This essay discusses free direct discourse, a refinement of third person limited.
Really Just One Point of View
One of the best things about Writing.Com is that it encourages readers and authors to interact with each other. Indeed, the whole site is structured around this concept. Whenever you read a new story, there is an invitation at the bottom of the page to interact with the author. What an awesome idea! This kind of feedback can tell authors what worked--or didn't work--in their stories. Sometimes, it's an opportunity to open a conversation about the theme of the story. Other times, it's an opportunity to discuss craft and technique.
Sometimes these conversations make me think through the stylistic choices I've made. Of course, sometimes the choices are just an idiosyncrasy, either of the story or the author. Why write it this way, when that way also seems perfectly reasonable? This week, I got a thoughtful reveiw of one of my essays that led to just such a conversation. Indeed, it partly inspired this essay. So, too, did the excellent newsletter "Drama Newsletter (March 2, 2022)" . This is a slightly veering approach to the same basic idea. Here's hoping it's helpful.
Modes of Internal Discourse
One of the first things I learned when I started writing fiction was that we shouldn't use "thought tags" when directly quoting a character's inner thoughts. So, instead of writing
Sorrow and anger boiled up and made Marcy's mouth twitch. She thought, "Lord have mercy."we should instead use italics, like so:
Sorrow and anger boiled up and made Marcy's mouth twitch. Lord have mercy.The first example is quoted discourse, since it uses "thought tags." The second is direct discourse, since it uses italics to signal the change to Marcy's thoughts. If we had written
Sorrow and anger boiled up and made Marcy's mouth twitch. She hoped the lord would have mercy.it would have been reported discourse, since we'd be reporting what she's thinking, not quoting it.
The basic idea is that we will have earlier established Marcy as the point-of-view character. Arguably, once the reader is in Marcy's head, every word on the page is something she has experienced, thought, or knows. However, the author hasn't vanished.The author's voice is still there, relating the story. To be sure, the author only "knows" what Marcy knows, only describes things Marcy senses, and the author stays in the moment. That includes using only language that Marcy would use, so if Marcy is a child, the author would use a child's vocabulary and sentence structure.
Nonetheless, in third person limited the author has a distinct voice, separate from the point-of-view character. That's one reason, perhaps the primary reason, for italicizing the internal thoughts of the character: the italics differentiate the author's voice and the character's voice.
The Fictional Dream
But...the goal with third person limited is to create a fictional dream playing inside the head of the reader. No author--with the possible exception of Proust--provides all of the details of the fictional world. Few would choose to read such a tract. Instead, author provides an inducement to the reader to collaborate, to fill in all those missing details. The ones essential to the story are there, on the page, but the rest...well, that's where the collaboration occurs. In the fictional dream, the reader is the author's partner, imagining all the myriad missing details that make the fictional world real.
The goal of the fictional dream isn't to put the reader to sleep. Instead, it's to have an active reader, a reader who imagines the here-and-now of the story as though they are inside the head of the point-of-view character. It's not that the author should disappear. On the contrary. But the voice of the author and that of the character need to be synchronized--integrated, if you will--so that the author doesn't intrude into the here-and-now of the story.
The Fictional Dream and Internal Discorse
So, what does this have to do with the modes of discourse mentioend above?
Well, that little bump in conventional internal discourse, where we change from the author's voice to the character's voice, can disrupt the fictional dream. It's a reminder that the author is still there, in the background, telling the story. It's like when actors on the stage or screen break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience: the story stops while the actors tell the audience stuff, reminding them that what's happening is an artifice and not real at all. Whether that works in stage or cinema is one thing, but we all know telling is anathema in written fiction.
There is a more intimate version of third person limited called free indirect discourse.. The goal is exactly the synchronization of the character's voice and the author's voice. The author takes on the voice of the character, or, if you prefer, the author's voice mediates that of the character. The point is, they are merged together. The author and the character don't have separate and distinct voices. Thus, the primary need for putting the character's thoughts in italics vanishes. Indeed, the use of things like italics to show internal thoughts works against the goal of merging the two voices.
