I first saw the term Free Indirect Discourse while reading the chapter on Flannery O’Connor in Write Like The Masters by William Cane. Cane describes Free Indirect Discourse (FID) as “A popular technique with good writers, FID involves narrating a scene in language that contains some elements from the lexicon of one of the characters (Cane sites Rimmon-Kenan 1983).” He also writes “A helpful way to think of it is to conceptualize FID as narration tinged or colored with the voice of one of the characters.”
I didn’t completely understand the concept until I read this passage from Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away:
The room was lined with automobile tires and had a concrete and rubber smell. Meeks took the machine in two parts and held one part to his head while he circled with his finger on the other part. Then he sat waiting, swinging his foot, while the horn buzzed in his ear. After a minute an acid smile began to eat at the corners of his mouth and he said, drawing in his breath, “Heythere, Sugar, hyer you?” and Tarwater, from where he stood in the door, heard an actual woman’s voice, like one coming from beyond the grave, say, “Why Sugar, is that reely you?” and Meeks said it was him in the same old flesh and made an appointment with her in ten minutes.
This passage describes a telephone from the perspective of a character who has never seen one before. A more distant third person narrator may have said, “Meeks stopped at a gas station to use the phone. Tarwater had never seen anyone act so strangely, talking into a box like that.” O’Connor draws the reader into the mind of the young man experiencing the machine through observing its use.
Free Indirect Discourse is a type of third person point of view (POV) that allows a minimal psychological distance between the reader and the character. In other words it lets the reader inside the character’s head. There are two other forms of discourse in third person POV: direct discourse and indirect discourse. Direct discourse (or quoted speech or direct speech) is the same as dialogue, something stated out-loud by the character and written in quotation marks. Indirect discourse (reported speech) tells the reader what a character said or thought without quotation marks and using a reporting verb like she said or he thought.
Direct Discourse –
“It’s a lot more than that,” Jerry said. “If it works out, you could get everything you need and make some money too.”
“I’m intrigued. It sounds too good to be true,” Rick said.
Indirect Discourse –
Jerry told him it was a lot more than that. If it worked out, he could get everything he needed and make some money too. Rick told Jerry he was intrigued, but it sounded to good to be true.
Free Indirect Discourse –
Jerry’s proposition was intriguing. Could he get everything he needed and make some money too? It sounded too good to be true.
As a writing exercise, I recommend creating examples like those above, first, starting with dialogue and trying to change it to the other two forms of discourse and then, starting with FID and trying to turn it into the other two kinds of discourse. I found it to be trickier than I expected.
For me, discovering FID cleared up the question: do I put my characters’ thoughts in italics or in quotes? I now believe the answer is neither as long as I am using free indirect discourse correctly.
If you would like more information about free indirect discourse, I found these posts interesting and informative:
Once I understood free indirect discourse, I went on the hunt for it in my work in progress. My novel is a psychological thriller told from the perspective of each of its three main characters, so, it turns out, my novel is full of FID.
Here’s a jog through B’s mind:
She wasn’t afraid of snakes. They fascinated her from a young age. She loved to draw their beautiful colors and patterns. She remembered spending hours in the snake habitat at the zoo watching their tongues flicking in and out as she imagined seeing the world through tasting her environment. Talk about an oral fixation. She attempted to emulate the way pieces of their bodies expanded and contracted to propel them forward by wriggling on her carpet, that old shag carpet that shed fuzz right up her nose and made her sneeze. Mom helped her create a really cool Medusa costume in sixth grade by sticking wires through a ton of rubber snakes and hooking them into a cheap wig.
And here’s a moment in R’s:
“Of course, silly. I’m a regular.” She smiled and scrunched up half her face. She probably thought she was winking.
That sounded like the brush off. She wasn’t going to give him a number and tell him to call her, so he wasn’t going to ask. She would let him find her here in this dive, if she wasn’t hooking a bigger fish on the line. Fine. He had mastered that game long ago.
Were you able to identify the different kinds of discourse? Do you feel like you got inside the character’s heads? Did they feel like two very different views of the world? I hope so. Have you found places in your own writing where you used FID, or places where you could improve your writing by using FID? I would love to hear about it in the comments.
I hope you also find the discovery of free indirect discourse fun and exciting (for some reason knowing the style had a name was very exciting for me). Happy Writing.
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