Indirect Discourse in Third-Person Limited POV

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 emailed 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.

Example 1

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?

Example 2

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.

Example 3

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.”

Example 4

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.”)

Example 5

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.)

Example 6

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?

See also: P is for Pathos and Deep POV

All the posts: Components of Literature A to Z

About Eva Blaskovic

I am a multi-genre author of literary fiction, fantasy, and paranormal, and writer of non-fiction articles on parenting, writing, education, health, and travel. My background encompasses both the sciences and the arts. I teach at a specialized clinic for learning disorders and mentor young authors. In addition to writing and teaching, my passions are weather, Indian food, gardening, and music. I have played eight musical instruments and spent many years immersed in taekwondo and karate. In my youth, I was an avid canoeist. I was born in Prague, Czech Republic, grew up in the Great Lakes region of Ontario, Canada, and moved to Alberta in 1988, where I raised four children.
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17 Responses to Indirect Discourse in Third-Person Limited POV

  1. Pingback: N is for Narrated by the Narrator | #AtoZChallenge | Beyond the Precipice

  2. Pingback: P is for Pathos and Deep POV | #AtoZChallenge | Beyond the Precipice

  3. Pingback: Theme Reveal: Blogging from A to Z Challenge (April 2017) | Beyond the Precipice

  4. Lydia Howe says:

    I nearly always write in first person nowadays – back when I was learning to write, I wrote quite a bit in third person. Back then I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to use italics, but I learned pretty fast. 🙂

    Visiting from the A to Z Challenge. You can see my “P” post here:

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I.L. Wolf says:

    This is my go-to POV. You get intimate with the character, without the tight restrictions of first-person. Really informative post about the nitty-gritty mechanics. As writers, we should always be mindful about our POV, because it shapes the story.

    A to Z Challenge: Procrastination
    Isa-Lee Wolf
    A Bit 2 Read

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well put: “intimate with the character without the tight restrictions of first-person.” That’s exactly it.

      I tried different POVs with my first book and found that to be the case. First-person had limitations I didn’t want. Third-person discourse gave me the best of both worlds — I just didn’t have a name for it at the time.

      I tried to explain the mechanics because I have come across situations where people weren’t familiar with it.

      You’re right, in any chosen POV, we must be mindful about how we write and its mechanics.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I.L. Wolf says:

        I think a writer should only select first-person if it’s essential to the story. Unreliable narrator or limiting known facts for conflict or tension. It seems natural to start out in first-person, but then I ask myself if it’s serving a purpose, or if I just find it easier.

        The third-person discourse (didn’t know that was its name until your post!) helps to build the world in a way limited wouldn’t.

        And full omniscience is just messy. I’ve never attempted it.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Re: your comment about POV mindfulness — Allison Maruska just posted this article on POV and head-hopping this morning:

      Re: “I think a writer should only select first-person if it’s essential to the story” — First-person is a worthy choice since readers like to get cozy with the protag and eliminate the author.

      However, if that is limiting, 3rd person deep POV (cuts out author intrusion) and/or use of indirect discourse can still maintain that coziness while allowing more freedom.

      The best choice depends on the story.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. jrlarner says:

    Reblogged this on My Writing Blog and commented:
    Very good article, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. JJAzar says:

    I’m nearly certain this is the POV I’ve adopted for my novel-in-the-works. I like it best because it’s loose. It gives plenty to the story but leaves me, the author, freedom to stand on a table and declare things here and there. Thank you for featuring this more complicated, obscure POV!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: June 2017 Roundup: Writing | Beyond the Precipice

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