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The 1501 Aldine edition of Virgil’s Aeneid, the first use of italics in print.

I try to not write much here about the mechanics of writing, such as how and when to use italics.  I’m most interested in opening writers’ eyes to subtleties of the storytelling craft that they might not have noticed.  There aren’t a lot of subtleties involved in how you use italics.  It’s all pretty straightforward.

But after last month’s Onconference talk on dialogue, I could see there was still a lot of confusion about how and when to use italics.  I think I need to step up.

First – and I can’t stress how important this is – there are no rules, not even with purely mechanical matters.  When you try to handle italics by rote without paying attention to what’s happening in your story, you’re putting the rules ahead of the story.  But if you treat italics as tools that, used properly. can help you tell your story more effectively, then your story is at the center of your thinking, where it belongs.  So what can italics do for you?

 

First, your goal is to keep your mechanics transparent.  As soon as readers notice how you’re telling your story, they’re no longer paying attention to your story.  Which is bad.  So however you use italics, you don’t want them to jump out at your readers.

What italics do best is mark some passage of dialogue or interior monologue as separate.  The most common use – and the most misunderstood – is with interior monologue.  Some clients have taken it as a given that all interior monologue should be in italics.  The problem is that, when you mark off the interior monologue, then you’re saying that your narrative voice – the one you use for descriptions – is different from the viewpoint character’s voice – which is where interior monologue comes from.  You’re putting distance between your narrator and your character.

Sometimes this is what you want – did I mention there are no rules?  But more often than not, you want to forge an emotional bond between your readers and your characters.  The best way to do that is to make your readers feel they’re seeing the action through the eyes of your viewpoint character.  And the best way to do that is to let your readers move from what your character sees to what they think about it and back again without tripping over a change in typeface.  Just keep the interior monologue in normal type and in the same tense and person as your descriptions – what’s true of italics for interior monologue is also true of a shift from past to present tense or from third to first person.

Another exception to this general principle?  Italics can be handy to mark when your interior monologue is more like a dialogue.  If a character is debating whether or not to do something, you can sometimes show that internal debate by putting one side of it in italics.  If a character is praying a silent prayer, italics can be the way to go.  And you can also use italics for something more unusual – say, telepathic communication or the interior monologue of animals.

If you do decide to use italics for something special, it’s a good idea to introduce whatever convention you’re using early in the story, then stick with it consistently from then on.  Readers will give you some leeway in your techniques at the start, but after a chapter or two, they settle in to whatever approach you’re using.  If you suddenly introduce some new technique in the middle of the book or shift from what you had been doing, then readers are likely to trip over your mechanics.

Italics are often used for emphasis, as well – as with the that a couple paragraphs ago.  And while Renni and I warn in Self-Editing against overusing it, that occasional emphasis does reflect the way people speak.  So you can get away with it from time to time.  Also, I prefer italics to all caps.  Why?  BECAUSE I’M THE EDITOR, THAT’S WHY!!  Seriously, it’s just a personal preference.

Italics is one of the oldest typefaces still in use.  It was introduced in 1501 by a Venetian printer named Aldus Manutius, who also essentially invented books as we know them today – though that’s another story.  Manutius used Italics for entire books, which can be a little hard to read.  But given how handy they can be, I’d guess they’re going to be around for another half-millennium, at least.

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

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