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Monday, March 8, 2021

The Technicalities of Writing Thoughts

On a few occasions, I've been asked how to actually write thoughts on the page in a story. If you are newer to writing, this can be confusing for several reasons (and you'll see why by the end of this article). 

Just to clarify, this post isn't about what makes one passage of introspection better than another, or how to keep a moment of introspection interesting. If you want to learn about that, check out my articles "How to Write Excellent Introspection" and "Breaking Writing Rules Right: 'Never Open with Introspection.'" No, this post is about actually writing character thoughts on the page. Even if you already know how to do that, this topic may be worth a review. And who knows, I might cover some points you didn't know, you didn't know. 

A Quick Breakdown of Point of View

Before getting your character's thoughts on the page, it's helpful to know what point of view you are writing in. So real quick:

In first person, the character is telling the story. This uses "I" in the narration. This means the character's thoughts are right there in the text (generally speaking, though there are exceptions and we could get more complicated).

In third person, the prose is slightly more distant, like the audience is following a specific character around. This uses "he" or "she" (or some agender pronoun) and not "I" in the narration. In third person, it's possible to write very distant and objective, so the text never shares the character's thoughts--it's like watching a movie. Some crime fiction is traditionally written this way. But today, that approach isn't very popular; usually, at least some of the viewpoint character's thoughts are on the page.

Today, in third person, you will almost always be telling the story from one character's head at a time. You can have more than one viewpoint character in the story, but it's (almost always) one specific viewpoint character's perspective per scene or chapter. 

Omniscient is an ambiguous term--it gets defined slightly differently depending on who you talk to. But most people explain that in omniscient, the author can zoom in and out of any characters' heads within a matter of paragraphs or sentences. Omniscient isn't very popular today, but it isn't necessarily "wrong." 

Writers can also technically use second person point of view, as well. This is where "you" is used in the narration. This almost never works in fiction, and is best left for writing instructions ("First, you take out the product. Then you insert the batteries"). 

This is just a brief overview. If you want to learn more about any of the viewpoints, you can find articles in my Writing Tip Index

A Quick Breakdown of Point of View Penetration

Point of view is about more than simply picking first, second, third, or omniscient. It's also about how deep you get into that character's perspective. 

As I mentioned above, you could technically write a third person story that never shares the viewpoint character's thoughts. This is the most distant option. It's like the audience is witnessing what the characters do, but never gets access to any of their minds. 

Point of view penetration is really a spectrum. As far as I've discovered, it really has four points. Here they are from most distant to closest.

(Point 1) Out of breath, Todd wiped the sweat off his face and fanned himself. He got a glass of cold water.

(Point 2) Todd was thinking about how hot it was outside as he got a glass of cold water.

(Point 3) It's freaking hot outside, Todd thought, like the devil's oven. He got a glass of cold water, even though it wouldn't do anything to fight the heat. Better than nothing, Todd thought.

(Point 4) It was freaking hot outside. Like the devil's oven. A glass of cold water wouldn't do squat, but it was better than nothing.

Notice the first example shows that Todd thinks it's hot from the outside--but we never get in his head. In the last example, the prose takes on his thoughts and attitude and we know he thinks it's hot from the inside. 

POV penetration is one of the reasons it can seem a little confusing on how to actually write thoughts on the page . . . because there are several ways. 

And one thing I must mention is that most stories will use different levels of penetration--zooming in and out, so to speak. 

You can learn more about point of view penetration in my article here. (And trust me, that's not a term you want to google 😬)

Writing Characters' Thoughts

How you actually write character thoughts in a story, depends on the point of view you are using and how deep the POV goes.

Some people say that POV penetration doesn't apply to first person--I actually think it does, though the blanket statement sounds nice. 

Let's go through penetration points 2 - 4 and talk about the technicalities. 

Please note that on a sentence-by-sentence level, third person and omniscient usually sound the same, so to distinguish them, I've included two characters' minds in the omniscient examples. 

Point 2

This is sorta like summary, and really, it's telling. The text simply tells the audience what the character is thinking in general. This means it doesn't need any kind of special treatment. 

First Person: As I did the dishes, I thought about last spring when Sparky died. 

Third Person: As Kacie did the dishes, she thought about last spring when Sparky died.

Omniscient: As Kacie did the dishes, she thought about last spring when Sparky died, while Jasper thought about football.

Point 3

In the writing world, people refer to Point 3 as "direct thoughts" (which I think is kinda misleading since Point 4 is arguably "direct thoughts" as well, but whatever--it's important you understand the terminology).

Technically, this is handled like dialogue. The only difference is that instead of using quotes, you use italics. If you can't italicize (if you are writing by hand for example), then you underline instead. 

Just like dialogue, you have what's being "said" (in this case, thought), and you may have a "tag" (the part that tells you who is "saying" it). How you punctuate this is exactly the same way you punctuate dialogue. 

This means you can have no tag:

"I'm hungry and tired."

I'm hungry and tired.

You can technically have a tag in the beginning (less common).

She said, "I'm hungry and tired."

She thought, I'm hungry and tired.

You can have a tag in the middle of a complete sentence.

"I'm hungry," she said, "and tired."

I'm hungry, she thought, and tired

You can have a tag at the end of a complete sentence.

"I'm hungry and tired," she said.

I'm hungry and tired, she thought.

To learn more about how to punctuate Point 3, visit my article "How to Punctuate Dialogue," as they are essentially the same. 

