Ditch the Quotes: Teach Your Students to Italicize Dialogue
Samantha Edmonds | March 2019
The first time I turned in a story with the dialogue in italics to my workshop, one person didn’t seem to get it. Is this reported speech? she asked. Where’s the dialogue? I was thrown off by her confusion: What is gained from using quotation marks to denote dialogue that isn’t gained from using italics? Writing dialogue in italics is more than just a quirky visual effect. It’s a sound stylistic choice and a useful craft exercise to boot, accomplishing just as much—more, actually—than silly old quotation marks.
It’s common within prose to see dialogue in Roman type without quotation marks (looking at you, Cormac McCarthy), but consistently italicized dialogue, outside the world of poetry, is much rarer—though not entirely unheard of. I’ve noticed this technique employed in novels across genres, including literary novelist Catherine Lacey and YA author Kathryn Erskine. I first started using italics to denote dialogue myself after seeing it in the work of a friend—who had, I believe, taken the technique from someone else herself. I liked the way it looked. Initially I wanted to try it for merely aesthetic purposes—the way it appeared on the page—but as I started writing dialogue in italics I felt relieved, like suddenly dialogue made more sense to me.
I felt freer to use speech in my writing than ever before, allowing dialogue to interrupt my exposition and narration in fluid, more instinctive ways. With quotation marks I always felt stuffy, bound by rules, like the dialogue had to be set apart from the rest of the story, and it caused me to rely more on exposition than scene. But with italics I didn’t worry about any of that—because I was no longer separating dialogue from narration with punctuation, the dialogue became an extension of my characters’ narrative voice(s) and I felt my writing was stronger for it, especially in achieving more natural-sounding speech. I used scenes more often than ever.
For that reason, I believe that italicizing dialogue and ditching quotation marks can have an instructive effect, both as an editing tool and especially as a valuable technique for creative writing students. First, it allows a writer, especially a young student writer, to see how they use (or overuse) lengthy dialogue, which can sometimes go unnoticed when using quotation marks. When writing dialogue in quotes, long-winded unnatural speech may not stand out visually—but with italics, a character launching into monologue will be much more noticeable. An entire paragraph or more written in italics would call attention to itself on the page, allowing the writer to recognize it and remember to keep things lean and clean.
For example, in Catherine Lacey’s novel, Nobody is Ever Missing, the narrator, Elyria, meets a stranger she dislikes and has a quick, single-sentence exchange: “So I told him where I was from and he asked me where I was going and I said, The South Island ferry, and he said, Today? and I said, Whenever.” Such a sentence would risk losing its rhythm with quotation marks and paragraph breaks, and there might be a greater urge to say more about what lies underneath those three simple phrases; however, with italics, the speech by necessity must be kept bare-boned, making the interaction far more abrupt and biting despite the casual nature of the words. For writers struggling with lengthy dialogue, italics can be a useful visual marker for watching how long they allow speech to continue.
Furthermore, writing italicized dialogue can also break student writers of the habit of using italics to signal internal thought. When spoken word becomes italicized, it forces a writer to rethink character interiority—students would need to find other, more nuanced ways of displaying a character’s thoughts, rather than having a character speak silently to themselves in complete, italicized sentences.
This is the case with Katherine Erskine’s YA book, Mockingbird, narrated by Caitlin, an eleven-year-old with Asperger’s, whose thoughts are frequently peppered throughout conversations she has with people. But without the crutch of italics to mark internal thinking, Erskine uses other ways to characterize Caitlin and signify her thoughts, like when a relative she’s never met before says, “Aren’t you lucky to have so many relatives?” and Caitlin’s narration because synonymous with her thoughts: “I don’t feel lucky but they keep coming. Relatives we hardly saw when Devon was here so how can they help? Neighbors like the man who yelled at Devon to get off the lawn. How can he help?” Such moments are glimpses into Caitlin’s thoughts but they come from her narration, not her talking directly to herself. Italicizing dialogue, therefore, can be a beneficial writing exercise for many student writers looking to challenge the way they write a character’s interiority.
Finally, italicizing dialogue can set a distinct tone and atmosphere, making the technique useful for writers of any skill level hoping to achieve a subdued, otherworldly effect in their narration. Formatting dialogue in italics lessens the distance between speech and narration for the reader so that the two—voice and dialogue—are sometimes indistinguishable. For example, in Nobody is Ever Missing, Elyria, a young woman traveling to New Zealand to escape a bad marriage, recalls a conversation with her mother; in the memory, the dialogue is merely sprinkled into her narration, instead of set apart from it: “Everything is okay, I told my mother back then, as someone was taking the plates away (All done?) and she said, again, Oh, honey, and I still wasn’t her honey, and I clenched my jaw and she said, It’s depression, honey, you’re just depressed.” Because the italics don’t interrupt the sentence the way quotation marks would, the dialogue between Elyria and her mother, instead of sounding distinctive from Elyria’s inner monologue, becomes inseparable from her narrative voice. Exterior and interior world collapses into one plane, shortening the distance between reader and narrator.
At the same time that the space between speech and narration is lessened, italicized dialogue also serves to add a layer of separation between the narrator and the rest of the characters. Take, for example, this scene in Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine, when Caitlin has a conversation with another strange relative:
Would you like this candy?
I don’t know. I have never had her candy before so I don’t know if I’ll like it. But I like just about every candy in the galaxy […]
Take it, she says, and pushes it into my hand.
So I take it just to get her hand off of mine because her hand is squishy and flabby and makes me feel sick.
Have another, she says.
Perhaps due to the visual effect of seeing italics on the page, or associating italics more traditionally with internal thought, dialogue without quotation marks feels softer, almost whispered. Using italicized dialogue puts a layer of cotton between Caitlin and the rest of the word, so that even a simple interaction like the one above feels more fraught.
When asked in an interview why she italicized her dialogue, Erksine answered that she did it because she wanted to mirror the way her daughter, who has Asperger’s like Caitlin, communicated with no regard for punctuation or conventional writing rules, explaining she “felt that making [the dialogue] a little bit difficult or odd for the reader would help bring home the point that people with Asperger’s experience differences in every aspect of their lives.” This choice contributes practically to Caitlin’s character, and also thematically to how she is feeling—lost, disconnected, confused. Italicizing the dialogue establishes character, voice, tone, and theme, all in a simple, efficient way that would be lost if the dialogue was in quotation marks. (This is true, too, in Nobody is Every Missing for Elyria, who feels similarly unmoored in the world.)
Of course, an experienced writer can achieve many of these things—tight dialogue, nuanced interiority, narrative distance, atmosphere—regardless of the punctuation or typeset used to denote speech, but I nevertheless believe there is something special about italicizing dialogue within prose that cannot be replicated any other way. For new writers, for the teachers of such writers, and for anyone who struggles with dialogue looking for an editing exercise, this is a technique worth exploring—it opens the door to whispers and lyricism and gentle rhythm, and I believe bits of poetry in our prose is never a bad thing.
Samantha Edmonds is the author of the fiction chapbook Pretty to Think So, forthcoming from Selcouth Station Press in 2019. Her fiction has appeared in such journals as Mississippi Review, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, The Pinch, Indiana Review, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency, among others. Her nonfiction has been published in The Rumpus, Literary Hub, Ploughshares, VICE, Bustle, and more. She serves as the Fiction Editor for Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts and the Community Outreach Director for Sundress Academy for the Arts. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. She currently lives in Knoxville, where she's an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee.