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Voices in a POV character's head: thoughts, dialogue, or both.
Mike Bergonzi
Posted: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 8:37 PM
Joined: 3/1/2013
Posts: 4

I have a group of characters who hear voices inside their head and I'm wondering if I should italicize/underline, put it in dialogue or do both.

Sorry if this is in the wrong topic, but it made sense in my mind.

Thanks in advance.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 7:47 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 353

I've seen a lot of writers use italics to denote voices heard within another characters head. I think the more important thing is that once you've chosen a way to illustrate it, be consistent with it throughout the rest of the book.
Carl E Reed
Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 11:23 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

I vote for italics. It's a widely-understood convention, helps differentiate unspoken thought from spoken dialogue and constitutes a "faster read" than anything idiosyncratic you might come up with.
GD Deckard
Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 11:56 AM
Modern stories include "dialogue" originating from characters' thoughts, text messages, phone conversations, Skype discussions, flashing words & sounds maybe even out of body experiences. Without a widely recognized standard for denoting the origin of dialogue, I'm with Carl: Identify the source of unspoken dialogue and show it in italics.
Mike Bergonzi
Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 12:30 PM
Joined: 3/1/2013
Posts: 4

That's what I've been doing, but I wasn't sure. Thanks.
Herb Mallette
Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 2:08 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

Hi, Mike,

No one has asked the fundamental question that must be answered before you can settle on a means of presenting these inner voices: Do the people hearing the voices ever mistake them for actual, spoken-aloud sound?

If hearing these voices cannot be distinguished from hearing ordinary voices, and if you ever want the characters to be uncertain whether a given voice is internal or external, then you must present them in quotes using ordinary type. Otherwise, the reader will not be having the same experience that the character is, and the effect will be ruined.

On the other hand, if the experience of hearing the inner voices is qualitatively different for the characters than hearing sound voices, then you must present them in italics or some other typographically distinct manner.

Note that this does not have to be a complete either/or situation. The first time a character hears the inner voices, you might use quotes, and have the character confused as to where the voice is coming from. Then, as time passes and the character has a chance to become familiar with the inner dialogue, he or she could recognize that there is a distinct sensory difference between the mental voices and ordinary ones. Then you could switch to italics and maintain that presentation from there on. Conceivably, if a character has extensive conversations with an internal voice, you could switch to italics to denote the character's awareness of the "internality" even if there is no sensory distinction, then switch back to quotes for other mental voices when there is no such heightened awareness of internality. In any event, the POV character's own thoughts should always be in italics, because the character will always be aware that he or she is thinking, not speaking.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 2:53 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

That's an excellent point and an important distinction to make. Thanks, Herb! Well said.
Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 5:43 PM
Joined: 2/21/2013
Posts: 40

I recently had an editing project where this was an issue, and I found that italics were the best solution. Then it is very clear what is going on. And they work well visually for the reader.
Mike Bergonzi
Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 7:47 PM
Joined: 3/1/2013
Posts: 4

Not sure what you mean Herb. Here's an example of what the structure is like:

Wonder what's wrong with him, Jim said
"No idea," Sally said, "but it's getting kind of annoying."
He better not ruin the party like he did last time, Tom said

Basically the POV character (Sally) is talking to Jim and Tom. When there's more than one voice inside Sally's head, I treat it like regular dialogue with 3+ people. When it's 3+ characters talking in a given scene, I always write their name and then "said." (Jim said, Sally said, Tom said...) If it's just two people, then I use "he said/she said."

Hope all that makes sense.
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 9:22 PM
Seems confusing. Sally is speaking aloud and the others are inside her head. And a long conversation with "Jim said," "Sally said," and "Tom said," would get annoying.

One way around it would be to place brackets around Jim's words and parentheses around Tom's, so the reader would know who's speaking without having to be told.

My concern would be that all that conversing without action happening to make the plot move might slow the narrative.

Mike Bergonzi
Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 10:16 PM
Joined: 3/1/2013
Posts: 4


That was just a very simple example (one I made up when writing that last response. It's not part of my WIP). My actual dialogue isn't like that and has action beats scattered throughout to counterbalance a potential slow pacing problem. At least I like to think it does.

As for Sally talking out loud, it's more of a stylistic choice. I feel it breaks up the Underline/Italicized back and forth between the characters. I think using brackets and parenthesis would get confusing and visually displeasing. For me, having something like a bracket or parenthesis in fiction draws too much attention to itself and distracts from the narrative flow.

I appreciate the advice though, it's just not for me.

I will admit that I use the standard, invisible: "he said", "she said" when it flows naturally with the scene. Often times those are responses to questions. It really depends on the scene and how I feel when writing it. Again, the example in my last post was very simple and basic.

Herb Mallette
Posted: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 11:50 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

Okay, so here's a hypothetical first-time-hearing voices exchange:

"Pete, I need you to pay attention and not freak out."
"Huh?" Pete sat up in bed, looking around. "What's -- who said that?"
"My name's not important. And you can stop looking around. You're not going to find me. I'm in your head."
Pete rolled off his mattress and yanked the bed-skirt up, but there was nothing beneath the bed. "Okay, what the hell is this? Jack, is that you? Where are the speakers?"
"Just stop for a minute and pay attention, Pete. Can you tell what direction my voice is coming from? No, you can't. Because it has no direction, because it's not made of sound. It's in your head."
Pete stood slowly up, no longer looking around -- no longer sure where to look at all. The voice was right: it wasn't like any other sound he'd ever heard, because it wasn't even slightly directional. It just appeared from nowhere, or perhaps from everywhere, without a source.
You're getting it now, the voice said. If you listen for direction, you'll always be able to tell that it's one of us talking, not someone normal speaking aloud.

Now, contrast that opening with this one:

Pete, I need you to pay attention and not freak out.
Pete went instantly rigid in his bed. That was not a normal voice. It had rung into his brain with a weird, warbling echo like nothing his ears had ever heard -- or ever could hear.
Who -- who are you? he thought, knowing somehow that if he could hear the voice without sound, it could hear him whether he spoke aloud or not.
My name isn't important, Pete, but there are some things I need to tell you, and we don't have much time.

In the first example, the mental voice is close enough to actual sound that Pete mistakes it for someone talking. Only the absence of directional cues distinguishes it from a normal voice. In the second example, the quality of the voice is something he immediately notices as being mental, not audible. It "sounds" weird in a way that could never be mistaken for ordinary speech.

You need to decide how your characters are experiencing these mental voices. If the voices are noticeably different from ordinary speech, you should always use italics. If the voices sound just like ordinary speech, but you don't ever want to have a scene where a character is uncertain if a particular voice is speaking aloud, you should also probably use italics throughout.

The only reason to use quotes is if your characters can't always determine whether a particular voice is audible or mental. If you need the potential for confusion between audible voices and mental ones, consider using quotes. It will make your job as a writer more difficult, because you'll have to be careful to keep the reader informed about which quoted material is audible and which is mental, but it's the only way to convey the character's experience to the reader.

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