Grammar Diving Back into Dialogue: Part II |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Diving Back into Dialogue: Part II

Part One of our current discussion on dialogue concerned format, punctuation, and attribution in written conversations. Part Two will center on internal dialogue that conveys what characters are thinking as opposed to speaking.

An earlier article on the subject pointed out that direct internal dialogue is expressed in the first person (I, we) and written in either quotations or italics:

“Why is he just standing there? I really wish he’d open the window.”
Why is he just standing there? I really wish he’d open the window.

Indirect internal dialogue, on the other hand, conveys another character’s thoughts in the third person (he, she, they); it suggests more of the author’s speculation rather than a character’s personal observation. It is not set off by quotation marks or italics:

Marianne wondered why Robert would not open the window.

Most inquiries about internal dialogue we receive at GrammarBook concern whether to use quotations or italics to write it.

Our current answer is that quotation marks, italics, and standard type are all acceptable formats according to the writer’s style and preference, particularly when writing fiction.

Let’s look further at how we might apply the different formats for direct internal dialogue.

Quotation Marks
If we envision direct internal dialogue as something audibly spoken within a character, we might treat it with quotation marks. This format also often makes the dialogue less up-close and more descriptive.

“What is wrong with me?” Robert thought. “Why is it so hard to just say what she wants—no, needs—to hear?”
But then she might start believing, “Now I’ve finally got him. After years of trying to reach him, to gain his silent approval, he’s given me what I want and now I’m the one in control.”
His thoughts shifted from “I’ll say it” to “Never.”

Italics
We might use italics for direct internal dialogue if we picture the thoughts as being deeper within, and thus more personal to, the character. Rather than conveying something spoken as audible to the character alone, the italics establish a mental voice with a more immediate and intimate effect.

What is wrong with me? Robert thought. Why is it so hard to just say what she wants—needs—to hear?
But then she might start believing she’s got me. After years of trying to reach me and get my silent approval, she’ll have what she wants and then she’ll be in control.
Never.

Standard Type
Some writers may forgo both quotation marks and italics and simply stay with roman type for direct internal dialogue.

The effect is similar to italics’ in conveying a greater immediacy and intimacy with a character’s thoughts, particularly if the story is presented from that character’s point of view.

What is wrong with me? Robert thought. Why is it so hard to just say what she wants—needs—to hear?
But then she might start believing she’s got me. After years of trying to reach me and get my silent approval, she’ll have what she wants and then she’ll be in control.
Never.

This style can be distinctive if skillfully applied, as in author Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club.

New questions and choices may still often surface when we’re writing internal dialogue. As long as we remain consistent with the style we select for effect, we can make the words from within resonate with our readers.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

22 responses to “Diving Back into Dialogue: Part II”

  1. Andy Mather says:

    If you use italics (consistantly) for internal dialogue, like What is wrong with me? you don’t need the tag (Robert thought). The reader will understand that this is not spoken, and that the chapter’s POV character is the one doing the thinking.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      It depends on the point of view of the scene or the story. If it’s obvious whom the interior dialogue belongs to, then we wouldn’t need attribution. If however two or more people are having a spoken conversation and then it switches to interior dialogue, the attribution might be needed to help clarify who is doing the thinking.

      • Lyra says:

        I was wondering if I need to put a comma after the thought tag.
        For example,
        What is wrong with me?, Robert thought.
        It seems extremely wrong!

        • GrammarBook.com says:

          Yes, the comma is wrong. The example sentence is written correctly in the post:
          What is wrong with me? Robert thought.

  2. Anne says:

    What if you have a sentence in a piece of fiction writing with an embedded internal thought in the middle of the sentence? Do you capitalize the first word of that internal thought, or no?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      It is usually capitalized; however, that is not always the case. A writer might capitalize or not capitalize a thought within a thought depending on the style that’s been set from the
      start. Please see our post Internal Dialogue: Italics or Quotes? and the comments that follow for more details and examples of internal dialogue.

  3. Tiger lily says:

    How would you say a character thought if the story is written in the first person?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      It sounds as if you’re describing direct internal dialogue, which can be written in quotation marks or italics.

  4. Kelly Z says:

    How do you differentiate between a person speaking a foreign tongue and an internal dialogue in the same scene?

    • The Chicago Manual of Style’s Rule 11.11 says, “Quotations from a language other than English that are incorporated into an English text are normally treated like quotations in English …” Therefore, we recommend you follow the same guidelines for internal dialogue as described in our post Internal Dialogue: Italics or Quotes? and choose either italics or quotation marks for the internal dialogue and the other for the words in a foreign language.

  5. Katherine says:

    What if you use dialogue for the person’s thoughts in first person?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      As an author it is up to you whether to choose quotation marks or italics for internal dialogue. Whether it’s first or third person, just make sure you only use them when it is the individual’s exact words or thoughts. See our post Internal Dialogue: Italics or Quotes? for more information.

  6. Mona Mehas says:

    I am writing in third person from a character’s POV. He is remembering something someone else said. Should I use double quotation marks or is it ok to use single quotation marks? Example: What did he mean when he said, ‘protection?’ OR What did he mean when he said, “protection?”

  7. Suzanne says:

    I have an internal dialogue that is split up in multiple paragraphs. Do I use quotation marks twice or let it be within one set of quotation marks?

    Do I use it like this:

    “…There is this heavy weight on my chest, that makes it hard to breathe properly. I can feel my lungs scream for air but it hurts to breathe.”
    “Some days I just feel completely numb. Like my head is emptied of all…”

    or like this:

    “…There is this heavy weight on my chest, that makes it hard to breathe properly. I can feel my lungs scream for air but it hurts to breathe.
    Some days I just feel completely numb. Like my head is emptied of all…”

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      In writing dialogue in quotations, you would begin the dialogue with quotation marks and add new quotation marks to start each new paragraph within the ongoing narrative. Only the last paragraph in the narrative would have closing quotation marks.

      “…There is this heavy weight on my chest, that makes it hard to breathe properly. I can feel my lungs scream for air but it hurts to breathe.
      “Some days I just feel completely numb. Like my head is emptied of all…”

  8. Anne says:

    I am proofreading the following sentence: “Thanks Miss B.,” I said. I know it should have both a period for the abbreviation, and a comma at the end of the dialogue, but it looks so wrong! Can I get away with leaving the period off?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      The only time to omit the period is to avoid a double period at the end of a sentence. In addition, our Rule 8 of Commas says, “Use commas to set off the name, nickname, term of endearment, or title of a person directly addressed.” Therefore, write the following:
      “Thanks, Miss B.,” I said.

  9. Margaret says:

    Does internal dialog have to be first person or could it be in third person? My story is in omniscient POV. “Where is Smithers?” she thought. “He wasn’t so difficult to talk to the last time she called.”

    Any thoughts?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      Internal dialogue does not have to be first person. Your quotation is fine as written.

  10. JC Norton says:

    If internal dialogue appears in the middle of a paragraph, do you create a new paragraph as you would with normal dialogue?
    For example:
    After she’d left, Tom continued walking along the beach. “What should I do?” he asked himself. Their relationship had reached a turning point, and he was at a loss.
    Or this?
    After she’d left, Tom continued walking along the beach.
    “What should I do?” he asked himself.
    Their relationship had reached a turning point, and he was at a loss.

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