2.01.2018

Using Italics in Fiction

The urge to use something besides ordinary type to indicate special elements is understandable. I’ll point out at the beginning that the reason that regular type is used most often is because it is the easiest to read. Italic text becomes hard after roughly a paragraph. Keeping this in mind, what are the most common uses of italic text?

The most prominent is an emphasized word. After you finish writing a sentence, you realize that the reader can’t tell what is meant because you’re not speaking aloud, when adding emphasis is easy. So you italicize the key word that changes the whole meaning. That’s fine, it’s done a lot. But to my mind, it’s lazy writing. Because you haven’t constructed the sentence correctly, or broken apart a string of sentences, the reader often has to stop and read the sentence all over again to see what it means with that word italicized.

Next in line is a thought. If you’re writing in the omniscient past tense, a sentence written the first-person present tense is often italicized. That indicates that the character is thinking. Entire books have been written this way, with thoughts set off in italics, so there is obviously nothing wrong with the method. Like anything, a reader gets used to the rhythm. I will point out, however, that the reader can just as easily get used to switching to a character’s thoughts without italics. If you introduce the first batch of thoughts by appending the tag “he thought,” you’ll soon be able to jettison the tag. The reader thinks: Oh, first-person present tense—must be a thought.

A more egregious use, to my mind, is setting off elements such as letters or emails. This quickly lands the prose in the realm of hard-to-read. My eye skips over text of this form after a while, for the simple reason that it’s a strain. I’m hoping the passage will end soon. The fix for this is easy: indent the text on both side by a quarter inch, and add a space above and below the excerpt. That’s a hallowed convention, and then the entire passage is enjoyable.

The one use I do think is effective is its use to make text creepy. If you have ghosts in your story and they communicate through partial sentences in italics, it strikes the reader as weird and unsettling. That’s precisely the point.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any italicized words. When you find one, first see if it is placed in a long sentence. That may be why you had to italicize it. Break that sentence in two, even creating a sentence fragment if it helps. Or, follow the sentence with what could be called a “mirror clause.” It works like this: “She didn’t see why he got all the credit. She did all the work.”

“My quest, through the magic of light and shadow, is to isolate, to simplify, and to give emphasis to form with the greatest clarity.”
—Ruth Bernhard

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine








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