Question: Direct thoughts in third-person

May 24th, 2007

William wrote:

Question from a young writer:
I have recently noticed that while I write in the third person, I tend to insert a characters thoughts directly into the text (as if it was the narrator speaking), and generally model the narrator voice after whichever character’s POV it is at the moment.

Am I wrong in doing this? When I’m writing it and reading it, it seems to flow, but if I take a little step back and think about it, it doesn’t make sense for the narrator to be saying something the character is thinking.

At the same time, it seems cumbersome to put in something like:

‘Can’t he figure out that I’m trying to sleep? Honestly, the absolute nerve of him… I should get u- NO! I won’t…(etc.)’ she thought.

especially after describing the scene, setting, and whatnot.


Nothing at all wrong with making the narrative “voice” be the POV character’s voice. This is a very intimate point of view which can be quite satisfying and involving for the reader–very like first person. You are eliminating the middle-man, so to speak. And you are correct that incessant use of “she/he thought” can be jarring. (The same thing with “I thought” when writing first person.)

A few caveats (with all the usual disclaimers about how anything can work if it is done masterfully enough. But you did say this was a beginning writer…):

1. To be true to your intimate POV make sure that you hold to that POV throughout the section and don’t let omniscient observations creep into your narrative. That is, keep focused through your character’s eyes, avoiding things like visual self-details, attribution of unobservable motives and feelings to other characters, and reference to events outside your POV character’s knowledge.

2. I know there are some here who decry the use of italics for direct thoughts, but I think this is a great example of where they can be useful. Otherwise, if you are writing in third person, simple past tense, and the character’s thoughts are in first person, present tense without such delineation, the text can seem a jumble. You say your words read smoothly, then likely you’re doing a good job of this already. Try reading the section aloud, as well.

There are lots of ways to give the reader a sense of immediacy and intimacy. One way is by avoiding prediction, such as “that was the last time he ever made that mistake” or “it was to be many years until she understood how she had hurt him.” These kinds of phrases come to us easily, and, depending on the style of the narrative, can flow beautifully. But they do remind the reader of the distance from the events. Another way is through a slight deviation from correctness. Though I write in simple past, I will occasionally sprinkle in some “immediate” references such as “last night” instead of “the previous night” and such like through my narrative, as if my narrator were reliving the events even as he or she was relating them.

I’m sure others have suggestions as to how to make third-person narratives more immediate.

Have fun.


6 Responses to “Question: Direct thoughts in third-person”

  1. […] – Direct thoughts in third-person narrative “Nothing at all wrong with making the narrative “voice” be the POV character’s voice. […]

  2. Betsy Dornbuschon 24 May 2007 at 10:45 pm

    I write thoughts into narrative all the time, and I write mostly in close third.

    I don’t italicize drawn-out, multi-sentence thoughts. We do often think in words, but I
    believe we use a personal, mental shorthand when going through a long thought process or
    analysis. Inserting thoughts right into the narrative (I like to call it internal “dialogue” rather
    than “monologue” because the character is often arguing with himself) is a nod to that
    shorthand, and it’s a way to get even closer to the character by learning more about
    their voice and thought processes. Narrative is a great way to let personal bias and flaws
    slip in.

    When I come to the “revelation” in a thought sequence, I often switch tactics,
    from narrative to ital, or even from ital to dialogue, sometimes even mid-sentence, just
    like real people do. Switching it up feels real to me.

    Of course, I talk to myself all the time, so maybe that’s me. :)

    Good question. Made me “think” about it. :)

  3. Seleneon 25 May 2007 at 1:56 am

    I know there are some here who decry the use of italics for direct thoughts

    Really? I love this method and use it all the time (with moderation :)).

    How to make third person more immediate/intimate?

    *Describe what the character sees (smells,hears…), not the character seeing. (“The wind beat against her face” vs. “She felt the wind beat against her face.”)

    *Keep the writing body-centered.

    *Describe only what the character would pay attention to

    *Make the sentence structure and word choices match the character’s feelings. (E.g., action sequences would have simple words, short, snappy sentences, sentence fragments and nearly no adjectives and adverbs.)

    *Use direct internals and internal monologue

    *Describe the character’s attitude/feelings towards what he’s doing, not just the action itself.


  4. Maryon 25 May 2007 at 6:29 pm

    I didn’t use italics for thoughts in one story.

    Nevertheless, it appeared in print with them.

    Be sure that your story can survive the loss of italics if it’s against the house style.

  5. Victoria Grossackon 12 Jul 2007 at 1:30 am

    Check out the following article:

    Yes, I wrote it, but it addresses your issue directly.

    Kind regards
    Victoria Grossack

  6. Izibalba Hunapuon 05 May 2010 at 11:57 am

    someone should write about how to make question using the third person would really help me with the english grammar ..that part is quiet confusing specially when there is not commonly used in some languages

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