To Italicize or Not to Italicize

Internal monologue, that is.

Some writers like to put a character’s internal monologue into italics (represented in MS format by a single underline):

I don’t like the looks of this, he thought. He reached for his radio. Better call for backup.

Other writers prefer to leave the internal monologue in straight unitalicized (aka “roman“) type:

I don’t like the looks of this, he thought. He reached for his radio. Better call for backup.

Which is preferable? It’s dealer’s choice, really, unless you’ve been stuck with a publisher whose house style calls for one or the other. (Most publishers let the author decide, but once in a while you’ll run across one that doesn’t.)

Leaving the internal monologue in roman type is more common — in my admittedly biased observation — in writing that occupies, or at least aspires to occupy, a place on the literary end of the literary/genre continuum. I’m not sure why it should be so. When I’m feeling snarky, I suspect that it’s because clearly setting off internal monologue from authorial narrative makes things easier for the reader, and making things easier for the reader is one of those things that a literary writer is not supposed to do. Art is meant to be wrestled with, and meaning is only worthwhile if the reader has to work for it, and is only intended for those who can win the wrestling match and do the work. If this narrows the prospective audience, so be it; quality, not quantity, is the desideratum.

And of course, there’s no denying the force of custom. If plain roman type was good enough for Laurence Sterne and James Joyce and William Faulkner when they got their stream-of-consciousness on, then it should be good enough for their latter-day literary descendants.

Writers in the genres, meanwhile, were more concerned with getting their intended meaning across to as many readers as possible, and saw no point in letting a useful tool go unused. To the extent that they thought about literature as art, they thought that it wasn’t meant to be treated like a mystery cult where the revelation of truth is reserved for the initiated few, or like the exclusive property of an educated elite; it was meant for everybody, and it was the writer’s job to make it as accessible as possible.

Which side has the right of it? Neither, really; literature needs both approaches. But it helps, in a “know thyself” kind of way, to figure out where on the spectrum you, as an individual writer, happen to stand.

2 thoughts on “To Italicize or Not to Italicize

  1. I think it depends on the writer. I am not fond of italics personally, but when I read a book that utilizes italics for internal monologue I am not thrown off.

    I have been struggling with this decision a while so I was glad to see this post. Glad I’m not the only one who has a preference for the regular roman type font. Readers should be able to figure it out without italics, but then again, maybe not. I like to think my writing is clear. I was informed by a beta reader that my novel is considerate to the reader, at least when it comes to humor. haha.

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