Free indirect discourse is one of the most useful and effective tools available to those writing from a third person point of view. It sounds kind of fancy, but it’s actually quite a natural technique (you may have even used it without realising!). So what exactly is it, and why should you use it?

What is it?

Also known as free indirect speech or free indirect style, free indirect discourse is a method of conveying a character’s internal thoughts by embedding them within the narration, rather than expressing them directly.

In third person, the conventional way of rendering a character’s thoughts is to use ‘he/she thought’ and/or italics to clearly signal to the reader that the internal thoughts are being directly expressed:

For six years, Anne had thought Harry dead. But there he was, alive and well. He lied all this time, Anne thought. But why? Because he’s a lowlife, that’s why. No, worse – he’s a coward. She turned and left, without saying a word.

For six years, Anne had thought Harry dead. But there he was, alive and well. He lied all this time. But why? Because he’s lowlife, that’s why. No, worse – he’s a coward. She turned and left, without saying a word.

These techniques help the reader to distinguish between the narration (i.e. ‘For six years, Anne had thought Harry dead. But there he was, alive and well… She turned and left, without saying a word.’) and the character’s internal thoughts.

But free indirect discourse takes a different approach. Here it is in action:

For six years, Anne had thought Harry dead. But there he was, alive and well. He had lied all this time. But why? Because he was a lowlife, that’s why. No, worse – he was a coward. Anne turned and left, without saying a word.

Do you see what’s happened? Anne’s internal thoughts have appeared without any indicator to distinguish them from the narration, other than their actual content. Here, rather than the narrator directly conveying Anne’s internal thoughts using a device like ‘he/she thought’ or italics, it feels more like Anne’s voice has blended into the narration itself.

Note how Anne’s thoughts are in past tense, unlike in the first two examples. That’s because the narrator isn’t, in effect, ‘quoting’ them like they would dialogue. Instead, they’re infused into the past tense narration.

Why use it?

It’s well known that third person narration is good for flexibility and first person is good for depth and intimacy. But free indirect discourse gives people writing in the third person the best of both worlds.

Think of it this way: in first person, the narrator is a character (often the main character), so the narration is in the voice of that character, and their thoughts therefore blend seamlessly with the narration. Here’s our passage in first person:

For six years, I had thought Harry dead. But there he was, alive and well. He had lied all this time. But why? Because he was a lowlife, that’s why. No, worse – he was a coward. I turned and left, without saying a word.

This gives you remarkable depth and intimacy.

But free indirect discourse allows you to achieve a similar effect, but in third person. Remember, this is how our passage reads in third person, using free indirect discourse:

For six years, Anne had thought Harry dead. But there he was, alive and well. He had lied all this time. But why? Because he was a lowlife, that’s why. No, worse – he was a coward. Anne turned and left, without saying a word.

As in first person, the character’s voice seamlessly blends into the narration, and there are no clunky indicators like ‘he/she thought’ or italics to get in the way. At the same time, you can still benefit from the usual advantages of third person since you have the option of switching back to a conventional narrative voice at any time.

When and how to use it

It’s up to you how much free indirect discourse you use. Using it once doesn’t commit you to using it for the whole of your story. The right mix for you depends on how much and how often you want to create that sense of depth and intimacy.

Free indirect discourse is a great fit for a third person limited viewpoint, which limits the narrative point of view to one single character (albeit with the option of switching viewpoint characters between chapters and, if you can pull it off, between scenes). When used with third person limited, free indirect discourse helps to create an even deeper kind of point of view known as third person ‘deep’ or third person ‘close’. Here, the distinction between character and narrator becomes blurred, and the connection between the reader and the character’s thoughts and experiences is more direct. Again, you can mix third person ‘deep’ with the more conventional third person limited point of view as you prefer.

Third person omniscient is a slightly different story. An omniscient point of view gives the narrator unlimited knowledge and unlimited access to characters’ heads. Often – though not always – omniscient narrators have their own distinctive voice and convey their own judgements and opinions, which is something third person limited narrators tend not to do.

This can make it challenging if you want to use free indirect discourse together with an omniscient narrator. Whereas in third person limited, it’s pretty clear whose voice the free indirect discourse is supposed to be in, in an omniscient point of view, things can get more muddled. Take the following passage:

“Apparently Edmund is betrothed to the king’s niece,” said Emily, ever keen to gossip.

“I hear she’s with child,” said Joseph, not wanting to be outdone.

They both looked at Edmund as he sauntered about the room. What a fool he looked, walking around like he was the toast of the court. No, he’d be forgotten in a week.

It’s impossible to say for sure whose voice the judgements about Edmund are supposed to be in. Do they belong to Emily or Joseph? Or is it just the opinionated narrator?

I’m not saying free indirect discourse can’t be used with omniscient narration. It can, but you have to be especially careful to avoid confusion. In this case, you would have to rewrite the passage for clarity:

“Apparently Edmund is betrothed to the king’s niece,” said Emily, ever keen to gossip.
“I hear she’s with child,” said Joseph, watching incredulously as Edmund sauntered about the room. What a fool he looked, walking around like he was the toast of the court. No, he’d be forgotten in a week.

Here, it’s clearer that the voice is Joseph’s, but we’ve had to focus more on Joseph’s perspective in general in order to achieve that clarity.

Free indirect discourse is an invaluable tool for those writing in the third person, allowing you to dive deeper into your characters’ minds without sacrificing the flexibility that third person naturally gives you. If you haven’t already, give it a go!

 

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