by Iola Goulton
There are two main reasons for using italics in fiction:
- The chosen style guide recommends using italics.
- The chosen style guide suggests italics, but there are reasonable alternatives. In these cases, the choice is typically up to the publisher (or the author, if they are indie publishing).
Style Guide Requirements
The Chicago Manual of Style (the accepted authority for US fiction) requires italics for:
Italics for Names and Titles
- Boat or ship names (8.116)
- Book, newspaper, or magazine titles (8.168)
- Play titles (8.182)
- Movies, TV shows, radio, and podcast titles (8.189)
- Video game names (8.190)
- Blog names (8.192)
- Paintings, photographs, statues etc. (8.198)
- Album titles (8.194 and 8.197)
Poem titles are not set in italics unless it’s the name of a compilation or a very long poem (e.g. Dante’s Inferno) (8.181). Song titles and blog post titles are typeset in quotation marks (8.194 and 8.197, 8.192).
Italics for Letters or Key Terms
CMOS 7.56 allows key terms to be italicized on their first occurrence, although this applies more to nonfiction than to fiction.
Letters may be italicized (CMOS 7.64):
He signed the document with an X.
But common terms like mind your p’s and q’s don’t need to be italicized, and nor do school grades (CMOS 7.65).
Italics for Emphasis
CMOS permits using italics for emphasis but points out that italics lose their force if overused (7.50). The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style is more blunt: “A dependence on italics for emphasis is a sign of poor writing.”
Italics for Foreign Words
Italicize a non-English word the first time it appears (CMOS 7.53), but not if it’s familiar enough to appear in the dictionary (7.54).
Author’s Stylistic Choice
There are also instances where the author can choose to use italics.
Italics for Diary Entries or Letters
Italics are an easy way of differentiating diary entries or letters from the main text. Unfortunately, letters and diary entries are often long, and long passages in italics can be difficult to read. The alternative is using a different font.
Italics for Direct Thought
One upon a time, fiction used double quotation marks for spoken dialogue and single quotation marks for thought. This approach is now considered outdated—thoughts are thought, not spoken.
A more modern convention is to use italics to indicate direct thought. However, italics are only effective for a few words or a short sentence. Any longer, and it becomes difficult to read. Also, direct thought is telling where the author should be showing.
One exception is prayer: if a character is praying inside their head (i.e. rather than praying aloud), then italics are the appropriate choice:
God, I need to get out of here. Help!
God, I need to get out of here. Help!
Instead, use deep perspective point of view to produce a more engaging reading experience.
Italics can be easy to overuse. In general, only use italics where there is no reasonable alternative.
About Iola Goulton
Iola Goulton is a New Zealand-based freelance editor specializing in Christian fiction for adults and young adults. Iola holds a degree in marketing and has a background in human resources. She has been editing since 2012, and is a Gold member of the Christian PEN, American Christian Fiction Writers, Omega Writers, and Romance Writers of New Zealand.
When she’s not working, Iola is usually reading, writing her next book review, or avoiding working on her first novel. Iola lives in the beautiful Bay of Plenty in New Zealand with her husband, two teenagers, and one cat. Website: http://www.christianediting.co.nz/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/christianediting/ Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.nz/iolagoulton/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/IolaGoulton