Since we’re expected to have a partial eclipse in these parts on Monday, it only makes sense to have a review of John Brunner’s Total Eclipse. Unexpectedly, however, the title of the novel is where references to eclipses end. The word “eclipse” was not mentioned anywhere in the entire book. That being said, I’d like to have a kind of craft discussion which eclipses (see what I did there?) the review of the book—but is inspired by it (and some other novels I’ve read lately).
Let me explain. Characters in books think. This is immutable. What differs from novel to novel is how, aesthetically, characters’ thoughts are portrayed on the physical page. Particularly in Brunner’s Total Eclipse, the novel is narrated in third person point-of-view, but the protagonist’s thoughts are in first person point-of-view and italicized. The protagonist thinks often, therefore italics appear in prodigious quantities. What I would like to argue, is that in most instances, ITALICS TO REPRESENT THOUGHT ARE ABOUT AS UNNECESSARY AND DISTRACTING AS ALL OF THESE CAPS.
You probably think I’m yelling, but I’m not. So we’ll add “misleading” to the list with unnecessary and distracting. But let me elaborate on my point before I alienate scores of people who will tell me, “But Stephen King uses italics all the time for his characters’ thoughts!” Yes, I know.
Italicized thought almost exclusively appears in third person point-of-view (POV) since in first person POV essentially everything an “I” narrator tells the reader (everything that isn’t spoken aloud dialogue) is his or her thoughts. Readers are so close to first person narrators that we’re reading their minds. In like-minded fashion (see what I did there?), my proposal is that the same level of closeness to a first person narrator can be achieved with equal success in third person narration. As authors, we get to make up the rules about how close we get inside our characters’ heads, so when it comes to thoughts in the third person, why not simply slip inside our characters’ eardrums, pop a squat on their temporal lobes, and hang on for the ride?—While. Still. In. Third. Person. Point. Of. View.
Here’s an example from Total Eclipse of the protagonist’s thoughts and following it is my rewritten version of those identical thoughts in third person POV.
Original: I wish that bloody man would get off our necks! I want to start work on these printed crystals he doesn’t give a hoot for. Back on Earth I had how many through my hands—eighteen, nineteen? And most of their patterns scrambled. But here there are hundreds, and at the digs there are thousands, and I’m itching, absolutely itching to get at them!
Rewrite: He wished that blood man would get off their necks! He wanted to start work on the printed crystals Ordonez-Vico didn’t give a hoot for. Back on Earth he had how many through his hands—eighteen, nineteen? And most of their patterns scrambled. But here there were hundreds, and at the digs there were thousands, and he was itching, absolutely itching to get at them!
The reason this reads better is that (as the reader) I never have to break from the narrative flow. Nothing changes and I stay in the narrative dream. Every time the italics jump into the frame, it’s like being jolted around the back seat of a vehicle with someone who’s driving stick shift for the first time. Common critique verbiage in writing workshops is to say that a particular passage “took me out of the story.” This means that the narrative dream was temporarily broken. Much of the purpose of reading—reading fiction, anyway—is to be entertained. If I’m not having fun because I keep jerking my arm out toward the dash or slapping the back of my noggin on the headrest, I’m not enjoying the ride. And similarly, I’m not enjoying the read.
It’s been said authors are world creators. If that’s true, then make a world that’s worth living in for a while. Take the liberty to zoom into your characters’ heads for a little. And then? Zoom back out when it suits you. Just keep the dream alive.
I could say more, but I think I’ll stop here. My conclusion is that while I’m not completely ruling out italics-as-thought in every circumstance, I persist in the belief that if that a story can be written without them, why not opt for the simpler more straightforward method? On the whole, italics should be used for two reasons: titles (such as Total Eclipse) and emphasis (such as, italics are not necessary).
That’s where I stand, but I’m still open to some discussion on it. If you have strong thoughts on the matter, chime in with a comment here or on our Facebook page post underneath this review.