3 Reasons to Use Free Indirect Speech

I can’t believe it took me this long to write about free indirect speech. It is one of my favorite tools that every writer should have in their toolbox.

As an editor, I often suggest a rewrite to turn direct or indirect reported thoughts into free indirect speech.


What Is Free Indirect Speech

Free indirect speech (FIS) can also be called free indirect discourse. With this tool, the character’s voice and thoughts are rendered in third-person, so you are essentially embedding the character’s internal thoughts into the narrative—the character becomes the narrator.

A non-character narrator can report a character’s thoughts either directly or indirectly. With FIS, the narrator is no longer reporting anything, as the character’s voice takes over the narration.

Indirect Direct FIS
Ray kept forgetting about practice despite feeling awful about it.  “Sorry. I keep forgetting practice. I feel awful,” Ray said.

Or

Crap. I forgot practice. I feel awful, but I bet the guys don’t believe me, Ray thought.
Crap! Why did he always forget practice? Of course, he felt awful, but doubt the guys believed him.

Why Use Free Indirect Speech


If your novel is in first person, then you already have the character narrating the story, so you don’t need to use this tool.

But if your novel is in third person, free indirect speech can be used for many reasons (three of which I discuss here).

With FIS, you get the best of both worlds. You get the depth and intimacy that first person offers while also tapping into the flexibility that third person gives you.

Since the narrator in first person is always a character, you really get to know the POV character(s) and you feel more intimate with them.

First Person Third Person with Reported Thoughts Third Person with FIS
I glanced at my calendar. Crap! Why do I always forget practice? Of course, I feel awful, but I doubt the guys believe me.   He glanced at the calendar. He thought, Crap! Why do I always forget practice? Of course, I feel awful, but I doubt the guys believe me. He glanced at the calendar. Crap! Why did he always forget practice? Of course, he felt awful, but doubt the guys believed him.  

Notice how FIS is the same as the first-person example, but it stays in third person and blends seamlessly with the narrative. With the third person with reported thoughts, the narrator is butting in to say “he thought.”

Without FIS, you have to either directly or indirectly report the character’s thoughts. If you directly report them, you use either italics or thought tags.

Well, now, you can ditch the italics and thought tags. Too much italics makes things harder to read, and too many thought tags clutters up the dialogue and bogs it down.

If you have a quick-action scene or a high-tension scene, and the character is thinking things throughout, all those thought tags are going to slow down that pace and destroy the tension.

Let’s look at a high-tension scene using FIS.

Example using FIS

Matilda tensed, holding still and erect. This was it. This is how she was going to die. By the hand of a madman. A chill ran through her, causing a violent shiver. Clang! She jumped as a medicine bottle fell to the floor. Despite her efforts to remain still, her stupid wide hips had bumped the counter. What weapon would he use? Would they ask who killed her with the gun in the bathroom? Or with the knife in the bathroom? Or with … well, really nearly anything could be used to kill. Even her beloved books could kill her in this madman’s hands.

A creak resounded, pinging off every wall and ringing in her head. He was close. Very close. She grabbed her head, squeezing it, as though she could get the noise of his movement out of her head. As if she could rewind to three weeks ago before she had met him.

With the absence of italics and thought tags, the tension in the scene is still there and the character’s voice is strong.

Take a look at how the tension dies when this same scene is written without using free indirect speech.

Example using reported thoughts

Matilda tensed, holding still and erect. She thought, This is it. This is how I am going to die. By the hand of a madman. A chill ran through her, causing a violent shiver. Clang! She jumped as a medicine bottle fell to the floor. Despite her efforts to remain still, her stupid wide hips had bumped the counter.  She wondered, What weapon would he use? Would they ask who killed me with the gun in the bathroom? Or with the knife in the bathroom? Or with … well, really nearly anything could be used to kill. Even my beloved books could kill me in this madman’s hands.

A creak resounded, pinging off every wall and ringing in her head. He was close, she thought. She grabbed her head, squeezing it, as though she could get the noise of his movement out of her head. As if she could rewind to three weeks ago before she had met him.

All the “she thought” and “she wondered” really kills the pace, as the narrator is butting in. So you may think italics will solve it, but look how much it clutters the text.

Example using reported thoughts via italics

Matilda tensed, holding still and erect. This is it. This is how I am going to die. By the hand of a madman. A chill ran through her, causing a violent shiver. Clang! She jumped as a medicine bottle fell to the floor. Despite her efforts to remain still, her stupid wide hips had bumped the counter. What weapon would he use? Would they ask who killed me with the gun in the bathroom? Or with the knife in the bathroom? Or with … well, really nearly anything could be used to kill. Even my beloved books could kill me in this madman’s hands.

A creak resounded, pinging off every wall and ringing in her head. He was close. She grabbed her head, squeezing it, as though she could get the noise of his movement out of her head. As if she could rewind to three weeks ago before she had met him.

So ditch the tags and the italics and just focus on that character intimacy, with FIS, which leads to the last reason to use it.

As mentioned, FIS allows you to stay in third person and past tense to match the narration but accesses the character’s viewpoint and voice. By going into the character’s head, we have a narrower distance and deeper interiority without the clutter.

Narrative distance is a spectrum. The table shows three points on the spectrum, but there are more in between.

Wide (indirectly reported) Middle (directly reported) Deepest/closest
Kayla Ernestine rushed into the office building as the hail fell fierce and hard.

Opening the heavy door reminded her of how much she hated this job. She hated that door, but as awful as it was, it was the least of her complaints.
Kayla rushed into the office building as the hail fell fierce and hard. She thought, Why do I stay in this city at this horrible job? I mean I know why. But still. Why?

As she opened the heavy door, she thought, The door was bad enough. It should just open with a keycard or code. But, nope. Multiple times a day I am forced to struggle with the door.
Of course it was hailing again. Why did she stay in this horrible city and this horrible job? She knew why. But still. Why?

Even the door into the office posed another obstacle. The damn door should just open with a keycard or a code. But, nope, multiple times a day she was forced to struggle with the door.

Conclusion


Hopefully, you can see how powerful free indirect speech is. It truly is the best of both worlds.

If you’re writing in third person, you’ll want to tap into this tool anytime you have a high-tension scene and/or you want to create deeper interiority without the clutter of tags and italics.

 

 

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With a passion for words, collecting quotes, and reading books, I love all things writing related. I will admit to having a love-hate relationship with writing as I am constantly critical, but I feel a grand sense of accomplishment spending hours editing my own writing.

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