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I am writing a third person story that focuses on a main character. Sometimes I want to express the internal thoughts of the character, but I don't want to use internal dialogue in italics. What's the best way of doing that?

This is what I have so far:

Mandy arrived at 3:00pm, but he was nowhere to be seen. Her mind immediately flooded with panicked thoughts. Was making the request via email inappropriate? Had he gone back to California already? Was he simply caught up in the traffic? She realised she was simply being neurotic and so took in a few deep breaths. The yoga techniques she had learnt might have seemed silly, but they certainly were better than worrying. She paced around, taking in the sights of the street. However, after an hour of waiting it was clear that he wasn't coming.

The three questions are obviously something the POV character is thinking, as are the comments about the yoga techniques. I thought this would be clear, but I get complaints from my readers that the text shifts POV. What's the best way of approaching it?

I know I can just use internal dialogue in italics, but I personally always find that it spoils the flow of reading.

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    If you find yourself wanting to give us a character's thought a lot -- why not just write it in first person? – Chester May 13 '16 at 9:24
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Internal thoughts are usually expressed either by italics or by quotation marks. If you don't want to use any special formatting and you’re writing in third person, you can just tell the reader what your characters are thinking. You have to be extra careful to make it clear that these are the character's thoughts and not the narrator's voice forgetting his role in the book.

One way to do that in your paragraph is to rewrite the questions:

"Mandy arrived at 3:00pm, but he was nowhere to be seen. She panicked. Maybe that email request was inappropriate, Mandy thought, or has he gone to California already? Probably he was simply caught up in the traffic. She quickly realised she was being neurotic and..."

  • Welcome to the site! An upvote for a pretty good answer. – Tom Au May 7 '16 at 22:20
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You've written the thoughts themselves very well. When I read those, I feel as if I'm in her head.

What pops me out of the viewpoint are the places where you tell us that she's thinking:

  • Her mind immediately flooded with panicked thoughts.

  • She realized...

These are not her thoughts in the moment. They are some narrator's commentary on what's happening in her head. And that is where the viewpoint shifts occur.

If you get us into the character's head, you don't ever need to say "she thought" or "she realized." That sort of commentary is unnecessary because every word of the story comes to us through her perspective. Every sensory detail comes through her senses. Every bit of reaction and opinion and thought is her reaction and opinion and thought. We know this because you've drawn us into her head.

You're doing fine with her thoughts. Drop the parts where you tell us explicitly that she's thinking.

Edited to add this example:

Mandy arrived at 3:00pm, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Where was he? Was making the request via email inappropriate? Oh, God, had he gone back to California already?

No. That was silly. She was simply being neurotic.

She took in a few deep breaths and felt her heartbeat slow.

(I'm not happy with my transition between the first and second paragraphs. But I hope you get the idea. No need to say she's thinking. Just write her thoughts.)

  • I don't quite follow. If I drop the explicit parts, then how would I convey them. Do you have an example? Thanks! – big_smile May 8 '16 at 7:02
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No special formatting or quotation marks or even textual cues are necessary. Just write the thoughts. It's done this way all the time.

I picked a book at random at Amazon (The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes) and flipped through until I found an instance of a character thinking.

The overnight case resting against his calf reminded him of the time he had tried to run away from home. How old had he been? Seven or eight, perhaps. And did he have a little suitcase with him? Probably not...

The thoughts are written in third person too, and readers know what they are without any extraneous nonsense explaining what's going on.

Your example is fine as-is, but I think "Her mind immediately flooded with panicked thoughts" is unnecessary.

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I am in the odd position of thinking that the sample texts in the answers given by Dale Hartley Emery and Thanasis Karavasilis both read well despite the fact that in terms of the advice given they directly contradict each other. And I thought that your original formulation was fine - in fact I liked it best of the three.

DHE is advising you to consistently omit all the insertions of "she thought" or equivalent tags and just go straight to third-person recapitulations of the character's exact thoughts. TK is advising you to consistently put them in. To me DHE's recommended style reads as slightly more fast paced and tense, at the cost of being a little less clear than TK's recommended form. Your original had a mixed style. Personally I thought yours was a happy medium.

You mentioned that "I get complaints from my readers that the text shifts POV." Meaning no disrespect to your beta readers, but given that you sensibly started by explicitly telling the reader that these are thoughts with the words "Her mind immediately flooded with panicked thoughts", I think you shouldn't worry too much. It was certainly clear to me what was going on. When it comes to clipped sentences like "Had he gone back to California already?" the "rule" that one must never shift point of view scarcely applies. Very short phrases or questions that come in a stream of thoughts aren't really perceived as having a POV. Even if technically there is a shift from the character's POV to an unspecified narrator's POV it is in practice obvious who is doing the thinking. It is the POV equivalent of omitting the personal pronouns in casual speech, e.g. everyone understands that "Seen Harry around recently?" is short for "Have you seen Harry around recently?"

I conclude, boringly, that there is no "best way" to do it. It is a matter of style and personal preference.

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Your original example is good deep POV. Deep third-person POV is nearly as intimate as first-person POV. The one case where you will have to resort to italics is if the thought is in first person, which you may need to do infrequently. The italics are needed to show the reader you really meant the momentary shift in person.

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