We are Gods 3: Italics, Underlines and CAPS, oh, my!

Traditional emphasis formatting caveat:

Limit [word emphasis] to the use of italics. … removing all underlines, bolds, and CAPS.

Don’t do that unless it appeals to you. Don’t give up your tools.

A page of print is a visual medium. We convey a great deal of data through our use of emphasis formatting.

That said, overuse of emphasis formatting weakens the story. The reader ignores the formatting after a while—assuming they keep reading. But the judicious use of formatting helps deliver the story.

For instance, using the aforementioned underline:

“Stop,” she said. “Stop. … Stop it!”

No dreaded adverbs needed to convey her increasing agitation. A character might be overhearing this and that last underline prompts her to get off a bus bench and peer down an alley. Her motivation needs no more explanation than the formatting of the quote.

Prose fiction creates singular wormhole a reader is drawn through to an alternate universe. And authors need to be as invisible to that reader as possible. Emphasis formatting helps us show not tell.    

Italics in dialogue can literally change the meaning of the sentence:

Don’t give him any money.” (Stop it!)
“Don’t give him any money.” (Lend it to him.)
“Don’t give him any money.” (Give it to someone else.)

Italicize any single word in that sentence and the character says different things with the same words.

BUT over-use of italics or any emphasis formatting, fatigues a reader. It also throws the reader out of the universe you created. In the two cases above, the italics conveyed story through dialogue. What we need to avoid is trying to control the voice of the actor portraying the character. And that actor (except for an audible book) is the reader’s imagination. 

“That really sucks.”

We authors hear it in our heads in a certain way “That really sucks.” Except maybe you heard it differently than I. The reader might hear it differently than both of us. And that’s okay. It’s important to allow the reader as much freedom as possible to experience the story universe.

As for me:

I write a lot of thought and memory. My stuff already has a lot italics, so I look for options. I also use underline, though years ago I didn’t, it was way too heavy on screen. Today,  programs are subtler and underlining provides another way to communicate the story.

These are my loose emphasis parameters:

  • Italics for memory – indented.
  • Italics for thought – not indented, usually within the graph.
  • Italics for story – example above.
  • Underline strong emotion or more intense action. Whap-whap! Whap!

Here’s a rule that’s a practical one regardless of paper or pixels:

Don’t underline punctuation like periods, commas, question marks. It’s confusing because it obscures spaces and ends. If you underline “straight-backed” for some reason I’m unable to imagine, do the whole thing. It’s one word.

Italics have traditionally been used for sounds. Bzzzzzzz. I write BDSM. There’re WHAPs and shwippping. I write cop stuff. There’s a lot of BAM! BANG! Comic book sounds. I like those, they deliver quick audio/visual to the reader.

Italics also imply softer sounds. They can be insidious. Stephen King is a master of the insidious italicized sound.


Another King use, if memory quotes correctly, is in a scene where a woman is completely alone. Looking about the cabin she is bound in, she studies a shadowed area.

There was someone in the corner.

Emphasis formatting is a powerful writer’s tool. Italics and underlines and caps and indents, these are our tools. Bold is also, I suppose, though I avoid it unless absolutely necessary. We also have color. Traditionally:

Font color – One: black

I agree, unless you are writing non-fiction (even then) or a children’s book, maybe? Use black. Why?

Because having the word


in red as if it will be what? Bloodier? This is the writer inserting themselves into the story: coming between the reader and the reality they’ve created.

IMO. Maybe I’m a traditionalist, too. Or a hypocrite. The puzzle in Matchstick Men is in color. It just showed up better. But that’s not font.

Black is not always black, either. The chapter/section titles in the ebook of one very successful author used grayscale quite effectively for Section and Chapter headings.



Prose fiction writing is a complex process with a large toolbox. Consider how you want to use emphasis to deliver your story, and consider how much the reader brings, and should bring, to your universe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s