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Italics and boldness.

edited June 2013 in - Writing Problems
When is it a good idea to use italics and bold? I suspect there is no right or wrong answer, just personal opinion. I use Italics to show someone’s thoughts and bold for radio and sometimes phone conversations. I once read a book where several chapters (told in flashbacks and dreams) were in Italics but it strained my eyes. When do you use Italics and bold?


  • Like you, I understand that italics indicate thought. Not sure about bold.
  • I don't routinely use italics for thought.

    I use bold only to emphasise a word that needs to be read with emphasis, but not otherwise.

    In my novella I have my heroine dreaming/having a nightmare, so have put that in italics so the reader is clear that this is different that it's not real.

    The story I put in the Wells short story competition has a ghost and every time he says something to my character- who is the only one who can hear him, I've put his brief dialogue in italics.

    I've no idea if that is correct usage, so it's something I'll be looking up...
  • I don't think I have ever used bold in fiction. My creative writing teacher says in general rule you should use whatever clarifies something for the reader. For book, magazine, song titles and quotes, however, there are specific style rules and you can research those.
  • I only use bold for chapter headings, and italics very rarely - possible for 2 or 3 words in my 100K novel.
  • edited June 2013
    I have seen italics used in a number of different contexts in books and magazines. I remember reading a book a few years ago - Joe Simpson's "Touching the Void" - where the author and his friend were alternately describing their side in what happened to them on a South American mountain. The author's text was in ordinary font, and his friend's side of the story in italics. Otherwise, I would use italics to indicate thought in a story, or to quote a book or film title.
    I rarely use bold, except perhaps for chapter headings. Having said that, I am given to understand that is incorrect.
  • The Oxford style manual has nothing much to say about the use of Italics in fiction work; I'd use it for thoughts, because they don't belong in quotation marks but must be differentiated from the text in certain circumstances. For instance, you could have:
    No, she thought, that's not the right way to do that.
    Or you could put the thinking part of that in italics; that's personal choice, or down to the publisher's house style.
    Boldface, however, (it says here), should be avoided in normal printed matter, 'as the effect is usually too startling in running text; prefer instead the less intrusive italic, and then only sparingly.'
    I once bought a copy of a large print book by accident, and all words that would have been in italics were in bold. I mentally shouted every one of them.
  • I, too, would only use bold for chapter headings.

    I would use italics for emphasis, or for thought.
  • [quote=Mrs Bear] I mentally shouted every one of them.[/quote]

    When I first joined TB I was scolded for using CAPITALS - "Why are you shouting, Lizy?"
  • There - I read CAPITALS in a shout.
  • I don't really like italics for thought because people don't think in sentences in the same way that they speak. Instead of saying:

    Clear off! she thought

    I would rather put something like:

    She wished he would clear off.
  • Sometimes thought doesn't work as reported speech though.

    E.g. I wish yesterday could begin all over again, she thought.

    She wished yesterday could begin all over again doesn't quite have the same directness or emotional impact.
  • Every time I look at the title of this topic I hear Kenneth Williams on Round the Horn saying, 'Innee bold?'

    Clear off! is far more eloquent of emotion than She wished he would clear off. You hear it better as speech.
    In TN's example, the actual thoughts could come out as a sigh, or a laugh; the reported words don't have that effect so readily.
  • A good thread, St F. It's a good idea to exchange usage on points like this. Always informative, especially if somebody has the right dictionary.

    Well there you go, Lizy and Mrs B. I use upper case only in speech for emphasis that would be shouted. "LOOK OUT!" It's useful when one word is to be given particular emphasis: "You'll NEVER make me do that. NEVER!" That has become part of my voice, perhaps because I feel it is likely to make my reader read it the way I intended, more successfully than with the relatively toothless italicised equivalent. I use italics for emphasis in other circumstances, and for book titles, etc. Bold text doesn't come into novel writing.

