italics

I had an email from a reader I think I need to talk about:

Just finished Queen of Swords. While it was wonderful and you are a gifted story teller…. I felt shortchanged. What was with the great chunks of italics? It looked as if your publisher tried and succeeded at making you shorten the book. As if you just copied your storyboard to fill in the blanks. I would have loved to have read about those parts in detail. Let the story be huge if it is necessary. Your readers will not fear it, but embrace it.

When there is a particularly intense scene, one that is exceptionally vivid, I often find myself slipping from past tense to present tense. If I do that, I also italicize to make the shift more immediate. I think of present tense as the storyteller’s voice. If you’re telling a story to some friends, and you get very involved in the telling, you will likely shift to present tense.

“And then she says to me…”
“So I pick up the newspaper and there it is…”

It’s almost as if you are watching what happened and narrating it as the scene plays out in your memory. This is a narrative strategy in spoken English that you’ll hear across social, geographic, economic boundaries.

In writing a story, that shift to present tense (usually omniscient) is a message from me to the reader: listen closely now, I’m going to take you right into this scene, step by step. It’s not meant to be a short cut to telling that part of the story: just the opposite, it’s a slowing down of the narration, so it’s seen more clearly.

In Queen of Swords, much of what Honore experiences in the last third of the book is told in present tense. I narrate what he is seeing, thinking, feeling, remembering. The effect (I hope) is to pull you into the disturbed and almost hallucinogenic passing of days.

But maybe other readers feel the same way. Maybe present tense scenes strike them not as intense and direct, but as simply distracting. If that’s the case, I’d sure be interested to hear about it, because it runs so contrary to my sense of how stories work.

16 Replies to “italics”

  1. Sara, I thought your use of the present tense worked for Honore. It did change the flow and make the story more direct at that point. I enjoyed the use of different tenses and letters and newspaper ads in the telling of your story. However, I do not generally enjoy whole novels told in the present tense.

  2. No, Rosina, I have to agree with you. It lends a certain dream-like quality to the action. Also, I tend to feel like the non-italicized portions have a definite narrator to them. The italicized portions don’t seem “narrated” in the same way. The present tense gives a feeling of omniscience, and for me, it seems as if the women, or as if Erzulie is watching over and observing Honoré’s actions. I don’t know that I’m explaining it right, but it’s a coldness, and the present tense makes it more matter-of-fact, to me. It’s like Honoré’s in this little box of a room, and the lid’s been taken off so we can watch him squirm.

  3. I have to say that I understand where the comment is coming from, as I sometimes get frustrated when I see italics coming up in a novel. To me it says “this story’s about to shift from something I’m really into to a whole other thing,” and usually I resent the interruption. Having said that, I didn’t mind the italicized portion of QOS because I did appreciate getting Honoré’s POV; it made the circumstances more mysterious and the impact of what happens to him was greater because of the way it was told.

  4. To tell you the truth I do not remember noticing the italic part is in the present tense. I saw it as an insert. Something that did not belong to the sequence of events, but it was necessary to understand the peculiarities of the character’s personality.

  5. Actually, I understand that comment. However, I do not feel that you have “just copied your storyboard to fill in the blanks”. I only understand that it can be distracting sometimes to see all of a sudden italics. It sometimes feels like an interruption in the story, but I accept it as a necessary interrption. I also feel that not everything in a novel needs to be explained in details.

    But anyway, personally I am not a fan of italics but I understand their purpose.

  6. I liked that stylistic change. It made me notice that somebody else was narrating, and pay attention to the POV for those sections. And it was a signal that we were leaving the setting of the previous scene, to visit someone else’s situation for a while. It would, however, have been annoying (I think) to read the entire novel in present-tense. But for short changes in character/scene, it was effective and well done. And it made Honore less of a monster or a caricature (not that he WAS, just that he COULD have been), to see what was going through his head.

  7. To be perfectly honest, while I noticed the change of pace and angle of the story with the italics in QOS it didn’t really dawn on me about the technical aspect of actually changing POV… so to me that says it was well done and didn’t disrupt the flow. As someone else has already commented on, I also enjoyed the letters and newspaper ‘clippings’ included; in my mind gave teh story more ‘body’.
    One book I do remember resenting italics in was Lord of the Rings, the songs and poetry just got a bit cumbersome – especially with the Tom Bombadil character… mind you it didn’t put me off the book as I still count it as one of my favourites!

  8. How’s that saying go..You can please some of the people some of the time, but..
    I can understand her frustration, who wants it to end? Dammit Rosina, we want half a mil on the next one! LMAO

  9. I am the same as some others who have already commented – what italics? I honestly can’t say I noticed. Now I will have to go back and look when I get home in case the version we got down under didn’t have this change in type.

    I do remember thinking those passages had “hallucinogenic” effects. I did wonder to myself that Honore was seriously high on whatever else there was with the alcohol. So it was brilliantly done I thought.

  10. I like the selective use of italics and to me it does achieve the “listen up here” sense that you write about. In some instances where I’ve seen it used it really heightens and intensifies the emotions associated with a particular scene. It’s as if you are discovering the action or a great secret even ahead of or at the same time as the narrator and there is nothing anyone can do to prepare you for it. It seems rawer in this way but I do agree that it needs to be used, or at least I like it to be used, sparingly so that one is aware of this distinction, this change in pace.

  11. I would say that, for me, it was a temporary distraction. I didn’t notice the shift to first person, but it took me a little longer to get used to the italics and to get into the story again. And I think I flipped ahead to see how many pages were in italics. It did make me feel as though something very important was going on, so I paid a little closer attention when I got back into the story. On a second read, though, it didn’t bother me a bit.

  12. Italics don’t bother me, but I loathe present tense. I have a book I’m dying to read that’s been on my shelf for two years. I just can’t get through most books written in present.

  13. I have a similar antipathy to first person novels, Alison. It’s hard for me to start one. But I do use first person narration for small stretches (especially letters, etc), because it provides some complexity.

    You never use present tense, even in small chunks?

  14. I don’t, no, but that’s because of the type of story I’ve written so far. I did recently read Greg Iles’ “Turning Angel” – which is present tense, but I was sucked into the story and found myself reading it in third. Strange.

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