Consider the following example.
Marcy huddled in the first pew and stared at the floor. She heaved a shuddering breath, and the heady scent of fresh-cut flowers filled her nose. Lush chords oozed from the organ and silenced the conversations that murmured behind her. Her sister's voice filled the chamber, singing the Kyrie Eleison from Faure's Requiem Mass. Marcy lifted her gaze and dared to glance at the casket. Sorrow and anger clenched her throat and turned her face to stone. She narrowed her eyes. Lord have mercy, indeed.
By the time the readers hit that final sentence, they don't need any direct cue that it's Marcy's thought. They're right there with her, in her head.
The idea is simple, really. This isn't a form of direct discourse, where we give the readers explicit cues that the text relates Marcie's thoughts. Instead, we lead the readers to that conclusion indirectly, by putting them deeply in her point of view. When you eliminate the italics, then instead of directly tagging the phrase "Lord have mercy" as Marcy's interior thought, we've done so indirectly, leaving it to the reader to infer this is Marcy's thought.
But of course, it's not quite that simple. There's more to it .
What makes this example work is that everything in this paragraph leads to the final sentence. It starts like a conventional third person limited narrative, where we're in Marcy's head. Subjective words like "huddled" and "shuddering" give us a sense of her mood. She inhales "heady" floral scents. Chords "ooze" from the organ and silence the "murmured" conversations. Her sister sings from a requiem mass. She "dares" to look at the casket. This all leads to her ironic thought at the end, where she translates kyrie eleison in her head. By the time we hit that final sentence, we don't need the cue that this is her thought. By omitting the italics, we finalize the merger of the author's voice and Marcy's voice. Her ironic thought is both indirect and free.
The irony in this example is a common use of free indirect discorse, where the character's thought is in juxtaposition to the scene.
The astute reader will note that in synchronizing the voice of the author with that of the character, free indirect discourse combines features of third person and first person narration.
The name, "free indirect discourse," is kind of unfortunate. It's descriptive of both of what you do and what you don't do. The internal discourse of the POV character is both directly quoted but not directly marked, hence it's "indirect." It's "free" of attributions like "she thought," or "she asked herself," or even italics--what you don't do. But, while this describes what it is, it doesn't describe what it's designed to accomplish or how to do it. I'd prefer something like "close third person limited" or "deep point of view," since the purpose is to decrease the distance between the reader and the POV character, and thus likewise decrease the distance between the reader and the fictional world.
Historically, you can find examples of free direct discourse in Jane Austin and Flaubert. Among twentieth century English authors, Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and Hemingway were masters of this technique. In popular fiction, Elmore Leonard used this technique with at least the same acumen as these other more literary authors.
I admit third person limited is hard to learn. Free indirect discourse is a refined version of third person limited, and it's even harder. But it's well worth doing, because it increases the intimacy and immediacy of the experience. It draws the reader more deeply into the story and it better engages the reader's imagination. The reader's imagination is what ultimately breathes life into the story. Free indirect discourse is another tool in the author's box of tricks to stimulate the reader's imagination.
As an exercise, consider how the above example would read if the final sentence used one of the forms of discourse listed at the start of this essay: quoted, implied, or reported. In each case, the process of directly establishing Marcy's voice as separate from what has gone before breaks the emotional flow.
Free indirect discourse is a specialized technique. Implicit and reported discourse certainly have a place, and often authors will use all three in the same piece. For free indirect discourse to work, the author must engage the reader with the POV character in a deep and sustained way. In third person limited, it's not necessary to constantly immerse the reader in the emotions and sensations of the POV character; all that's required is to establish the point of view. Absent that sustained immersion, free direct discourse might be confusing, and implicit or reported discourse might be better. In the example above, try eliminating the sentence, "She narrowed her eyes." If you do, it's no longer as obvious that the final sentence is Marcy's internal thought but could be just the author's opinion intruding into the text.
If the author pays attention and takes the reader on a deep dive into the character's head, free indirect discourse a one way to solidify poin of view, enhance the fictional dream, and increase the intimacy and immediacy of your fictional world.