First Person: The consensus in the writing world is that you don't use Point 3 when writing first person, because the narration is already always in that character's thoughts. 

Personally, I think this is a flawed argument, as you could just as well write third person without ever using Point 3, and can probably do the same with omniscient if you are really really clever (much more tricky), and I have occasionally seen Point 3 used in first person, back in the day. But as I am not the authority of the writing world, what I think probably isn't that important. 

If you want to play it safe, you probably don't want to use Point 3. However, just as a demonstration of the wild side, here is how it would technically look:

I'm freaking exhausted, I thought. 

One may argue that you can cut the tag and have the same effect:

I was freaking exhausted.

But you can do the exact same thing in third person:

I'm freaking exhausted, he thought. --> He was freaking exhausted. 

So . . . I'll stop there, but I think this tool could be used for other effects, but again, I'm not the authority of the writing world. Maybe I'll share more of my thoughts on this another day--I think it's more about how much distance you want.

Third Person: I'm freaking exhausted, he thought.

Omniscient: I'm freaking exhausted, he thought, as he gently passed the salt and pepper to Jen. Jen swiped them up. He could at least have the decency to pretend to be listening, she thought. 

Worth noting is that if you happen to be writing characters who are telepathic, Point 3 is usually where those characters have conversations:

He's lying to us, I told Michael.

You're being paranoid, he thought back.

Point 4

This is the deepest level. At Point 4, the prose takes on the thoughts and attitudes of the character. 

In first person, it is argued that you are doing this all the time. 

But if you are writing in third person or omniscient, you can also do this. You just might have to be a little more careful with transitions.

Because the prose takes on the attitudes of the viewpoint character, you don't need to italicize or use a tag or even use the words "thought" or "think." However, using those things can help transition the reader into Point 4 (more on that in a sec).

First Person: It was freaking hot outside. Like the devil's oven. A glass of cold water wouldn't do squat, but it was better than nothing.

Third Person: It was freaking hot outside. Like the devil's oven. A glass of cold water wouldn't do squat, but it was better than nothing.

Omniscient: Todd stepped outside. It was freaking hot. Like the devil's oven. Cold water wouldn't do squat, but it was better than nothing. He unscrewed his water bottle. Humming, Jen followed him through the door. She breathed in the flowery scents of summer. It was the perfect day for a bike ride. As a teen in Southern Utah, she'd spent long days riding the trail along the river. Todd was in for a real treat.


Because first person is written from within the character's mind, it can be easier to start writing that character's thoughts on the page. 

In third person or omniscient, it's possible that the narrator has a different attitude or tone than the viewpoint character, which makes transitions more important.

And if you are writing in omniscient, you may have a lot of minds to transition the reader in and out of in a single scene, in addition to the narrator. 

To keep things simple, let's just say there are a lot of gray areas.

Understanding POV penetration can help you, help the reader transition into deep thoughts, since the different points essentially zoom in or out. 

For example, zooming in:

Sweat dripped down Todd's face (Point 1). He recalled last spring when Sparky died (Point 2). Best dog I ever had, he thought (Point 3). It'd been freaking hot like this. Like the devil's oven (Point 4). 

Or zooming out:

It'd been freaking hot like this. Like the devil's oven (Point 4). I was drenched by the time I finished the grave, he thought (Point 3). He remembered the way Sparky howled for treats, chewed up the couch, and gently licked his hand after a walk (Point 2). Blinking rapidly, Todd took a deep breath, then wiped his eyes (Point 1).

It's not necessary to hit every point when you zoom in and out. You can totally skip.

What you don't want is to be jolting--jumping in and out and all over the place randomly. 

Well, unless that's exactly the effect you want, such as when you want to give a passage a feeling of disorder and chaos 😉 (All rules can be broken). 

There are so many ways to move into a character's thoughts, that what works and what doesn't may be something you have to learn from experience. But using the points of POV penetration is one way. 


  1. Thorough article and good. I think the zooming in and out from 1 to 4 and vice versa is a great way to explain. I tend to use cursive without the tag when I go close. And I find anything POV fascinating.

    1. Hi Charlotte,
      Thanks! Yes, zooming in and out is helpful!

  2. Awesome September. Just what I needed. I need to revisit my WIP as there's plenty of deep POV (point 3 at least) and I haven't been consistent. How might you differentiate between the character's normal thoughts and their paranoid thoughts? Would it just be a different tag?

    1. Hey Edward, thanks for reading and commenting. So glad this was so timely for you!

      If the paranoid thoughts are sorta different than the character's "regular" thoughts, I think it kinda depends on the passage. In my WIP, I have a character who has an uncanny ability to sense when something is true, but like all of us, he has some skepticism in him, but it is sorta "set apart" from his regular thoughts.

      Usually what I do is have the passage go to point 4 with his typical thoughts, and then have the skepticism chime in at point 3. For example:

      On occasions James had an uncanny ability to sense when something was true (summary). Imogen was being honest(point 4). But his logic resisted. It’s stupid, it said(point 3). ["It's stupid" would be in italics, but comments doesn't allow that.]

      You could have them both be at point 3, but just differentiate somehow:

      She's being honest, James thought.
      But his logic resisted. It’s stupid, it said.

      May not be the perfect example--I'm trying to explain what I mean in a short space.

      I guess it gets down to just making sure to differentiate when appropriate. I would say you could either do that by having the differences hit at different points, or tagging them differently.


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