    I went through a phase of using italics for 'direct thoughts', but my novel has a single POV character who is given to a lot of thinking, and I saw pretty quickly that speech- or thought-tags would be wearisome. So now I miss them out. If your character is single POV, either first or third person, the reader will quickly grasp the author's technique. Thus:

    For Pete's sake... I wish tomorrow could begin all over again. I can't see how I'll be able to clear up all the harm I've done. What will X and Y think of me? I looked again at the email and felt like bursting into tears. Oh Jonathan, you poor darling. But I'll make it up to you. Just wait and see.
    I jumped to my feet and reached the door in two strides. Let me get hold of that stupid What's-his-name and shake him 'til he comes clean.

    Do you feel that slipping seamlessly from thoughts into action and back again is working? What do you think? At least it avoids telling: the author is showing character's feelings. If all this were in italics, it would be a case for sore eyes, as you say, St F.
  • [quote=Carol]I've no idea if that is correct usage[/quote]

    I don't think the concept of correct usage comes into this at all. Sometimes whole passages in italics are used to indicate a change from the current viewpoint - a different time, a different place or, as in your example, the difference between reality and a dream. I once wrote a story in which two people made the same journey but at quite different times. To prevent confusion one of the journeys was written entirely in italics.
  • Yes, Dwight. If you are writing in the first person, then the 'italics for thought' argument becomes irrelevant.

    [quote=Dwight]Do you feel that slipping seamlessly from thoughts into action and back again is working? [/quote]

    Yes, what you what written works. With no other character, there's no need to clarify anything as all thought and action pertain to the narrator.

    Yes, Neil, sometimes italics represent a time shift or change of scene.
  • I use Italics if I’m naming a ship or a vehicle of some sort. Bill and Ben boarded the HMS Victory full of confidence. I’ve seen bold used for signs before. Don’t go back. It makes it clear for the reader and that is important to the story in some way. Edit ( I can't use Italics or bold on here. HMS Victory is in Italics and don't go back is meant to be in bold)

    The problem with thoughts as mentioned above is that it is not like dialogue. Sometimes the thought is half finished before something happens, it could just be one word silently thought or it could be a large paragraph of the thinker doubting himself.

    I can see what you mean Dwight. In that case I agree Italics would not be needed for first person. :-)

    Oddly enough reading words as shouts reminds me of Miranda’s mum shouting the wrong words in Miranda on the BBC. I can see how confusing and annoying it must be as a reader.
  • [quote=St Force]Bill and Ben boarded the HMS Victory full of confidence.[/quote]

    "Flobb-a- dobb-a-dobb" they said as they played with the large guns.
  • edited June 2013
    'Blip-op, Weeed,' they added, reaching for the wacky baccy.
  • A little late in the day but for me italics can be used for thoughts (instead of single inverted commas) or to name publications, TV shows etc. Bold - almost never! Titles, chapter headings - avoid using it in text other. Capitals definitely mean shouting, and then it is not just a shout you would normally have - ie in an argument you wouldn't use them. You might use it for things like "STOP, thief." which really shows the extent of the emphasis and would not be good if it were followed by a tag such as 'he shouted' the fact he has shouted is obvious without saying. Other than that only use capitals where grammatically correct.
  • I use italics sparingly and only for emphasis - or a letter that a character is reading. Somehow, bold doesn't seem right.
  • The only reason I'd ever use bold in fiction would be if a character was looking at something like a sign and for whatever reason I thought it was necessary to show the reader exactly what the character saw. For instance:

    Stacy looked at the machine. A huge red label caught her eye:

    Do not attempt to repair or service this unit.

    She picked up the screwdriver. Here goes, she thought.

    Then, I'd probably centre the text from the sign, to separate it from the rest of the text, and put the capitals in bold. I'd italicise the "Here goes".

    I have to say I've never actually done this. I'd recommend limiting it as much as you can. I read a book a few months ago with pages and pages of italics. I didn't have any trouble reading it, but it looked gimmicky.
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