All the viewpoint characters in my story are orcs and speak Orcish as their native tongue, but some are bilingual: they use English to talk to humans. Additionally, the main character has a magic power: she speaks with djinns telepathically, and it feels to her like she's talking to herself in her head and hearing herself reply. She does this in Orcish often, but can do it in English if she needs a djinn to deliver a message to a human. Her internal dialogue could easily go on for half a page if she needs, say, a djinn to explain a major plot point to her.

So that's 4 different modes of speech: spoken Orcish, spoken English, thought Orcish and thought English. And the narration of the main character's general thoughts and feelings needs to be distinct from the thoughts she shares with djinns.

Making it apparent in context to the reader which is which is not a problem. I can just say so. However I thought it might be handy to have a typographical convention so once the pattern is established I don't have to spell it out every time.

My first thought was that non-italic text could indicate Orcish and italic text could indicate English. Blocks of right-justified text with no speech marks and no narration could indicate the main character's internal telepathic voice, while all the narration and ordinary speech would be left justified and laid out in the traditional way.

However, I'm concerned that having right-justified blocks might be ugly as heck to the reader and/or look bad in a manuscript. Is there a better way?


  • In Ra, the author uses right-justified text to indicate when they're in the dream world.
    – ahiijny
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 19:26
  • I'm adding this question as related (for the telephatic text, anyway): writing.stackexchange.com/questions/24627/… . Check it out.
    – Liquid
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 14:00
  • Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series has a large number of languages, most denoted by some different character in place of a question mark, as described here
    – Tin Wizard
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 16:39
  • One possibility that hasn't yet been presented is using small caps. Famously, Terry Pratchett used this with the character of Death, who never actually speaks, but is universally understood. (I'd make this an answer, but there's not enough else to say about it that would be worth creating a whole answer for it.) Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 17:10
  • For an interesting example of telepathic communication, you might wish to see Alfred Bester's classic "The Demolished Man" (1951, winner of the first Hugo award) which describes near future Earth society with plenty of telepaths. General telepathic communication is in italics, but there are also interesting mind-word have telepaths play with words going sorry if crossword over the page
    – Gnudiff
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 15:32

7 Answers 7


I agree that the right-justified text blocks are ugly as heck. I'd recommend italics for non-English and a non-quotation punctuation mark for telepathic dialogue. Mostly it's a matter of deciding what standard looks best for you and making sure the reader understands.

As an example, here's what mine looks like:

Normal English dialogue - no italics: "What are you grinning about?"

Telepathic dialogue - angle brackets, italics: <Wait! Don't touch that!>

Internal dialogue - italics: I wonder if that's always been there.

Demonic, elven or other fantasy speech - quotation marks, italics: "Istjak vaharr?" (Not sure whether you're planning to have your Orcish text translated for the reader or not. Another option is to add things like "he replied in Orcish.")

As Rasdashan says, consistency is key.


Spoken Words

Given that you are writing in English, and the majority of the time your Orcs are speaking to each other in Orcish (but translated to English for the reader), then the best plan I believe is to treat both spoken Orcish and English the same, like normal dialog, and only convey, if needed, that one or the other is being spoken as relevant to the story (since it is assumed in most cases it will be Orcish translated to the reader).

On a rare occasion when you might give an actual Orcish term, there is still no need to do anything special, as the reader will pick up on it simply by not knowing what the word(s) is(are), but some hint of explanation should accompany it (or a footed/endnoted translation if it is vital):

"Gradzit! Ferbog nor taak," she greeted the newcomer in friendship.


For internal, self-dialog, the most common convention in fantasy literature is the italicizing of direct thoughts (like one speaking to oneself, or one speaking in their mind "to" someone else without that actually being known what they are saying). George R. R. Martin does this regularly in his Song of Ice and Fire series (first book is Game of Thrones), but he was by know means the first, as that convention has been around a while. This is from p.784:

Jon Snow straightened himself and took a long deep breath. Forgive me, Father. Robb. Arya. Bran ... forgive me. I cannot help you. He has the truth of it. This is my place. "I am ... yours, my lord. Your man. I swear it. I will not run again."


However, italics have been used for telepathic speech (when they are not used for self-dialog). An example of that is Juliet Marillier's, The Sevenwaters Triology (first book is Daughter of the Forest, p.69):

I spoke to Finbar directly, without words, mind straight to mind.

Leave this to me. Trust me.

Finbar blinked at me, relaxing his guard for a moment. I read in his thoughts an anger and confusion that I had not seen in him before.

It's not you I don't trust. It's him.

Assuming you want to use italics for self-dialog, then one solution for telepathic speech was Joel Rosenberg's use of asterisks to offset the mental speech of the dragon Ellergon in his The Guardians of the Flame series (first book The Sleeping Dragon, who is Ellergon). I don't have a copy of the series to verify it, but if some of the quote from this site is correct, then a sample is this follows (But I'm not clear from where in the book, the source site is not the best of sources):


*Yes, I'm Ellegon. And you are Karl Cullinane.* A paw slapped against stone. *And this is a floor...*

"Enough. I take it you're the company."

*Very clever. I am also transportation. We will camp on the edge of the forest tonight. Just in case you're interested, I've spent a good part of the past year ferrying some of your possessions here, things you left at the base of Bremon. Including one red mare that emptied her bowels all the way across the Waste. I don't think she likes me. But she does look tasty.*

"We are not eating my horse. And are you certain you can carry all of us?"

