How to use Free Indirect Discourse to strengthen your Fiction

Free Indirect Speech, Free Indirect Discourse, narrative distance

Free Indirect Discourse (also called Free Indirect Speech) seems a clunky mouthful, but it is also a powerful tool to make your writing more intimate when used in proper measure.  Wikipedia says: “What distinguishes Free Indirect [Discourse; FID for short] from normal indirect speech is the lack of an introductory expression such as ‘He said’ or ‘he thought’. It is as if the subordinate clause carrying the content of the indirect speech is taken out of the main clause which contains it, becoming the main clause itself. Using [FID] may convey the character’s words [and thoughts] more directly than in normal indirect.”

Examples provided by Wikipedia include:

  • Quoted or direct speech:

He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. “And just what pleasure have I found since I came into this world?” he asked.

  • Reported or normal indirect speech:

He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.

  • Free indirect speech:

He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found since he came into this world?

The dangers of Free Indirect Discourse

There are dangers with FID. For one thing, it can become confusing if it is not clear whose thoughts you are reading. I also think it can become tedious. I rather like having a narrator provide guidance as to what is going on, who is speaking, etc.

All said, as I have been editing my next novel (read an excerpt of Lonely Hunter), I’ve been changing a few passages from indirect speech or narrative exposition, to Free Indirect Discourse. I’ve been conservative to date because it does not feel just right to me yet.

For most of the novel, I’ve kept my narrator at a substantial narrative distance from my Point Of View characters. My intent was to be objective and nonjudgmental in my 3rd person telling. So the few instances I do use FID, it is a dramatic deep dive into the character’s emotions and into her head.

Additionally, I’m only using Free Indirect Speech with my two main characters. It feels like that reinforces that they are the reader’s primary concern.

Arguably we can blame Jane Austen

Free Indirect Speech and Narrative Distance

The consensus is that Jane Austen first popularized the use of FID, but there is evidence that she was not the first. Whoever started, it is a compelling technique. Below is one example of where I have used it in my

Below is one example of where I have used it in my upcoming science fiction novel. Here the main character – Kira – has just been reeled in by her mentor after a private, week-long killing spree targeting the aliens that hunt them. She is starving (as they all are) and disoriented. He has led her to his hut after she embarrassed herself in front of her followers. A few minutes earlier she had insisted that they had no hope of being rescued by their space-faring ancestors, that they were all going to die…

Barber led her to his hut. She clumsily dismounted, leaving her crossbow hanging from the saddle and walked into the dark room, sinking onto a stool at his small table. Kira put her elbows on it and her head into her hands, staring at the stained wood between her fingers. She listened as Barber first worked outside to tie off their horses, then he bumped around the room. After a few minutes, he dropped a plate in front of her with meat, berries and a piece of bread. He also put a mug down beside it.

“Eat.”

Kira slowly lifted her head. A single ray of sunlight angled across her face. The rest of the hut was dark, but she could see the shadow of Barber’s big body awkwardly drop to his cot before he leaned against the wall. She turned her face to the window and the clear sky beyond, at the blue underside of space. She lowered her eyes from the square of cold blue to the plate. Her brow furrowed. There was so much food. She did not understand.

“Eat.”

It was confusing. He had given her a lot of food compared to how little they all ate now. Her mouth was too dry to eat, so she took a drink. Sweet…his honey wine. After several big gulps, she hunched over her plate and picked up the food between her shaking fingertips, piece by piece she lifted it to her mouth. She chewed without looking at him, her ratty hair hanging along the sides of her face. 

Halfway through the meal, Barber said, “You still have hope.”

Kira involuntarily sucked in a big breath as the food slipped through her fingers. With her elbow still on the table, she clinched her disfigured hand into a shaking fist and pushed her forehead against it as the tears ran down her cheeks. She squeezed her eyes shut and clamped her jaw tight. It took all her self-control not to disintegrate. Every breath came in jerky gasps. She was fragile, about to shatter. But he waited for her.

 

If you missed it, the FID was the four-word sentence with the ellipse in the middle. And if I wrote well, perhaps you did miss it. That would be the point: With FID, you get so sucked into the character’s head that you are them and forget that you are reading. The theory is that dropping all the “He thought,” “She wondered,” etc., brings you deeper into the MC’s head, deeper into the MC’s emotions.

It is hard for me to gauge how well it works. So much of writing is art…putting your work out there and hoping for the best. In this instance, though, it felt like the right place to drop straight into her head, to make more immediate the immense confusion she was feeling and how the taste of the wine could help bring her back.

…let me know what you think.

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Using Free Indirect Discourse and Narrative Distance to strengthen your Fiction
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Using Free Indirect Discourse and Narrative Distance to strengthen your Fiction
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Blame Jane Austen. She started it. Free Indirect Discourse (also called Free Indirect Speech) seems a clunky mouthful, but it is also a powerful tool to make your writing more intimate when used in proper measure.
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Tiffany Writing
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2 thoughts on “How to use Free Indirect Discourse to strengthen your Fiction”

    1. Thanks! One of the joys of writing is that I learn something new every day. There are endless opportunities to be self-critical and improve.

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