Thoughts on Writing – Formatting Telepathy in a Novel

There’s a section I’m currently working on formatting in Distant Horizon, which has a lot to do with telepathy. And of course, that had me puzzling over the best way to format telepathy.

Originally, I had planned to designate telepathic sections using colons and italics, like this:

:This is a thought that you hear in your head,: the blogger thought to her readers.

However, I had several beta-readers say they didn’t like that formatting (never mind that I loved it in Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn), so, since I want to make the book easier on the readers to read and enjoy, I made the change. They suggested keeping with simple italics, tagged like dialogue to note that it’s telepathy.

That worked well in Magic’s Stealing, where telepathy is mostly limited to communication.

Then we get to Distant Horizon.

*Flop.*

There are several forms of telepathy in the Distant Horizon universe. Most telepaths specialize in one or two abilities, but a really powerful telepath can do any of these:

(Note: These aren’t their formal classifications, just how I’ll refer to them for the moment)

  • Communication (Sending thoughts).
  • Mind Reading (Getting a sense of what someone else is thinking).
  • Perception Manipulation (Changing what someone thinks they see/hear/touch, etc.)
  • Possession (Taking control of someone’s body through a mental link).

(…Hehe. I feel like I’m writing out optional skills for a role-play character. Let’s take three points in communication and two in perception manipulation, please…)

The problem I’ve run into is how to denote each of these things, among other normally italicized sections.

Originally, I used italics to denote a few different things: telepathy, flashbacks that the characters is “experiencing” at the moment,” and telepathic attacks, in which what is happening is perceived entirely in the narrator’s mind.

When I was using the colons, it was easy to show that someone was communicating via thought, versus a person was having a short flashback, and when someone was communicating via thought during a flashback.

Fun, right?

Now, however, things have gotten a little more difficult.

For example, if the main character is thinking to herself, it usually isn’t too hard to switch the italicized parts to a non-italicized thought, given this story is 1st person, past tense.

For instance, this:

He winced, then handed me the notebook. “Look– I don’t know about either of us, okay?”

Wait. Either of us?

I gaped at him. “You’re not taking the pill, either?”

Becomes this:

He winced, then handed me the notebook. “Look– I don’t know about either of us, okay?”

Wait. Either of us?

I gaped at him. “You’re not taking the pill, either?”

No big change, and in fact, I like it better. Otherwise, it really felt more like it was italicized for emphasis.

I read an interesting article that mentioned using italics for thoughts creates greater narrative distance. Since I want readers close to the MC’s perspective, removing as many of these as possible could prove beneficial. (Plus, it makes Isaac happy. He never was a fan of all the italicized chunks I had in the earlier drafts).

But what about thoughts that are active? Thoughts that, by all right, should be 1st person present?

“What about you? Do you have this so-called persuasion power?”

He inclined his head. “Yes.”

You’re admitting to it? “You were using it last night,” I tested. “To get me to come with you.”

If I try to remove the italics, the paragraph doesn’t read right (or maybe it does, and I’m just being finicky). Technically, I could change the thought to “He was admitting to it?” and the sentence would read fine, but I’m thinking it sounds punchier if she’s directing an active thought toward him.

So I’m considering removing italics for thoughts that flow with the the past tense prose, or rearranging them into past tense when feasible, while leaving italics for thoughts that are in present tense, along with thoughts which are directed toward another person, even if that person can’t hear them.

The reason for this is that there’s a scene in which the main character unintentionally uses telepathy (I won’t say how, to avoid spoilers). However, some of what she’s broadcasting isn’t actively targeted, at least, it wouldn’t appear to be at first glance.

He gave me a pointed look. “Be careful with that thing.”

I winced. “I don’t plan on using it.”

“What you plan to do and what you do are two different things.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, ducking my eyes from his scowl. All I wanted was a stupid reminder.

“And what you’ve got is trouble,” Inese retorted. I stared at her. I hadn’t said—

“Now stop worrying about the shiny. We’ve got work to do.”

See what I mean?

If I remove the italics, it won’t be clear that the narrator broadcasted the thought. But it isn’t directed at anyone, either, and kind of reads as if it’s just being emphasized.