*No. Actually, I just want to see how high I can get before we crash. Any other stupid questions?*

Now in that series, I believe the telepathic communication was one way (Ellergon spoke mentally, but could not read others minds, and so the characters had to verbally communicate to him, which he could understand). But the point is that you can replace the quotation marks for verbal speech with something, such as an asterisk, to carry on mental conversations. You could, if you wanted to keep all mental activity indicated by italics (which is more easily noticed), distinguish self-dialog without asterisks (or whatever marker) and telepathic communication between entities with those markers:

Hmm. I wasn't so sure that was a good idea. *Do you really mean that?*

*Yes, I really mean it* Do you think I'm an idiot, why would I not mean it.

But it may be more clear keep italics for self-dialog only, and just use the markers with normal text for telepathic:

Hmm. I wasn't so sure that was a good idea. *Do you really mean that?*

*Yes, I really mean it!* Do you think I'm an idiot, why would I not mean it.


Some authors use italics to indicate telepathy. Depending on formatting alone could get lost in publication if they don’t understand why you have justified your text.

Consistency is key. If some Orcs are bilingual but no humans are, any Orc speaking to a human would be speaking English. Establish it early on. Perhaps Orcish has sounds that are very difficult to pronounce for humans, so none try. The humans might not see a need to communicate with Orcs.

Karte approached the four humans entering his land. He stopped before getting too close. Never approach strange humans too close, but they are all strange. The ungainly language they spoke was one he had been chosen to learn. He had learned it quickly. “Why are you here?”

“You speak our language.”

“Yes. Why have you come?” Karte needed to know. Perhaps another could answer. It would be tiring, but he had few options. Why are these humans here? Is the truce broken?

“We are going across, but have become lost.”

They seek the healer who lives in your lands. They need his help with an illness plaguing them. It would please me if you let them pass.

Karte nodded. These little humans had bigger problems than they knew. He would observe them, see that they did not stray. “Keep to the path you are on. Do not turn from it.”

“Where does it lead?”

Karte did not answer, but turned and moved away.


Many publishers set their own standards for justification and the choice may not be up to you. On top of that many books are simply justified. As time passes on your work may end up on different platforms and mediums under different publications and for that reason I would be loath to use right justification as a significant identifier. Furthermore, right justification is far from the norm and will stand out, possibly to a degree that you don't intend. Definitely to a degree that goes well beyond simple quotes and italics. As a visual example I offer this for you to see for yourself:

picture of text justified left, right, and justified

You probably don't want to add anything that is that visually off-putting for your readers. It is potentially distracting and immersion breaking.

+1 Rasdashan for a suggested approach, I have nothing to add to that.


Animorphs had several alien forms of communications that they needed to use, ranging from ordinary vocal speech, thought speech (a limited form of telepathy that basically serves as speech in every way, including restrictions to true thoughts and could be selectively broadcasted... i.e. you could stand in a tightly packed room and converse with your friend on the other side of the room, and not be heard by anyone), and true telepathy (could hear your true thoughts while communicating, or your true thoughts projected to the telepath).

Dialog with regular speech was always sandwiched between quotation marks (i.e. "I am having a dialog in regular speech."), Thought-Speech was always in between the Less Than (<) and Greater Than (>) symbols (i.e. ) and telepathy was always done with an underline instead of any marks (No examples for this, as StackExchange doesn't have an underline function... sigh).

Comic books have a similar system where the writer might have characters that speak in a foregin language to the reader, but the writer doesn't know the language... or doesn't want to assume his reader base will know it, so will also use the <> pairing with the dialog written in English and the reader informed in an "Ed box" that the dialog is translated from a specific language, such that the first use will be, "" [*Translated from Swahili -Ed]. Ed isn't a specific person but short hand from the comic's Editor, though the practice might have been influenced by Stan Lee, who was known to break the fourth wall in the dialog boxes to explain such things. It's so consistent, that comic readers assume it's a language they don't know, and will be perfectly fine understanding that Superman is out of the loop on the conversation because he doesn't speak Swahili... the language the speaker defaulted to after his French failed to be understood by Superman.


Italics are always good for telepathic conversation but some publishers or websites don't do special fonts.

Different languages can be presented using different character fonts. Pick fonts that come closest to the impression of that race's for of speech.

If fonts aren't available (for cheap printers or on websites where you cannot guarantee fonts available to readers), I've seen use of alternate delimiters.

For example:

  • "Speech in main story language."
  • [Telepathy in main story language]
  • "*Speech in another language*"
  • [*Telepathy in another language*]
  • "#Speech in a third language#"
  • Etc.

Note that I tried to use angle brackets for telepathy but SE hated that. SE didn't much like the asterisk but a backslash took care of that.

  • 2
    If you want to get fancy, there are a number of varieties of quotation marks you can use: ‹›, «», 「」, 『』.
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 22:12
  • @Mark, Yep. I was going for the low hanging fruit before you had to either crawl menus or enter ASCII codes. Either can be a PITA if you have to do it a lot. Even keeping a Notepad open so you can copy/paste from it is more time consuming than typing a key from the keyboard.
    – ShadoCat
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 0:53

You could use a color change, eg. put the telepathic communication in a lighter gray color which could induce a focus change in the reader (leaning close and squinting) salient to telepathy.

  • 2
    "Leaning close and squinting" is not a positive experience. Consider people who wear glasses. A lighter font, e.g. 'Ariel Light' instead of 'Ariel', would achieve a similar effect to what you're describing without making the text hard to read. Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 16:02
  • Welcome to Writing.SE umpwat14! That is an interesting idea. Have you seen something like this somewhere else before? I have encountered something like this and I am not sure if that wouldn't hurt the readability. Especially if I have to lean in closer and squint to read my book I would think that there is something wrong with it and not think of this as a good idea. Making reading more difficult is rarely a good idea as far as I know. By the way: If you have a question about how the site works please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun!
    – Secespitus
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 16:05
  • Using non-black text would only work in electronic form. In a printed book, grey would be assumed to be a printing defect, while color would be impractically expensive.
    – Mark
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 22:06

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