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. 🙂

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. 🙂

Teach Yourself Typography

Self-publishing = Word-processing + Desktop publishing…well, almost.

Writing a novel is hard enough; I can’t worry about what it looks like when it’s self-published.

Yes, you can, and you should! At some point, you will need to apply some design to the words on the pages, in order to present your work in the best possible light. This is where typography comes in.

Simply put, typography is the style and appearance of printed matter. Typographic design is an art, and has a language all of its own.

Users of word-processing software will already be familiar with some aspects of typography, but may not realise it. There are features and functions that allow text to be manipulated and arranged on the page; indeed, the software does a lot of it automatically, without the user knowing, or having to think about it.

If you have experience of desktop publishing software, then you will be more familiar with typography, as these programs are specifically designed for that purpose, and are comparable to traditional typography and printing methods.

Typesetters who work in publishing companies may use software such as InDesign. However, a professional, typeset appearance can be achieved with word-processing software.  All it takes is a couple of hours, familiarising yourself with the basic elements of typography, and how it is applied to a print-published fiction novel.

Below is a list of typographical hints and tips. Use them, along with your word-processing software, to make your self-published novel look like a mainstream-published one:

  • For long passages of continuous text, use a serif font (the ones with ‘curly bits’, such as Times New Roman). A serif font is easier to read than a sans serif font (the ones without ‘curly bits’, such as Arial), as these slow down reading.
  • Experiment with typeface size, but remember: the height and width of a specific point size can vary between typefaces. For example, 10 pt in Times New Roman is not the same size as 1o pt in Garamond. You don’t have to stick with the standard 10 and 12 point size. Try anything from 9 to 14 point size, and you can use half sizes: just type them in to the font size box.
  • Fully justify text. A full line of justified text should ideally contain an average of 66 to 72 characters (including word spaces) – approximately 9 to 11 words.
  • Keep white space to a minimum. Make good use of kerning (the process by which the space between two characters is adjusted), and leading (line spacing).  Bear in mind that your word-processing software may not refer to them by their typographical names. (In Word 2010, these features can be found under the Advanced tab from the Font menu.) Do not leave a blank line between paragraphs, but indent them instead.
  • As a rule, have between 32 and 38 lines of text per page. Turn off widows and orphans (but try to keep one word carried over with the previous  page).
  • Be aware of page proportions for different book sizes, as this will have an effect on all of the above. The margins will need to be different to accommodate the right amount of text on the page.
  • Lastly, to avoid your self-published novel having that word-processed look, include the occasional end-of-line hyphenation, in order to remove any additional white space.

With a bit of experimentation, it is not too difficult to produce a professional-looking typeset document that will make your published novel look attractive and uniform.

I have only covered a tiny amount about typography, here. It’s worth investing in a book or two, but shop around, as they can be quite expensive.  I can recommend Book Typography: A Designer’s Manual, by Mitchell & Wightman (Libanus Press, 2005), and The Complete Manual of Typography, Second Edition, by James Felici (Peachpit, 2012).

Happy experimenting! 🙂