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I've noticed that I have had a lot of dialogue between characters with words that need to be said with a noticeable amount of emphasis, and in order to get that emphasis I have had to italicize lots of words throughout many sentences that my characters are saying and it has gotten repetitive, somewhat. I want to know of there is some other way to emphasize words or a group of words without italicizing, for example:

"This is so much better that that old thing"

or does the emphasis come across the same without the emphasis:

"This is so much better than that old thing"

Or better yet:

"I don't know if I know what I know or if it was the doing of someone else"

or

"I don't know if I know what I know or if it was the doing of someone else"

So, my question is: Is there another way, or are there other ways to show emphasis on a words or a word phrase without using italics?

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    Why is it important that the readers know exactly which words are being emphasised? Can they not get enough from the context of the sentence? May 28 at 21:38
  • If you are married to the Italics, keep them. Giving stage directions is usually what playwrights do. Albee in Virginia Woolf has ... George: "You're braying." Martha (braying): "I am not braying." May 28 at 22:54
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If you can avoid italicizing altogether, do it.

Italicizing makes the reader stop to think about how the sentence should be "interpreted." That pause is distracting. (I find myself stopping to reinterpret several times when trying to see what the person saying your first sentence is really doing...)

Instead use the context, actions (especially), and previous events to give the reader a hint about how it should be read.

When you put in the italics, do you have an image of what the person is doing? What their facial expressions might be? How they interact with their surroundings? Especially "this" and "that old thing"...

Use that instead of the italics. Act out the dialog! Show me in text what the people do when they say what they say.

This is how I would have done it without the italics (and I leave open the question of if this is too much emphasis...):

George took a drink from the glass. He sighed. "This is," he said, taking another drink from the glass, nodding and humming in appreciation, "so much better than this..." He took the other glass, holding it up for scrutiny, then frowned and poured it out in the sink. "...old thing. Bleh!"

Don't be too afraid to let the readers have their own interpretation. They will anyway, and sometimes it will be different from what you were intending, sometimes a lot different.

It doesn't have to mean you've failed, just that people are different and the "guy" one reader made up in their head (based on their experiences) didn't do it the way you saw him doing it. That's how reading a text works. The reader makes up people, places, etc, and they won't always be what the writer thought they would be.

As a writer, your job is to write a text that will allow your readers' minds to create these worlds without intruding on them or destroying them. Your job is not to mind-control them into seeing and feeling exactly what you see and feel... Which is good, since it's doomed to fail...

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The less you can use typography to communicate character state and emotion the better your writing.

That said, if you author a line of dialog that absolutely needs emphasis for it to be interpreted in the way you think your story needs, the italicizing words or phrases are the proper and customary technique. These less you use it, outside marking Titles and foreign words, the stronger your writing will be.

That said, nothing stops you from using bold or italics or even changing the font. (Here I wish stackexchange.com would let me also use kidnap or balloon animal fonts) You are the artist and are free to take any risk you wish to tell your story your way. Others may not agree with you and that is just how things are.

If you finish a piece and you've added all your emphasis, then take a good hard look. The dominant reason for adding emphasis is because we are mimicking dialog from movies, spoken by actors. As prose writers, meant to exclude playwrights and screenwriters, we don't have access to faces and body language and emphasis to tell our stories.

We are constrained to words on the page.

If your dialog is predictable or transactional, then you are missing an opportunity to express the character's feelings and expose conflict underlying your character's relationships.

Lastly, use of typographic methods takes readers out of the story. The change needs to be consciously processed and interpreted, and that is the last thing a writer wants. One of your goals should be to make an immersive and engaging experience where the reader is using their imagination to experience your scene. Bolded text and italic text will kick them out and make them think about how to interpret what they are seeing, and it will take a few more lines of the story before they are immersed again.

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