judge-300552_1280Like all of us, your characters probably talk to themselves.

Wait, you all talk to yourselves, too, right?

Well, if your main character has a voice in her head, here is a breakdown of the rules to follow to help your readers differentiate between narrative, actual out-loud dialogue, and a character’s inner dialogue.


  1. Use italics rather than quotation marks. (Save the quotation marks for out-loud dialogue.)
  1. Make sure the point of view of the inner dialogue is clear. Your reader must know which character the inner dialogue belongs to.NOTE: Inner dialogue usually does not require a dialogue tag (example: Marissa thought), as long as the reader knows the story is following a specific character’s point of view, such as in close third-person limited or first person. If the POV is third-person omniscient, however, a dialogue tag is necessary to designate which character is speaking to herself.
  1. Give a line of inner dialogue its own paragraph.
  1. Give inner dialogue present tense verbs, even if you’re writing your narrative in past tense.
  1. Think of inner dialogue as different than just thoughts.NOTE: My trick for figuring out which is which is to imagine I am running a marathon, something I do every once in a while to torture myself. If my mind is wandering, that’s just thought, and thoughts can go into normal narrative (if the POV is first person or close third-person limited).Here’s an example: The person who invented those “Hang in there, baby!” posters with the kitty on the branch has no idea what mile twenty feels like.

    Now, if I am talking to myself in my head and saying any of the following, I’m engaging in inner dialogue: Ten miles. Just ten more. / Beer! At the end there will be beer. / Get it done.

    If I was actually writing a narrative about running marathons, it might look something like this:

    Hang in there, baby? My ass!

    The person who invented those posters has no idea what mile twenty feels like.

Check out the following examples:

Example one — third-person limited:

The teacher handed Marissa her paper. Marissa closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Please be at least a C!

She stole a quick look at the red mark across the top of the page.

Example two — first person:

My hands were beginning to feel numb. I should have turned back to the car and hunkered down until help came, but I was pretty sure no one would come down that road—the road on which my stupid car had decided to stall.

You deserve this. You deserve to die out here.

The snow was so high it began to seep into the tops of my boots. I trudged forward as fast as I could. I wasn’t even sure if I was moving in the right direction. I didn’t think I could make it back to the car even if I wanted to. I could barely see past my outstretched hand, and my tracks were already filling in.

Keep moving. Just keep moving.


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