But what if I only italicized thoughts that she knows is telepathic. She’s new to the concept of superpowers. If the characters around her react appropriately, she doesn’t have to realize what she’s doing, and the readers will learn at the same time she does.

Try reading this passage again:

He gave me a pointed look. “Be careful with that thing.”

I winced. “I don’t plan on using it.”

“What you plan to do and what you do are two different things.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, ducking my eyes from his scowl. All I wanted was a stupid reminder.

“And what you’ve got is trouble,” Inese retorted. I stared at her. I hadn’t said—

“Now stop worrying about the shiny. We’ve got work to do.”

Since Inese is commenting directly on the narrator’s thoughts, and the narrator reacts with confusion, we can guess what has happened.

Plus, this allows for a lot of fun when she’s dealing with high-end telepaths. After all, they’re strong enough to manipulate her mind without her knowing that they’re changing her thoughts. Neither the narrator, nor the reader, actually know what is real and what isn’t, and which thoughts are actually hers.

Unreliable narrator, anyone?

Now, the problem with doing it this way is that there’s always the chance that the larger scenes involving telepathy (and there’s a huge one at the end of the story that prompted this particular blog post) may be confusing for the reader. That’s why I’m hoping to find a proofreader for this style of formatting before Isaac and I release the book. But for now, I think I’ve settled on this:

  • Thoughts directed toward someone/something in present tense will be italicized.

He inclined his head. “Yes.”

You’re admitting to it? “You were using it last night,” I tested. “To get me to come with you.”

  • Telepathic communication (when the narrator is aware these are not her own thoughts) will be italicized.

Brainmaster clucked her tongue. Poor Miss Nickleson… Let me show you what happens to the people who rebel.

  • Flashbacks/memory attacks, where the narrator is experiencing them but does not know this is a flashback will not be italicized. Tags may need to be included in the prose to help aid the reader.

Brainmaster clucked her tongue. Poor Miss Nickleson… Let me show you what happens to the people who rebel.

A rocket slammed into the ground, blowing a beast to bits. Sun scorched the back of my neck, and the stench of burnt flesh tainted the air. A blast of heat rolled over me. I shielded my eyes while debris pelted me with dirt. Something smashed into my chest. I removed my hand from my shirt and found it hot and sticky. The pain threatened to destroy my vision—

(Since the main character cannot distinguish the manipulation from reality, this is not italicized).

  • Flashbacks/memory attacks that the narrator is actively experiencing and is aware of, will be italicized.

The winding corridor opened to rows upon rows of floor-to-ceiling tanks, each filled with thick, greenish fluid. Bubbles traveled up the tubes, passing over occupants who had been stripped of everything but a breath mask. A helpless, sickening sensation spread through me. I stared at the liquid, petrified.

Brianmaster dragged me into a tube and shoved me inside, the numbing liquid surrounding me, slick against my skin. Burning.

I needed to escape, to breathe, to run—

“Let’s not open these doors, ‘kay?” Jack said, jarring me from my nightmare.

(In this scene, Jenna is having a memory attack, and though she can’t escape it, she’s aware that the attack is happening).

  • Flashbacks where the character is “remembering,” but not really “experiencing” will not be italicized.

He put the training weapons aside and sat on the floor, stretching his fingers to his toes. “Besides, the Community’s boring. There’s no excitement. Do you remember when we used to pick blackberries off the neighbor’s bush?”

I nodded.

Walking home from school, we used to take the back ally to our parents’ houses. One time I noticed a dark blackberry poking out from a broken slat in the fence. It was ripe, and touching the berry left a deep red juice stain on my fingertips. The neighbors could’ve been fined because the fence hadn’t been repaired in a timely manner.

(She’s recalling a memory, but she isn’t “experiencing” it, per se).

And, of course, I’ll use italics to emphasize certain words. And also for sound effects, foreign languages, etc, though I’ll try not to overdo it. 🙂

So, now that I’ve got this sorted out in blog-post form, I’m off to finish formatting the italics in the manuscript. It’s not perfect, but hopefully the formatting will be smoother now.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful. 🙂 Have you ever had to make a particular type of formatting distinguishable?

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