bookmark_borderWriting in italics

I’ve heard some discussion about the use of italics, and today I ran across an example of what I think it a good use of italics in my current reading. This excerpt is from A Wanted Man: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Child.

McQueen waited. Reacher looped around the trunk. He paused, gestured, right-handed, open palm: Go ahead. After you. A precaution, not politeness.

A precaution, because Reacher wants McQueen to go toward the building first. He knows that McQueen has a gun but McQueen doesn’t know yet that Reacher knows. Reacher wants the man with a gun in front rather than behind him.

The italicized text is meant to stand out, to be obvious that it is not normal text. Child wants to be very clear what Reacher is trying to communicate visually so that he can contrast it in the normal text and tell us that Reacher is not doing this out of ordinary politeness.

So Child is using italics as a separate level of communication; different from dialogue, different from Reacher’s thoughts (Reacher novels are always first person, past tense), special compared with other physical actions, and in this case as superficial communication and as a lie, since Reacher is not doing this for the usual reason of politeness.


The discussion about the use of italics was initiated by a writer of, I suspect, limited reading experience, who criticized another writer for not italicizing the inner thoughts of his characters. He was very adamant about this, saying that he found the submission very hard to read because of this omission. (I’ve had similar reactions to cases of extremely poor grammar and no control over tenses, but that’s another story) I’ve heard this type of complaint before and find it hard to understand, but I suspect my lack of comprehension is due to not limiting myself to specific genres or writers. In other words, I think that there are specific genres and writers who always italicize the inner thoughts of characters but I don’t limit myself enough to believe that the rule is the norm. I can only vaguely guess that it was in some science fiction, perhaps some issues of Asimov’s, where I’ve even seen this rule used.

Interestingly enough — perhaps not to anyone but myself — the last use of italics for inner thoughts that I remember is “Fifty Shades of Grey”, that atrocity of writing that shouldn’t have made it past Wattpad. I know of writers who have adopted Dan Brown as their personal whipping boy, the writer whom they lash out at because his writing makes them cringe, and I may adopt Fifty Shades as mine. But I didn’t have a problem with her use of italics, other than the fact that it was always the same sort of things that came out of her italicized thoughts; “Holy shit.” “Crap.” Mental ejaculations.

And of course anything is possible if you have a reason for it and it works. Before the Reacher story I read a novel where the author did not use quotation marks for dialogue and I didn’t have an issue with it. Writing without quotation marks and in first person requires extra care to be clear when the main character is quoting and when he is thinking, but it’s definitely doable. It has the potential to make the story more intimate, to instill a dream-like quality, but another author who used that writing style said that she felt as if her characters were always mumbling.

If you can write clearly without quotation marks around dialogue, I don’t see why you can’t write without using italics for inner thoughts. And, personally, I’d rather follow the lead of Lee Child over the author of Fifty Shades, though I have a rather large list of authors I’d put ahead of Lee Child too.


bookmark_borderReading, rather than writing

I’ve been a little annoyed / concerned about my lack of writing over the past few months, but then I realized that I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

Since mid-December I started getting interested in downloadable audiobooks and then ebooks from my local public library.


Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, Vincent Lam
The Bishop’s Man, Linden MacIntyre
The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown
The Affair, Jack Reacher Series, Book 16, Lee Child
The Echo Maker, Richard Powers
Room, Emma Donogue

Failed to finish audiobook:

Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Annie Proulx


Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje
The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
Mostly Happy, Pam Bustin


Amy and Isabelle, Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
1Q84, Haruki Murakami

Failed to finish ebooks: (all non-fiction)

Incognito, David Eagleman
The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross

That’s a fair amount of material. Some observations:

  • I don’t recommend Lee Childs in audiobook form. I like his Reacher books for quick, light entertainment but I can’t speed-read an audiobook. It seemed to take forever to get through the story.
  • Almost a similar reaction to Dan Brown in audiobook form, but because the plot is so complicated it wasn’t quite as difficult. Still, Dan Brown continues to be the shining example of the extreme mixture of intricate plot with totally flat characters.
  • Michael Ondaatje is quite ponderous, even when writing scenes in fast paced gambling worlds. I don’t think I need to read any more of his writing. The thickness of the style reminds me of Lawrence Durrell which I read long ago but Ondaatje doesn’t invite me into an interesting bohemian world like Durrell does.
  • Richard Powers is also quite thick with his writing style but more approachable for me.
  • I’m sure that the audiobook format changes my interaction with the writing, but it was definitely interesting listening to something unusual like Room.
  • Ebooks are hard on my neck and shoulders. Because the Kobo and my cell phone are small, slippery and will autorotate the screen I had to hold them constantly and with my thumb in a position ready to turn the page. On the other hand it’s great to have something right there when I’m on the bus or waiting at the doctor’s office.

So twelve complete books in four months, plus some other reading and all the issues of The New Yorker published during that time. That’s a fair amount of reading and might account for the lack of writing. But the lack of writing is due to lack of inspiration and desire rather than lack of time. My hope is that I’m going through a phase of absorbing some writing, mostly good, before the writing focus comes back into play.

* Edit: Oh, I forgot The Hunger Games too, but that only took a day to read.