Fiction authors get to play with all sorts of fun things that our English teachers hardly mentioned. One of those things is italics. Oh, sure, you were supposed to put book titles and stuff in italics when you created that bibliography for your term paper the morning you were supposed to turn it in. But italics are good for more than just entries in a bibliography.
Here are some uses for italics that you may not have gotten into in English class:
Inner dialogue. This is when a character is talking to him- or herself in his or her own head. Here’s an example:
“Oh, sure,” Fred told his boss. “I’d be happy to work a twelve-hour shift tomorrow.” Especially because it will get me out of going with Francine to audition wedding-reception bands for the second straight weekend.
In this example, the only part of the conversation that Fred’s boss heard was the part between the quotation marks. The part in italics is what Fred said to himself. Also, did you notice the glaring lack of attribution in the italicized sentence? If you’re consistent about using italics for every instance of internal dialogue, you don’t need to tack on “Fred thought” – your readers will figure it out on their own.
For emphasis. Sometimes you want to make sure your reader reads a sentence the way you hear it in your head. One way to do that is to put the word or words to emphasize in italics. See how the meaning of the sentence changes when you stress a different word?
Mom told Pansy to take out the trash. (Dad had nothing to do with it.)
Mom told Pansy to take out the trash. (But Pansy didn’t do it, and now the dog’s gotten into it…)
Mom told Pansy to take out the trash. (It wasn’t my job!)
Mom told Pansy to take out the trash. (Not to use it as an art project.)
Mom told Pansy to take out the trash. (The cat was supposed to stay inside.)
If you do this, however, use the technique sparingly. Like WORDS IN ALL CAPS and exclamation points, italics for emphasis lose their punch if overused. If you find you’re hitting the italics button a lot, you should probably reword some of your sentences for clarity.
Foreign words. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) has a whole section on this. Basically, if the foreign word is likely to be unfamiliar to your readers, you should italicize it. If it’s a foreign term in common usage – in vitro, for example, or etc. (which is the abbreviation for the Latin words et cetera, meaning “and others”) – you don’t need to put it in italics at all.
CMOS also says if you’re going to use the word a lot, you only have to italicize it once. I’m not sure I agree, although I don’t have anything to back up that gut feeling other than a sense that many readers aren’t as attentive as we’d like for them to be, and are going to wonder about the word on second reference. I’d give it two or even three uses before dropping the italics.
CMOS also doesn’t say anything about writing whole sentences in a foreign language. But in my most recent book, I wrote one side of a telephone conversation in Spanish and italicized the whole thing.
Book titles and stuff. You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Here’s the basic rule: titles of books and periodicals are italicized, but the names of sections, chapters, or stories are enclosed in quotation marks. Conveniently, the rule for periodicals extends to many similar collections of things: music album titles are italicized, song titles get quotation marks; the title of an anthology or chapbook is italicized, but the titles of individual stories or poems are set in quotes; the title of a blog gets italics, but titles of individual posts get quotation marks; and so on. However, in the case of a box set, I would use italics for the title of the set and the titles of the individual novels, too.
What about letters, emails, and text messages? I would not put a whole letter in italics. I would instead use block-quote style, where the margins are moved in on one or both sides to indicate a lengthy quote. CMOS calls for block-quote style once you’ve hit five lines of quoted material. If you put anything – not just a letter – in block-quote style, don’t use quotation marks around it, too (although if there’s a quote inside the block quote, you should use quotation marks for just that part).
As for emails and text messages, CMOS suggests treating them like dialogue.
Those are the main rules. Questions? Anything I missed?