I’ve been speaking lately about how our unique styles as authors and our approaches to creative writing often boil down to where we lie upon a spectrum between two extremes, rather than simply adopting one extreme over another.
First of all, I think every writer early on discovers that they have a preference for, or are better are writing, pieces of dialogue or narrative passages. I’m sure there are exceptions to this and authors who haven’t given the matter much thought. But personally, I prefer writing dialogue.
I feel I am better at dialogue in some respects. Dialogue can be tricky, of course: especially because it has to sound natural, which means that not ONLY should the way a character says something make sense, but the simple fact that the character is speaking such and such information, at such and such a time, should make sense too.
Of course, an obvious spectrum exists between narration and dialogue if we consider what percentage of our word count consists of the former versus the latter. That breakdown could be 80/20. 60/40. 55/35. 10/90. We could place any novel on a chart and compare its makeup with other books that way.
Even that kind of spectrum, though, highlights that we often make a clear-cut distinction between narration and dialogue. We feel forced to choose between the two. Really, the two are friends, not enemies, and we should concentrate more on how to make them work together, to strengthen each other.
First of all, first person narration is very much a unique blend of dialogue and narration, seeing as every narrative paragraph written in first person is supposedly written by a character and is presented in a character’s voice.
But beyond that, there IS a fun way to combine narration with dialogue that we don’t often discuss. I only learned about this, or had my attention drawn to it, by studying Spanish grammar.
It is called “indirect discourse.”
We all know what dialogue is. And we all know what narration is. To put it simply, indirect discourse is when an author writes or presents dialogue as narration.
Confused? Don’t worry; it will all make sense in a second. You have definitely seen, and almost certainly written, indirect discourse before, even if you never have read that terminology.
Dictionary.com defines indirect discourse as “discourse consisting not of an exact quotation of a speaker’s words but of a version transformed from them for grammatical inclusion in a larger sentence.”
The best way to clarify that definition is through example. Here is a piece of dialogue that I’ll rewrite as indirect discourse:
“I’ll pick up the groceries after work. Just make sure to remind me. I might forget otherwise.”
Joe said he would pick up the groceries after work; just make sure to remind him, because he might forget otherwise.
That paragraph just above is written as indirect discourse: you are told what Joe said in such a way that you could even recreate the dialogue piece by piece if you needed or wanted to. It comes in Joe’s voice but it isn’t written as dialogue. It’s included as part of a larger narrative segment, and as such, verb tenses have to change to reflect this style of presentation.
Joe might say, “I’ll pick up the groceries.” But you wouldn’t write, “Joe said he’ll pick up the groceries.” You would write “Joe said he would pick up the groceries.”
I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of tense choice here and how to use verb tense properly when writing about the past, and especially when writing about two different moments in the past, one of which represents the future of the other. This is something that (luckily) we generally understand naturally in regard to our native language, and if you have doubts or it gives you trouble, don’t worry: this is precisely why proofreaders exist.
My point her is that we get very, very used to thinking of “pure narration” and “pure dialogue” as two options. And while indirect discourse is certainly one kind of narration, it’s narration that does represent or lie closer to dialogue than most other forms.
It is an option of representing what a character has said that I, at least, often overlook. We don’t have to write a character’s words as dialogue. Nor do we HAVE to summarize what a character said in a narrator’s voice, though we could do that. We can also use indirect discourse.
What makes indirect discourse so useful is that it maintains a character’s voice in presenting what he’s said, but without forcing the breaks that dialogue naturally imposes. It keeps pace steady and it can take emphasis away from something that’s not important enough to relate in full dialogue mode.
So, what do you think of all this? Do you use a lot of indirect discourse? Do you feel it is useful in any particular kind of situation? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”