Wednesday, March 05, 2008

March Hare Days

Reflected Light,
Victor Higgins,
oil on canvas, c. 1921.

The wind from the north flings fine ground glass at my windows this morning and moans in melancholy and madness among the boughs of the dark spruce beside my back door.

Early morning in late winter is like a worn and faded negative of its former self.

Szelsofa asked me to expand on the use of italics to indicate a character's internal thoughts.

The first guide I use for italics is based on the premise that their fundamental purpose is emphasis.

I think this guide applies to both first and third person narratives.

In third, a character's private thoughts are often introduced or followed by phrases such as "he thought, she wondered," etc. -- though proper flow of narrative doesn't require those tags, and I prefer to see them omitted where possible.

If we write:"Janet stepped back in surprise. What was he doing here?"
the reader automatically assumes the question is Janet's thought upon another character's unexpected appearance. No tag and no italics necessary.

However, if the writer wishes to emphasize that the second character's arrival is to Janet a particularly shocking or pivotal event, the lines might read: "Janet stepped back. What was he doing here?"

(Yeah, yeah, I know. Nearly the same effect could be produced by simply italicizing he, as in "Janet stepped back. What was he doing here?" But that's a choice of style and voice and not the point.)

In either first or third, I like any telepathic (paranormal) communication set off by italics. In such cases, italics are used more to avoid confusion about who is thinking/saying what than to indicate emphasis.

In first person, all ruminations are assumed to belong to narrator, but italics still may provide a valuable role in emphasizing a particular thought.

As the case where Lillie meets a bean sidhe ( phoenetically, banshee) in the laundromat:

"She closed the lid of her washer and walked away, her red running shoes making small slapping sounds on the tile floor, like wet wool on river stones. The russet hair flowing down her back was as long as mine.

She paused and looked back over her shoulder. I could barely hear her over the rush of water filling the machines.

"No curse runs with power forever, Cousin, for the dead are grateful for rest. Even those from the small barrows.


I don't remember trundling home."


Carla said...

Nice example of italics for emphasis. I gather that Lillie doesn't consider herself a cousin of the bean sidhe and is somewhat shocked at the association?

PS - I like the description of a late winter wind.

Sam said...

I love the description of the wind as well - lovely!!!

And yes, italics do add emphasis!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Carla.
Yes, Lillie is astonished.

Sam, thank you.
I believe that emphasis is their primary purpose.

BernardL said...

"like wet wool on river stones"

I liked your simile. I hope the agents and editors don't outlaw it. :)

bookfraud said...

excellent points on emphasis and the judicious use of italics. i have always been of the opinion that overuse of italics has ruined narratives that would have been fine otherwise. if, a narrator in the first-person emphasizes something via italics, it connotes a conversational tone; in the third person, it can indicate authorial intrusion.

but i wonder about italics for internal monologue or thoughts. it can be an extremely effective tool, done correctly.

i, too, loved your descriptions in the example above.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Bernard.
That business about two similies per book is the most idiot piece of advice I've seen.

Just couldn't resist, could you, Book?
I'm firmly of the opinion one should be miserly with italics.
And thank you.

Robyn said...

I heard at a writer's conference that italics in internal dialogue were more effective as unspoken conversation rather than observation.

Something like, "So he thought women hated phonies? No shit, Sherlock."

Bad example, but you get the idea.

Bernita said...

A good example, Robyn.
But no matter how one describes it, the effect seems to come down to emphasis.

Demon Hunter said...

Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Bernita. I often wondered about emphasis of italics. Thanks for elaborating! :*)

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I use italics for emphasis in dialogue only, and for telepathy. That's it. I liken them to adverbs. They aren't wrong, they just lend a melodramatic tone that I don't employ often or well.

Bernita said...

My Demon, it might be safer to view my post as half-assed opinion.

SS, I have a minor character that ends half her sentences with italics.
She's an irritating bitch.

December/Stacia said...

Lol, I totally overuse italics. I just like them.

Excellent analysis!

SzélsőFa said...

Bernita, I am thankful for this post. The fact that it was done upon my asking makes me bow even lower...

I found your examples highly informative and also most, if not all, of the comments were just as much helpful.

I'll be checking my WIP and'll post an entry about it - like within a couple of days.

Bernita said...

Thank you, December.
Some narratives may need them more than others.

Szelsofa, I hope it clarifies and is helpful and does not lead you astray.

Billy said...

I have to admit that I have been partial to the use of italics for internal analysis (which you spoke of yesterday). This may sound weird, but I have a visceral response to the change in font style that helps my mind accept that I am reading thoughts.

writtenwyrdd said...

the wind's howling pretty loudly in my neck of the woods, too. Blowing sleet is not my favorite, let me say.

I agree about the italics. I try to avoid "he thought" as much as possible. I do write them in ad nauseum, but on edits try to get as many out as possible.

Bernita said...

One can become accustomed to a certain form, Billy.
I must say though that my eyes tend to glaze at long passages in italics.

Written, I'm just in from shovelling five inches of the heavy, crusty stuff. I ache.
Even in first I've found myself over-using "I wondered."
~slaps hands~

Suzanne Perazzini said...

In deep POV, italics are not necessary and I personally don't like 'she thought' or 'she wondered'. It pulls you out of the deep POV. I reserve italics for emphasis - used judiciously, and for quotes/sayings.

Bernita said...

Suzanne, I like italics for emphasis - even in deep POV.

Charles Gramlich said...

Beauifully written as always. And a nice explantion of the italics use.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Charles!

raine said...

"She closed the lid of her washer and walked away, her red running shoes making small slapping sounds on the tile floor, like wet wool on river stones.

Just beautiful, Bernita.

Gabriele C. said...

Italics get overused these days. I hate it when all internal thoughts are italicised as if the reader is too damn stupid to get it. I don't know if it's some authors' habit or the house style of certain publishers, but I suspect the latter. I've seen it done more in books by Bean than by Tor, fe.

Bernita said...

Used it because she is the Washer at the Ford, Raine.
Thank you.

Gariele, I would suspect a publisher's preference there too.

The Anti-Wife said...

More useful information to ponder. Thanks!

stevent said...

Bernita, you make some excellent points about the use of italics. I'm a big fan of George R.R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire, and he does an excellent job of creating internal thoughts for characters with the use of italics.

Bernita said...

Hope it is useful, AW.

Nice to see you, Stevent. Thank you.
Martin is... complex in everything.

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for this discussion. Coming from nonfiction, I've been puzzled about when and how to use them in fiction. You make the choice easy.

Bernita said...

More freedom in fiction, Shauna.
Glad if it helps.

Sid Leavitt said...

Sorry to be coming late into this discussion (I been busy, got behind in blog reading), but someone has to compliment you on this:

"Early morning in late winter is like a worn and faded negative of its former self."

You do turn out beautiful ingots with your forge and anvil, o wordsmith.

Bernita said...

Sid, you are definitely on my list of Men I Want To Run Away With.
Thank you.