Friday, August 14, 2009

This is a Thinking Post

There are tons of articles out there about setting thoughts apart in third person and past tense narrative. You can use italics, thought tags, or both. Or you can just write everything in past tense, so it all just blends together. Some even recommend using quotation marks, which, to me, seems like it would only confuse the reader.

My problem is that I don’t write in third person. I like to write in first person, and my finished novel is in first person and past tense. If I’d decided to write it in present tense, I wouldn’t have an issue. Then all the direct thoughts would flow right into the narrative without any hiccups or bumps.

Since I started this process, I’ve wondered if the direct thoughts (written in first person and present tense) were too jarring intertwined with the narrative, but I haven’t been able to find any info on how to set thoughts apart in first person. Well, there’re always italics, but that would be a mess. Or I could write them all in past tense, but I think that would lessen the impact. There are certain scenes I think the reader needs to experience with the main character to really get the full effect.

I guess all of the things that work for third person would work for first person, but is it really necessary? We're living in the same head for the whole book anyway.

So, I’m wondering. If there is nothing to set them apart besides the tense change, do you find that thoughts in first person and present tense are distracting in a first person and past tense narrative? For those of you who write in first person, do you do anything to set your narrators direct thoughts apart from the rest of the narrative?

In case I’ve only confused you, I’ve included a snippet below as an example.




  1. This is something I've put a lot of thought into, especially since I hate reading long passages of italics.

    Having written a novel in first person past, I only used italics where the main character's thoughts are in present tense. I use this sparingly, since I like the narrative to have voice, too. But sometimes you just need that immediacy of the mc's thoughts at that moment, which calls for present tense.

    I'm noticing an immense difference while writing first person present, in that everything the mc thinks is perceived as being in the moment. Thoughts are almost indistinguishable from the narrative. If the mc decides to relate a flasback in past tense, that is the only time I have to worry about my mc's thoughts and the tense of the passage making sense together. I'm trying to avoid thoughts in italics if at all possible for this one.

    Italics for long passages, dreams, etc., really bother me, since I hate reading italics for an extended period. Thoughts are fine since they are never very long, and the font change serves more as an internal trigger (oh, look, this is what the mc is thinking at this exact moment) than an annoyance. Obviously, I have no problem with italicizing single words for emphasis.

  2. Haha! Excellent snippet!

    I also write in first person, past tense, but I DO italicize internal thoughts. And I make them present tense, also. For me it's not a problem as there aren't that many internal thoughts to make the page look messy (because so much is in italics.)

    I thought what you had flowed and was very powerful, even though you didn't have the thoughts italicized. Still. I think if you had many internal thoughts it COULD confuse your reader, so I'd probably italicize them.

    It'll be interesting what others have to say though ...

  3. I agree w/ Tere since your character's present tense thoughts are tastefully sprinkled, and not in huge, whopping chunks :).

    Love that passage!

  4. Interesting post and snippet! It's got my attention. I like the way you did the thoughts. I think they work for they style you have.

    I've had issues with this very thing, but not first person, so I don't know how much I can help you there. Here's a link to a post I did awhile ago. It might or might not help.

    Internal Dialogue

  5. Very interesting snippet!

    I definitely think you should set them apart somehow--preferably in italics, and, at the very least, give them their own paragraph.

    It's confusing to me as I'm reading it, because it makes me think you've slipped out of past tense accidentally (i.e., editing error).

    "There are certain scenes I think the reader needs to experience with the main character to really get the full effect." ---> Which is exactly why I'm writing first person present tense right now. :)

    Because I'm not a writer, and because of my illness from long ago. It's hard for me to remember. SO bare with me, I don't know if I can give any advice on this subject.
    I TRULY value your writings, I value YOU as the writer. I believe you have a HIT on your hands!

    Forgive my "dingy-ness today) it's all part of it. LOL. really.
    It's been a bad day.. sorry I couldn't be of more help.

    The dingy one. heh heh

  7. Thanks, all, for your thoughts on this. Despite most of you saying it's necessary, I'm still resisting the italics. It takes me a while to admit when I'm wrong. I'll let it fester for a bit and we'll see. Maybe I'll even do something crazy, like an overall tense change. Ack! :D You guys are the best! Thanks for reading!

    Lady Glamis: Thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

  8. Look for similar published books and see how those authors handle it.

    Bridget Jones's Diary comes to can preview first chpt on Amazon.

    Good luck!

  9. So I've been rethinking the whole present tense, past tense, italics dilemma, and this is my second input (take it as you will, of course):

    I went back over a first person past tense that I started working on but never finished because I got too darn confused by it, and I used past tense with character thoughts. Some are in italics and some aren't, but I think that so long as they're in the same tense, italics aren't necessary. What gets confusing is when there's a tense change and no italics. But maybe the confusion could be remedied by separating the thought into its own paragraph?

    Then again, I just read the sample of Bridget Jones on Amazon, and she seems to do first person present thoughts in past tense writing without separting the two, so ... maybe you're good! :)

    Moral of this story = I don't do well with thinking posts.