Expressing thoughts and imagined dialogue

There are no hard and fast rules about displaying a character’s thoughts. It tends to be dictated by trends of the moment or personal preference. The one rule is that once you have chosen a style, be consistent in the use of it.

Below are a set of published conventions for the expression of thoughts.

Thought and imagined dialogue may be placed in quotation marks or not, so long as similar instances are treated consistently within a single work.
Oxford Style Manual, Oxford University Press, 2003

…Italics are also used for emphasis…In fictional works italics may be used more creatively, for example, to convey unspoken thoughts.
Mitchell & Wightman, Book Typography, A Designer’s Manual, Libanus Press, 2005

(It is worth noting here that there are conventional editorial rules for the use of italics, and I shall cover these in a future post.)

Some authors have their own system of quotation marks, which they are anxious to retain: for example, double quotes for speech and single for thoughts…Try to persuade your author not to do this, as it can be more confusing than helpful.
Butcher, Judith, Butcher’s Copy-editing, The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders, 4th edn, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Placing quotes around direct thoughts is now deemed old-fashioned. Modern convention is to display them without quotes. Italics can be irritating for the reader, especially if used a lot. It’s worth researching traditionally published novels to see how thoughts are displayed. Here are a few examples:

‘Wish they could see famous Harry Potter now,’ he thought savagely, as he spread manure on the flowerbeds, his back aching, sweat running down his face.
Rowling, J. K., Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998

She looked up from her desk and glanced at Mma Makutsi, who was busying herself with the typing of a letter which Mma Ramotswe had drafted, in pencil, earlier on. We must try to help her, she thought. We must try to persuade her to value herself more than she does at present.
Smith, Alexander McCall, The Kalahari Typing School for Men (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abacus, 2004

So then I went back to the clearing he still wasn’t there and I thought Well, I guess he just made up he was coming and he didn’t want pants so bad after all.
Niffenegger, Audrey, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Vintage, 2005

(It is also worth noting that the first two are written in third person, and the third is written in first person.)

My personal preference is to use italics to display thoughts and imagined dialogue, but this will depend on the context, and how much text has already been italicized. 🙂

Editing tip 3: Using Styles (Headings)

Publishing companies generally use a typographical specification. This document instructs a typesetter on such things as font style, font size, how to display extracts, paragraph indention, styles for headings and other design aspects of a book.

If you are self-publishing, and doing all the work yourself, then you have to become a typesetter, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit of applying simple styles at the writing or editing stage. Not only will it save you time and give you a ‘typeset’ document, it will also be easier for you to navigate to different parts of the text whilst you are editing.

In this post, I am going to cover headings. I use Word 2010, but other versions, and compatible software, will show something similar. To begin with, you’ll need both your Navigation Pane and Styles pane displaying on the screen.

Generally, the Navigation Pane appears down the left-hand side. From the three tabs that display, select the first one: ‘Browse the headings in your document’. This pane will be empty when you have no styles applied.

»Find your first chapter heading. Select the first chapter heading, or click on it. From the Styles pane, choose the style named ‘Heading 1’. You’ll notice two things: one, your chapter heading now appears in the Navigation Pane; two, your chapter heading will have a style applied to it, but perhaps not in a way you would like.

»Format your chapter heading as you would like it to be displayed – for example, bold, centred, in a bigger font, increased line spacing – and then, right-click on the style named ‘Heading 1’ from the Styles pane. From the menu, click on ‘Update Heading 1 to Match Selection’. The style for Heading 1 will now reflect your chosen style.

»Find your next chapter heading. Select it, or click on it, and from the Styles pane, click ‘Heading 1’. Do this for the rest of your document, remembering to save as you go along.

This may seem like a laborious process, but you will benefit in the long run. Not only will all of your chapter headings display in a uniform style, they will also show in the Navigation Pane, which means you can move easily between chapters, just by clicking on the one you want.

If you’re not doing so, you may also like to start each chapter on a new page, as this is how a published book will display them.

The Comma: a pause between parts

The other day, I was sent a screenshot from my son who was at college, carrying out an ‘Editing and proofreading’ exercise. It was a multiple-choice question, as follows:

Q. What should Melanie Richards do to ensure she buys the right food?

  • She should buy cream, cheese, rolls and fruit salad.
  • She should buy cream cheese, rolls, fruit and salad.
  • She should buy cream, cheese rolls, and fruit salad.
  • She should ask the secretary for advice and for more commas in future!

The reason my son sent this to me was because he was stumped…and so was his tutor!

Commas have four different uses: listing, joining, gapping, and bracketing. Below is an example of each:

The listing comma simply separates items in a list.

  • Melanie Richards bought cream, cheese, cream cheese, cream cheese rolls, fruit, fruit salad, and salad.

