What is indirect discourse?
Indirect discourse is “a combination of a character’s thoughts and the author’s words. In the case of indirect discourse, you don’t need italics.”
The above words were written in an e-mail to me by Mark Spencer, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Professor Spencer teaches in UAM’s MFA program in creative writing. His fiction and non-fiction works have received numerous awards.
Indirect discourse is third-person POV, but more intimate
I briefly defined the types of POV (points of view) in my earlier article N is for Narrator.
Indirect discourse is a form of third-person limited narration that moves in and out of a character’s mind.
It has the advantage of bringing the reader into the character’s (protagonist’s) head without the use of first-person POV. This technique provides information about what the protagonist thinks or knows even when he doesn’t formulate it into direct speech or thought (direct discourse).
How to tell the difference between indirect discourse and direct thought
In other words, how do you know when to italicize text and when not?
Direct discourse is when the character’s words or thoughts are reproduced exactly. Speech (dialogue) typically appears in quotations. If the protagonist thinks something directly without saying it aloud, the thought is indicated by italics. In this case, the character will use “I” and not “he/she.” The thought often appears in present tense even when the story is written in past tense.
In a third-person POV story, if the protagonist’s thoughts are conveyed indirectly (using “he/she” instead of “I”), then this is indirect discourse (the author’s words), which is not italicized.
Note: Italics are disruptive to readers and should be used sparingly. If you find you are italicizing too many direct thoughts, perhaps the story should be narrated in first-person POV, where the italics are not needed.
Indirect discourse in third-person POV: What would his father think?
Character’s direct thought in a third-person narrative: What would my father think?
Direct thought embedded in third-person narrative:
Bret stared at his shaven reflection. This is a bad idea. You know that. Pulling the hinged mirror to one side, he rummaged around in the cabinet for the aftershave.
Notice how the third-person narrative uses “Bret” and “he,” whereas the thoughts in italics are the protagonist talking to himself, to his reflection; thus, he uses “you.” There is also a verb tense switch. The story is written in past tense, but the protag talks to himself in the moment, in present tense.
Dialogue between two characters. Indirect discourse is used for character two (the protagonist):
Char. 1 “Then why are you reading medical books?”
Char. 2 “‘Cause they’re here.” Why did he read Scott’s law books? Why did people ask these questions?
Notice how you can feel the protagonist’s irritation and how the indirect discourse conveys “attitude.”
She didn’t know him. Couldn’t know him. Because if she did . . . (Indirect discourse, third-person narrative.)
She doesn’t know me. Can’t know me. Because if she did . . . (Direct thought. Notice the use of italics, the verb tense change from past to present, and the use of “me” instead of “him.”)
Why would his parents be yelling? (Indirect discourse, third-person POV.)
Why are my parents yelling? OR “Why are they yelling?” (Direct thought, first-person POV within a third-person narrative. Notice the verb tense change, and the switch from “his” to “my,” and the use of italics.)
In each of the three cases below, sentence one of the pair is normal third-person narrative. Sentence two is indirect discourse.
The first sentence is an action (described objectively by the author in third-person format). The second sentence takes on the characteristics and attitudes of the protagonist by way of indirect discourse.
- He sat up abruptly. Had he lost his mind?
- Bret flicked the switch on the amp and laid the guitar on the bed. Just let them evict him.
- Bret chewed his lip. Was he ready to get caught up in this?