Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Indirect vs. Direct Speech and Thoughts

Recently, I found comments from folks regarding the use of italics when writing thoughts. I was surprised to find that some people don’t think these are necessary. Well, I suppose they’re not, really… but then, neither are quotation marks. However, both are used for similar purposes.

Similar purposes? you ask. Why, yes. Because italics are the quotation marks of thoughts.

Most people understand direct and indirect speech. Did you know that there are direct and indirect character thoughts? Understanding the similarities will help you understand when to use italics and when not to.


Indirect speech: He said he didn’t know. (in first person: I said I didn’t know.)
Direct speech: He said, “I don’t know.” (1st person: I said, “I don’t know.”)

The difference is that indirect speech isn’t the speech itself. It is the narrator narrating or reporting the speech. It doesn’t need to be the exact thing the character would say:

Indirect: He said, in his own way, that Charlie had stolen the horse and escaped.
Direct: “Charlie, that boy,” he said. “He jump the fence. Pony just standin’ there, eatin’ dinner. Along come Charlie – jump on his back! Then jump that fence! Just like that! And whoosh – he gone!”

Indirect: He said he was going to the store to buy breakfast.
Direct: He said, “I’m going down to Loblaws to get some Poptarts.”

Notice the biggest differences between the two – easier seen in the second example:

Verb tense

Because indirect speech is part of the narrative, it’s in the same tense as the narrative. Since most narrative writing is in past tense, most indirect speech wil be past tense. [note: do not attempt to write any narrative in present or future tense unless you understand verb tenses really well. And even then your readers may revolt.]

Direct speech, however, takes place in the character’s tense. Even though we write the past tense, the characters live in their own present, and so they speak from the present tense.


If the narrator is speaking in third person, the indirect speech will also be in third person:

He refused to go.

In direct speech, the speech is coming from the character, not the narrator, so the character uses first person:

“I’m not going!”

If the novel is written from the first person throughout, only the verb tense shows indirect vs direct speech:

Indirect: I explained I wasn’t going because the band wasn’t very good.
Direct: “The band sucks, so I’m not going.”


Now, how does all this translate to thoughts?

Thoughts are a character’s speech to themselves. The only difference is, you use italics instead of quotation marks.

Indirect: He thought he wasn’t going to make it.
Direct: He thought, I’m not going to make it

Of course, as with dialogue tags in speech, if you use ‘he thought’ too many times, it drags. You don’t need the tags:

Indirect: He couldn’t believe she said that.
Direct: I can’t believe she said that.

So how do you tell direct from indirect thoughts? Verb tense and person. If the thoughts are third person past tense, it’s narrative. If they’re first person present tense, they’re direct thoughts and, therefore, need to be italicized.

The best thing about this is you can usually write the indirect thoughts, then use the direct, italicized thoughts only for emphasis:

The building was dark, but he found the safe in the basement. He carefully keyed in the code he’d memorized. Or thought he’d memorized. He tried again. Come on, baby! The door opened smoothly.

Sometimes, yes, deciding if thoughts are direct or indirect can be picky, especially in sentence fragments without verbs. In cases like this, it’s often up to the author’s preference.


He turned at a sound. Dang. Where had that come from?
Dang! He had to get out of there -- fast.

Two questions you can ask when trying to make this decision:

Does it feel like the character is saying this?
Does it feel like it’s in third or first person?

So, a quick overview:

Direct speech: “I have to get out of here.” (present tense, first person)

Indirect speech: He said he had to go. (past tense, third person)

Direct thought: This place sucks. (present tense, first person)

Indirect thought: He needed to go somewhere else – fast. (past tense, third person)

Hope people find this useful!

Example using question marks:

Well, I don't think that question marks would be any different than periods, really. When the question mark is part of the thought, it will be italicized like the rest of the thoughts.

Indirect: She wondered who he was.
Direct speech: "Who is he?" she asked.
Direct thought: Who is he?

Is this what you were looking for?