The joining comma joins two complete sentences into one, using a connecting word such as, and, or, but, while and yet.

  • Melanie Richards was confused about the shopping list, but she played it safe and bought every combination she could think of.

The gapping comma shows that one or more repeating words have been left out.

  • Some of Melanie’s friends thought that the green salad was the right choice; others, the fruit salad.

The bracketing comma can be used in the same way as parenthesis, to note an aside or to mark off a weaker aspect of the sentence. The trick with these is that the sentence still makes sense without the interruption.

  • Melanie Richards, realising that she didn’t know precisely what she should be buying, asked the secretary for advice.
  • Melanie Richards looked at the list and, as the secretary had gone home for the day, decided to leave the shopping until tomorrow.

This, essentially, is the nuts and bolts of the comma, but people can get very excited about using commas, and put them in all sorts of places, where they are not required. This has the effect, of slowing down the reading experience, and causing pauses, where pauses are not, perhaps, required. If you want to, deliberately, reduce the pace of your writing, then you can include more commas, if you wish.

On the other hand some people deliberately exclude commas because it speeds up the reading experience. As long as the text makes sense and no confusion is caused by the lack of commas then there is no reason why they should be included as the reader will take natural pauses as they read through the text.

In fiction writing, the rules do not always apply, but it is important that the text makes sense to the reader, and that no confusion is likely to be caused by the lack of, or too many, commas.

So, back to Melanie and her head-scratching list. What should she do? As standalone sentences, each one of the three lists is accurate. But, as an exercise in editing and proofreading, the information provided to Melanie is unclear. There are many combinations of the food required, and so for Melanie to be certain of what she should buy, she needs to ask her secretary for advice and for more commas.

However, I cannot end this entry without mentioning the serial – or Oxford – comma. This is the comma that is used after the last but one item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’. It has been the subject of much debate, and people either love it or they hate it, but it does play an important role. Consider the following:

  • Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector…

Without the Oxford comma, the sentence implies that, either Nelson Mandela is an 800-year-old demigod who collects sex aids, or there is an 800-year-old demigod who collects sex aids. I suspect, there were meant to be three separate encounters, but because the Oxford comma was omitted, the meaning is unclear (albeit amusing). By the way, this was reported as a real example from The Times of London newspaper. 🙂

One Quotation Mark or Two?

It is usual British practice to enclose direct speech between single quotation marks. Look inside any novel published for the UK market and you will see that this is the style. Double quotation marks are then used for a quotation within a quotation:

‘Would you like a cup of rooibos?’ she asked.
‘Did you say “rooibos”? What is that?’ he replied.

However, in the US (and in UK newspapers) this is reversed: double quotation marks for direct speech, and single quotation marks within.

My preference is for single quotation marks. I think they look neater; I find them easier on the eye when editing. As a trained copy-typist, the  character is easier to find on the keyboard (stretch right-hand little finger one key to the right) than the character, which I invariably have to look for, and use the shift key – that’s effort! Also, each pair of single quotes (opening and closing) takes up less space on the page – equal to one character – meaning a reduction in paper used when printing out a 100,000-word novel for copy-editing. I also prefer to read books that use single quotation marks, otherwise it looks as if the page has broken out in pimples.

Before you navigate to the Replace function to change all your double quotations to single ones, consider this: how easy is it to check whether you have omitted any closing quotation marks after using direct speech? It’s easy to forget them when you are so wrapped up in typing; you’ve become a little excited as the drama in your story builds up, and the creative juices are flowing faster than your fingers can cope with…so, it’s quicker, and easier, to check through your work if you have used double quotation marks, and why is that? Well, it’s called the apostrophe. The apostrophe also looks like a single quotation mark:

‘Don’t you want a cup of rooibos? she asked.
‘You didn’t say “rooibos”, did you? I hate the stuff,’ he replied.

With the mix of quotation marks and apostrophes, using the Find function to check for missing ones, specifically for speech quotes, is arduous. There are five matches in that short piece, and the highlighted ones appear throughout, making the missing one at the end of the first line less noticeable.

Using double quotation marks (with ‘rooibos’ in single quotes), there are only three matches. The highlighted characters appear at the beginning and the end of the lines of speech, making the missing quotation marks easier to spot.

Alternatively, there’s always a macro. I’m not clever enough to write one, but a quick search on the Internet will find a macro that checks for missing quotation marks. Great, you might think, but they are mostly written by and for the US market, so they only check for double quotation marks, and not single ones. (Aargh!) It’s tricky, so I’ve handed this over to my husband – perhaps he can create one that checks for single speech quotes (ignoring apostrophes), and if he does, I’ll post it here.

Of course, you could always decide not to include any quotation marks with your direct speech: Don’t be scared: dialogue without quotation marks