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?

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