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Abbeville Manual of Style

Style guides have their good points and not so good points. On the good side, they help a writer or group of writers maintain consistency in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. On the other side, not everyone agrees with everything every style guide says - and many guides contradict each other.

Abbeville Press, an independent art book publisher, has created their own style guide in response to inconsistencies found in "that big orange style Goliath", The Chicago Manual of Style. Their blog, The Abbeville Manual of Style, often matches wits with this, their "formidably orange opponent". I think anyone who has an interest in style in the English language will find these jousts informative and even entertaining.

Janet Reid
, who also follows Abbeville's ongoing war, once suggested a T-shirt be made to memorialize this most historic battle. I think that is a great idea, and I would definitely buy such a shirt. I've suggested it a few times to @Abbeville on Twitter, and recently received a message from Abbeville Press:

"@BJMuntain To produce T-shirts we'd need some kind of assurance of a larger market for them...can you round up an online movement? :)"

Well, folks, that's what I'm trying to do here. I recommend everyone check out this informative and art-filled blog, especially the Duel of Style. Then, if you feel that a T-shirt commemorating their stylish disputes with Chicago is of interest to you, let them know. You can comment here, or reply to @Abbeville on Twitter, or e-mail them at the e-mail address given on their contact page.

Together, we can help this independent press bring their battle to the public eye and spread style throughout the world!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Simple Will for Writers

I was on Neil Gaiman's blog today, reading about the death of his father, when a link caught my eye. It said:

My current crusade is to make sure creative people have wills. Read the blog post about it, and see a sample will.

Well, since my parents have been bugging me about making out a will (since they'd have to deal with all the crap anyway), I checked it out.

There's some very good advice there, and a lawyer-drawn sample will. Very useful. I thought I should share.

Thanks, Neil, for this great resource. I'm sorry about your father. He must have been a wise man to have raised such a wise son.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

It's National Grammar Day!

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar has had today - March 4th (march forth!) - declared National Grammar Day in the United States. SPOGG, as they are affectionately and more briefly called, looks at promoting good grammar and preventing bad grammar in a cheerful and humorous way. I encourage everyone to visit their site. You can buy cool T-shirts and mugs there. Oh, and membership in SPOGG is free.

In honour of National Grammar Day, I want to mention a few grammar peeves of mine. I won't make it a 'Top Anything' list or even a list of 'my worst nightmares', because I know that, as soon as I do, I'll think of something worse.

So, here goes:

1. Then/than

Then is related to time:
  • Then he went to the store.
  • That was then, this is now.

Than is comparative:

  • This house is better than that one.
  • I'd rather go home than sit in a meeting.

2. Inappropriate apostrophes

Apostrophes denote ownership. If the word doesn't own something, then don't use an apostrophe:

  • McNally's Bar
  • Kristen's house
  • Houses for sale

Apostrophes are also used to replace letters in contractions:

  • That's hot. (means That is hot.)
  • Let's go. (means Let us go.)
  • Don't use bad grammar. (means Do not use bad grammar.)

Just as bad as putting apostrophes where they don't belong is NOT using them where they do belong. Birmingham, England, has generated great scorn with their view that 'apostrophes are too difficult to understand, so we'll just do away with them'.

3. Bad grammar from people who should know better or who should employ proofreaders who know better (public relations folks, communications professionals, newspaper writers - heck, writers of any sort.) But that's a rant for another day.

4. People who use words they don't understand in ways they are not meant to be used. If you look up a synonym in a thesaurus, use a dictionary to make sure your usage is correct.

5. The flashlight SHONE, not SHINED!

These are past tense forms of two different words that are homonyms:

To shine: to bring light

  • The sun shines.
  • She shines a flashlight on something.
  • Past tense: The sun shone. She shone a flashlight on something.

To shine: to brighten, to clean something

  • He shines his shoes.
  • Past tense: He shined his shoes.

I may even add to this list or add links to examples or explanations.

And, here are a couple links to some great grammar-related sites:

I'm open to other sites to include today, but I probably won't be updating this page after the close of National Grammar Day.