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How Do I Use Free Direct Speech in My Novel?

Free direct speech is a valuable device for fiction writers enabling them to add variety, pace and intensity to their prose.

Used correctly, free direct speech can:

  • provide variety by offering an alternative way of framing narrative viewpoint

  • speed up and declutter the narrative by removing the need for quotation marks, speech tags and italics

  • enable the writer to explore characters in greater depth by allowing access to their hopes, fears and motivations


As ever in fiction writing, variety is the spice of life. Free direct speech is a useful tool but it should be employed as part of a portfolio of literary styles. The important thing is to recognise the benefits it can bring – and the occasions on which it might be the appropriate choice.

To provide contrast, here is a passage written from third person limited viewpoint, as a quote and with free indirect speech:


Jim thought that the neighbourhood had gone downhill since he was a child. He could see broken windows, graffiti and litter everywhere he looked. Jim knew that it was the kids that did it – but he blamed the parents.


‘The neighbourhood’s gone downhill since I was a child,’ said Jim. ‘There’s broken windows, graffiti and litter everywhere you look. It’s the kids that do it – but I blame the parents.’


The neighbourhood had gone downhill since he was a child. Broken windows, graffiti, litter. Kids did it – but he blamed the parents.


The first thing to notice is how much shorter the free direct speech passage is – 22 words compared to 39 for the reported speech and 31 for the quote. All three passages relate the same information, but the third one does it most economically.

We can also see how free indirect speech brings the reader closer to the character. Both the first and second examples give us an insight into Jim’s feelings – but there’s the sense that they are being filtered through the narrator. The use of quotation marks and a dialogue tag in the second example also makes Jim and his thoughts seem more distant.

The third example provides a more vivid insight into Jim’s thoughts. The words come across as more unfiltered, almost as though they are being written as soon as he thinks of them. Objectively we know that his thoughts are still being filtered by the narrator but – on an emotional level – it seems as though we are eavesdropping on his private, unrefined thoughts.

Free direct speech should not be overused in fiction writing as this would quickly cause it to lose its impact. As authors we should be constantly striving to keep readers on their toes, trying to guess not just what story we are going to tell, but the way we are going to tell it.


Portraying stress in novels

Free direct speech can really come into its own when one of our characters is under stress. If there’s a major problem at work or they’re trying to escape from assailants, it’s likely that they’re in a frantic frame of mind and not necessarily expressing their thoughts and ideas in a measured and structured way.

Let’s take the case of Alistair, who works in asset management and is shocked to find himself summoned to a meeting with three very senior people:


Alistair looked at the three figures sitting across the desk – the heads of asset management, professional standards and human resources. He knew something major must have happened to get those three together in the same room. What concerned him was why he was there.

With a shrill of fear he remembered the favour he’d done the Cubans. He made an effort to calm down. That had been a one-off, five years ago and he’d covered his tracks perfectly, he reasoned. He was sure it couldn’t be that. But if it wasn’t, what was it?


This guides us calmly through Alistair’s thought process and reasoning as he prepares for the meeting with his bosses. The problem is that it’s a bit too calm. He’s been summoned at a moment’s notice to a meeting with three people and, by virtue of their jobs, suspects that he could be in big trouble.


What’s more he knows there’s something in his past that could explain the need for the meeting. He’s potentially facing the loss of his job, career and liberty.

In the light of all that it seems unlikely that he would be marshalling his thoughts in such a reasoned and logical manner as the text suggests. Let’s look at what happens if we use a direct quote:


‘The heads of asset management, compliance and human relations. What’s going on?’ wondered Alistair. ‘It has to be something big to get those three in the same room. But why am I here? There was that business with the Cubans. That was a one-off, though, five years ago. And I covered my tracks perfectly. It can’t be that. But what else could it be?’

This first-person quote gives us a deeper insight into Alistair’s thinking than the previous example. But again, it feels too structured and considered for someone who has just been thrown into an extremely stressful situation. Here’s how it might look using free direct speech.


Those three together? What had happened and why was he here? The Cubans? A one-off, five years ago. Covered his tracks perfectly. Couldn’t be that. But what?


As with the earlier scenario involving Jim, we can see how the free direct speech version is shorter. It takes us right inside Alistair’s head. This time, though, we don’t just know what he’s thinking but the way that he’s thinking it. His views aren’t expressed through well-structured sentences but through a rapid burst of ideas – the words seeming to appear on the paper just the way that they run through Alistair’s mind. Moreover, the absence of quotation marks and dialogue tags remove another barrier between the character and the reader. We know we are hearing the words via a narrator (the pronoun used is ‘he’ rather than ‘I’) but they have become almost invisible, leaving us with a deep insight into Alistair’s character.

For a further look at the different approaches available, let’s suppose that Alistair later finds himself kidnapped and interrogated by his former criminal associates. Time is running out and he knows that he has to act now if he is to escape.

The first two examples below are fine from a grammatical point of view and get across the required information, but again it does not seem credible that Alistair would be able to express his thoughts so articulately in the circumstances.

The use of free direct speech in the final example again feels more authentic, while its short and pacey structure builds up the tension as Alistair prepares to fight for his life:


Alistair knew it had to be now, before the others got back. If he could overpower the two remaining guards and get to the window, he was confident he’d be able to survive the jump from the first floor onto the soft flower beds.


‘It’s got to be now,’ Alistair thought to himself. ‘Before the others get back. If I can clobber those two, I can get to the window. We’re on the first floor but those plants will soften my landing.’


It had to be now … before the others got back. He could clobber those two and get to the window. First floor but lots of plants for a soft landing.


Free direct speech in novels: Conclusion

Free direct speech is a highly effective way of taking the reader inside a character’s mind – and doing so in a fast, tense and deep way. It can be especially useful in situations where it would be unrealistic for a character to calmly express themselves through dialogue or thoughts (there will also be occasions where a character has no one to converse with and is not the sort of person who could plausibly be shown talking to themselves).

Free direct speech shouldn’t be overused in novels but employed selectively at appropriate points of the prose to add variety and depth, and keep the reader guessing where you are going to take them next.

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