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Writing

How to Write Characters’ Thoughts: 6 Ways to Format Internal Dialogue

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

In short story or novel writing, the protagonist’s inner thoughts can reveal deeper insight into who they are and what motivates them. If you’re writing fiction and want to include your character's internal thoughts, find a way to differentiate them from the rest of the text so the reader knows they’re reading a character’s thoughts. There are different techniques for doing so, allowing you to get into your character’s mind to reveal their inner dialogue.

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6 Reasons to Write Character Thoughts

A story might have a dramatic plot and rich dialogue, but revealing a character’s innermost thoughts and feelings adds an extra dimension to a story. By knowing what a POV character is thinking, a reader has access to information no other character does. As a writer, you may share these thoughts in order to:

  1. To reveal a character’s true feelings: A character might say one thing but think another. A reader needs to know both to get a complete picture and understand what makes the protagonist tick.
  2. To help character development: An author can use thoughts to reveal backstory or secrets that no other character knows. They can make a character more relatable and well-rounded to readers.
  3. To set the mood: Is a character conveying cheerful, happy thoughts about their situation or environment? Or dark, foreboding ones? Writers can create or support the mood of a scene by conveying a character’s internal emotions.
  4. To increase the tension: Think of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The presence of the police after the murder is unsettling. But it is the main character’s inner monologue that drives the suspense and increases the tension in this short story, ultimately forcing him to confess.
  5. To reveal motivation: In real life, people often keep their intentions close to their chest before they reveal their plans to others. When a writer shares what a character thinks, readers can learn what is driving their quest in the storyline.
  6. To uncover an inner conflict: When people face an internal conflict, they often weigh the pros and cons in their head before deciding what actions they’ll take. A writer can take readers into the middle of that internal storm and use it for deeper character development and greater tension.

6 Ways to Write a Character’s Thoughts in Your Story

Writing dialogue is straightforward: The spoken words are encapsulated in quotation marks and often start a new line. When it comes to your character’s thoughts though, it can be trickier to figure out how to express what they are thinking. There’s no universal style for how to handle inner thoughts in fiction writing. It is solely a writer’s preference for how they want to highlight what a character is thinking. The first time you write thoughts, you’ll likely want to stick with the same format throughout the entire story for consistency. Here are six writing tips and suggestions for how to write a character’s thoughts:

  1. Use dialogue tags without quotation marks. One of the most straightforward ways to write the interior monologue of your main character is to simply use dialogue tags. That means you write “he thought” or “she thought” to identify a phrase as something a character thinks to themselves. For example: Sarah pushed on the throttle and the spaceship began to lift off the ground. Lives were at stake and time was running out. I hope this works, she thought.
  2. Use dialogue tags and use quotation marks. The Chicago Manual of Style, one of the most popular guides to widely accepted writing style dos and don’ts, suggests using quotation marks for interior discourse. It’s worth noting that this method of using speech marks can be confusing as it’s identical to the way most writers designate spoken dialogue. You still may find an instance, though, where this format is useful. Here’s an example: Sarah pushed on the throttle and the spaceship began to lift off the ground. Lives were at stake and time was running out. “I hope this works,” she thought.
  3. Use Italics. Italics are often used for emphasis in writing. They are also a technique authors will use to identify the main character’s thoughts. The use of italics makes a clear distinction between thoughts and the surrounding text. For example: Sarah pushed on the throttle and the spaceship began to lift off the ground. Lives were at stake and time was running out. I hope this works.
  4. Start a new line. In a story, a writer will often start a new line for each character’s dialogue. For a lengthy internal monologue or longer stream of consciousness thoughts, start a new paragraph. This is a visual cue that we’re no longer in the external world but in the character’s head.
  5. Use deep POV. If you’re writing third-person limited or first-person narrative, you’ll give a reader full access to a character inside and out. This is called deep point of view. Deep POV allows a writer to incorporate a character’s thoughts seamlessly into the text without interrupting the flow with punctuation or a change in font. Your readers are entrenched in the mind of your main character and you can simply weave thoughts, actions, and dialogues into the story and the reader associates it with the protagonist. In this instance the example would read something like: Sarah pushed on the throttle, hoping it would work. She was mentally exhausted, but lives were at stake, and time was running out. The spaceship began to lift off the ground.
  6. Use descriptive writing for secondary characters. If you write in third-person omniscient POV, you can dip in and out of the thoughts of more than one fictional character. But if you’re writing in first-person POV or limited third-person POV and want to give readers a feel for another character’s emotions, use descriptive writing and sensory information to hint at thoughts or emotions. Describe the character’s eyes in a way that reveals their reaction to a moment—how their eyes move, like glaring or nervously darting. Describe their face and expressions to let readers know how a character might be feeling when they don’t have access to their direct thoughts.
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