What Is “Free Indirect Speech”?


Involve an academic, and anything on this earth gets salted with arcana. 🙂 This morning I was reading some essay — in The New York Review of Books, I think — when I came across a new-to-me literary term: “free indirect speech.”

This, it develops, is a form of third-person narrative, in which, even though the narrative carries on largely in the third person, an element of the first-person is woven in. Without benefit of tags such as “he said” or “she thought,” the narrator articulates a character’s inward experience or thought.

Wikipedia, that repository of all knowledge human and otherwise, offers several examples that clarify nicely:

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.
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?

Here you can see two variants of indirect discourse: “reported indirect speech,” in which the narrator explicitly uses an attribution tag (“he asked himself”) to present the character’s thought’; and “free indirect speech,” which characteristically uses no attribution: “And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?”

There’s nothing new here, really, except for the “Theory” describing it. Chaucer apparently intended it in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Flaubert was a master of indirect discourse, Jane Austen and Goethe and Kafka used it, and it’s all over the place in current literature.

You probably use it yourself, without knowing you’re applying “Theory” to your golden words. A glance at my own draft brings an example right to hand, a brief passage in which a naughty thought about a young man’s mother enters a character’s mind:

What was going on there? Was something going on? This Chadzar was born on Varnis, yes? Was he…? Merren resisted putting that speculation in words, even in his own mind. Surely not: the emerald-green eyes hadn’t changed their startling hue to match the change of clothing — he was all Michaian, no question of that. But then…did that mean anything? A lot could happen between a man and a woman in eighteen or twenty years.

So if writers just do this kind of thing by virtue of being story-tellers, why clutter your mind with academic literary jargon? Good question, IMHO. Yet…it’s useful to be able to articulate styles and techniques — not just to know how to do them but what you’re doing, specifically. The insight builds your skill and enhances your control over your writing style.

Consider: if you were a carpenter, you’d know how to sand wood. But to know exactly what you’re doing, you would be much helped by knowing the difference between 100 grit and 500 grit sandpaper.

Comes under the heading of knowing your craft.

Images: DepositPhotos
Hands of a writer, © DmitryPoch
Hands of a craftsman, © stokkete