intelligence to understand what is being said.

In case you need a translation on these, it boils down to one hard fact: the author is telling rather than showing. Yes, these methods have been used, and they continue to be practiced, but italicization is a shortcut, and when you breakdown the shortcuts of authors, they seem to have one thing in common: they are a form of telling.

Internal monologue can be shown much easier in point of view. I understand that there are still some hold-out authors who balk against deep point of view. Also, there are some writers who are studying it and struggling with the concept because internal monologue gets in their way. Those authors use a mixture of both, often putting deep point of view into italics and leaving internal monologue as if it were deep point of view.

Here’s a deep point of view primer: in third-person, quite simply, a scene is set as the lead character’s scene by giving that character an action. Everything stays in third person, and every thought in that scene is recognized by the reader as that character’s point of view. Take out telling words such as heard, knew, recognized, thought, etc., and you have deep point of view. Practice makes it better, and the practice is a lot of fun. Internal monologue in third person is changed to first person and italicized. Can you see why the continual use of that practice would become annoying to the reader? There are two instances when I feel that internal monologue is necessary: 1) when the character is in silent prayer; and 2) when the author truly feels that the emphasis of a statement of internal monologue is necessary. Believe me. That instance is rarer than most authors want to believe: Big Foot rare, if you get my meaning.

Let’s not get started with novels written in first person. In all honestly, the reader should be in that character’s point of view. Italics in first person stories are utterly useless, so I’m not even going there.

Look at the following paragraph written with and without internal monologue:

Abra let the wind blow through the open car window. This winding road to Shane’s was one of her favorite places. Who would have thought that in only five and a half months, she’d be used to the mountains. Cruising them was so much more fun than traveling on straight roads where you could see miles ahead without a break in the scenery.

So, after reading this paragraph, what do you think she’s doing? She’s driving. She’s not only driving, but she’s driving to the home of someone named Shane.

How long has Abra been in this area where she’s driving and how do we know she’s a little new to the area? She shows us in her point of view. She been there a little over five months; she likes the mountains. She’s obviously from some place void of their beauty—like Florida. (Writing what I know). She shows us these things in her deep point of view, without italics. Four sentences of the first paragraph, which gives Abra the action and the thought, and we’re driving on that mountain road with her.

Let’s see how the same four sentences sound with internal monologue:

Abra let the wind blow through the open car window. This winding road to Shane’s was one of her favorite places. Who would have thought that in only five and a half months, I’d be used to the mountains. Cruising them is so much more fun than traveling on straight roads where I can see miles ahead without a break in the scenery.

Yes, the information is the same. The delivery is what kills the second version. As a reader, I’m in the car with Abra driving to Shane’s house for the first two sentences. In the last two, I’m outside the car, as Abra is kind of alone with her thoughts.

Keep the italicized thoughts out, and I’m still sitting in the car with Abra heading to Shane’s. I’ve been there five and a half months with her, and I’m winding around those curves, loving where I am at the moment.

Now, to emphasize (notice I didn’t use italics for the pun) my next point, Abra isn’t alone in her car. She has two little boys with her, and they can help us see how italicization for emphasis can be unnecessary, for the most part. Let’s look at a bit of their conversation with the italicization included:

“Maybe we’ll see Bumblebee today,” Paulie whispered.

Shu-ut-ut up,” Peter hissed.

“Buzz, buzz,” Abra let them know she heard. “Is that what Shane and Taffy film for their music CDs and DVDs? Bumblebees?”

“Shane films lots of stuff. Last week we got to watch two otters play in the stream at Mount Tabor. It’s really not a mountain. It’s a place where the mountain levels out to one side, but it’s higher on the other. The stream roars down. Shane owns it.”

Would you believe that none of that emphasis is necessary? Look over the paragraph again. Without the italics would you understand that Bumblebee might not be a bumblebee? Yeah. Because the author (me) has capitalized the name of whatever it is.

Do you get the idea that Paulie and Peter don’t want their mom to know that Bumblebee isn’t a bee because maybe she won’t let them continue to do whatever they do with Shane and Taffy? Duh! That’s why Peter tells his twin to sh-ut-ut up, and the boys evade Mom’s questions.

Not one piece of italics is necessary. The dialogue and the way it is delivered take away the need for the telling emphasis. The reader is shown what they need to know. They aren’t talked down to, and the reader also feels as if the author believes he or she is smart enough to catch on to the interplay between a mother and her two boys.

Okay, to the authors who argue that rules are meant to be broken and authors do live to break rules, the fun in breaking the rules comes when you do it at the right time and not every time. Seeing every other word italicized for emphasis or paragraphs of internal monologue weary a reader and plain wear thin on an editor or agent. The secret to breaking these rules and any rule is first to understand it, and when it is understood, use it to the utmost in one, maybe two instances. As stated above, I call that the Big Foot rule. Break the rule so sparingly that the reader will remember it as if they would remember stumbling across a Big Foot or make Big Foot so stealth that they wonder if it existed at all.

Book Poster

Fay Lamb (The Tactical Editor)  is an author, editor, and writing coach, who loves to work with authors to help them meet their goals.Her emotionally charged stories remind the reader that God is always in the details. Fay has contracted three series. Stalking Willow and Better Than Revenge

Art of Characterization Cover FINAL FRONT (2)Books 1 and 2 in the Amazing Grace romantic suspense series are currently available for purchase. Charisse and Libby the first two novels in her The Ties That Bind contemporary romance series have been released. Fay has also collaborated on two Christmas novella projects: The Christmas Three Treasure Hunt, A Ruby Christmas, and the Write Integrity Press romance novella series, which includes  A Dozen Apologies, The Love Boat Bachelor, and Unlikely Merger, which are now available in print or eBook as The Heart Seekers. Her adventurous spirit has taken her into the realm of non-fiction with The Art of Characterization: How to Use the Elements of Storytelling to Connect Readers to an Unforgettable Cast.Future releases from Fay are: Everybody’s Broken and Frozen Notes, Books 3 and 4 of Amazing Grace and Hope and Delilah, Books 3 and 4 from The Ties that Bind.

Fay loves to meet readers, and you can find her on her personal Facebook page, her Facebook Author page, and at The Tactical Editor on Facebook. She’s also active on Twitter. Then there are her blogs: On the Ledge, Inner Source, and the Tactical Editor. And, yes, there’s one more: Goodreads. Anyone interested in learning more about Fay’s freelance editing and her coaching, should contact her at



3 Responses Post a comment
  1. August 12, 2016

    I always benefit by your articles, Fay. This one especially since I tend to use italics for internal thought. Thanks, June

  2. Lichen Craig permalink
    August 19, 2016

    Hmmm… as a longtime professional editor, I have to disagree with a lot of this. Italics showing internal thought is just fine, and can actually serve to take the reader deeper into the character’s head. And a well-placed italicized word or phrase for emphasis is just fine, as far as I’m concerned. I would argue that sometimes, no matter how well-written the narrative or dialogue, that tool is useful and adds a layer of meaning. I suppose that both can be overdone, of course. We don’t want that going on on every page, necessarily. I do support showing and not telling, to the greatest extent possible, when I work with clients on manuscripts. However, to show without ever telling in every line or even paragraph is simply not possible… a good book mixes the two.

    • Fay Lamb permalink*
      August 19, 2016

      Thank you for your insight, Craig. As a writer and an editor I work with others who disagree with me or who aren’t bothered by italics. Ours is such a subjective world. What jars me might not jar another editor, and that’s good for a writer to know.

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