How To Write Thoughts In A Narrative – A Practical Guideline


Suppose you are a fiction writer who works on a novel. Or, you are writing a narrative with some fictional characters for any other reason. In that case, you will inevitably face one challenge. It is to reveal a character all-around. The personas of the story are the most powerful means to deliver the essence to the audience. Making the characters multilayered and emotional is the primary goal of any writer. It means that you describe the characters’ actions, reactions, words, and thoughts in practice.

Inner dialogue is one of the most efficient means for this challenge. It is a direct “entrance” into the character’s inner “self.” By letting the audience share the character’s thoughts, you explore that mind, emotions, motivations, and many other details: 

  • it is a perfect opportunity for the reader’s insight;
  • it differentiates the particular character;
  • it provides an additional dimension in that character by revealing some hidden qualities;
  • it can work for a definite scene to make it more precise or provide the right focus;
  • it works for a conflict that might be personal or global. 

All these particular aspects work for the central creative goal. You expose the subject, and your audience, in its turn, understands that character better and your plot and ideas behind them. 

It is evident when we think it over. In writing, additional issues arise.

How to write thoughts in any story? The first and foremost task is to let the audience know the piece they read stands for ideas and not the vocalized words. Fortunately, there are several established means. In this article, we’ll describe them and define their peculiarities.

The Right Place to Write the Thoughts

It is essential to note that describing the character’s thoughts is one of the available methods. There are some genres where this method is prevailing. In other cases, it is an additional method that you should use with care. 

So, before we proceed to clarify how to write thoughts in the text and format them, let’s consider where it is appropriate:

  • writing in the first person. It is the most common situation. Revealing the inner motives and thoughts come by default there. It is also the most natural way to mix external actions and internal reactions and reasoning;
  • using a deep point of view. In this case, the author writes in the third person and focuses on some characters. It also lets the reader “get into the character’s head.” This way, you ensure that the audience understands this fictional person and their role in the subject better;
  • using a simple point of view. It is a typical case where the author describes the characters as if from some distance. The writer focuses on the external actions and thoughts expressed by the oral words. Still, at some stage, it becomes appropriate to reveal the character’s inner world and thoughts;
  • the most common way these days is a mixture of “points of view.” When the story has several characters, and the writer uses the third person, it is usually one “reporter” in a group. The readers perceive the plot through that person’s eyes. 

It is also essential to note that you don’t have to reveal each thought and inner movement of a character. Every detail must work for the plot. Therefore, you should not demonstrate everything – just the things that matter. 

The best way is to open some thoughts to the readers time after time. It illustrates the course of that character’s thinking or clarifies some critical aspects. But it is not necessary to follow him or her every moment. 

Which way you choose for your story depends on you. Now, let’s review how to write thoughts in your piece to make them efficient.

How to Format Thoughts in Writing: Main Methods

There are several established formats for marking thoughts in writing: 

  • dialogue tags;
  • italics;
  • separating the fragments.

All these types are formal, and you can use them. The key is to stick with one method through the text. Now, let’s consider how applying this or that way of writing the “thoughts” can affect the readers’ perception. 

Dialogue Tags 

These tags are the verbs like “think,” defining the mental operations. You use them in the text in the same way as the standard dialogue tags like “say.” It marks that the phrase is not an oral speech but a thought expressed internally. 

It is the most frequent way of expressing “thoughts” in writing. Using specific tags does not apply italics, and the “thoughts” don’t differ from the “words said” on paper visually. For many readers, it is a preferred way too. It does not break the text perception and sets the straight course.

One thing to note is that the verb tense usage and the sequence of tenses. As a rule, you need to adjust the verb tenses in the different parts of the sentences. Dealing with dialogues, whether oral or inner, you should rely on the context. 

The fragment defining the thought expressed consists of two parts: the thought itself + the tag. The tag verb is usually in the past tense, though it can be in the present tense if the context demands it. The verb in the central part reflects the thought. There, it can be in any tense matching your creative concept. 

e.g., There is no need to fear, the girl thought. 

Another thing to note is dialogue tags usage if you write a story in the first person. This approach determines that the reader “hears” all words and thoughts of the character by default. It becomes clear if we deal with oral speech or thoughts by context. Still, dialogue tags are helpful too. First, they can serve to make a particular scene more precise. Then, they create a kind of distance for the audience. When the right time comes, the readers feel more intimate, as the character opens the thoughts to them.

e.g., If this was marriage, I thought, I could not see why my fellows were so afraid of it

The usage of dialogue tags is the most conventional way to mark the thoughts in any narrative. Other authors can combine it with additional means like italicizing – it is optional.

Italics for Thoughts in Writing

Using italics in writing is a standard method to mark some words or phrases. This way, writers can show that some fragments have special meaning. Also, they separate certain sections from the rest of the text. Therefore, setting “thoughts” italicized is a practical method. Many authors favor it, as it helps to differentiate between the thoughts and spoken language in writing.

The usage of italics is especially helpful for the direct inner dialogue. It is a particular case where the character reflects internal conflict by discussing it with themselves as an imagined counterpart. In this case, the dialogue fragment wins from some visual separation. It helps the audience identify the specificity of this dialogue and not to mix it with other phrases. 

e.g., What if I fail? Of course, not, I can’t fail. I’m well prepared. I need only to do my routine. But what if they don’t like it? Then I’ll work harder and win it next year. I am ready, so be it. 

Very often, these italicized fragments are in the present tense. It is the default mode when the author opens the current thoughts of the character in real-time. It also adds the right dynamic to the fragment. The reader feels for the character, being closer to them at the moment. Another case is when the writer reveals the character’s memories. The past tense would be more suitable then. However, the main criteria will always be your creative idea and context.

A New Line for the Thought Revealing

It is an additional value more than the primary method. The main advantage is providing a visual marker of the fragment’s specificity. It is appropriate when you reveal a lengthier piece of the inner dialogue or monologue. The thing is, such sections should be important in your story, and you need to stress it. By applying the new lines, you attract the readers’ attention and help them to set themselves to perceive the information.

This technique is secondary. It is better not to use it all the time, as it can annoy the reader more than help them. However, you can keep it for a “special occasion” and mark some significant aspects.

Additional Means: Descriptive Writing

In some cases, you might need to explain the character’s inner state and emotions without revealing their thoughts directly. Here, the descriptive writing is appropriate. It mostly applies to the secondary characters who won’t get their point-of-view reporting. 

The method’s essence is a description of the character’s physical look and reactions like gestures, facial expressions, etc. This way, you won’t report the thoughts, but you hint at them. Also, you describe the emotional state of a person. Hence, the reader can guess what that character might think.

Using Quotation Marks

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, you should put the inner phrases into the quotation marks. It is an established method, and many writers use it. On the other hand, it is also the standard method of formatting the usual oral dialogues. In such a case, it might even confuse the reader. You make them wonder whether the phrase in quotation marks is something spoken or thought. The reader may even lose their focus. There, you need dialogue tags to mark the inner nature of the fragment.  

We won’t say that you should never use this method to format the character’s thoughts. It is one of the default ways, eventually. On the other hand, if you combine both the vocalized phrases and inner discourse, it is better not to format them in the same way. The audience should be able to differentiate where the character tells something aloud or thinks about something. 


As all the methods that we described earlier are formal, you can use any of them. The choice is yours, what suits best for your story, or what your agent or publisher requires. The key is to use only one method and stick with it. You may italicize the inner speeches of the characters or put them in quotation marks. Or, you won’t use any of that, marking the thoughts by the dialogue tags. Choose one style and format all the cases of the thoughts revealing in the same way.

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