A few weeks ago we were discussing the use of free indirect discourse in class. I didn’t even know what it was, even though I had been using it throughout my writings for years.
Free indirect discourse is a way of representing a character’s speech or thoughts using a combination of direct discourse and narratorial commentary. The simplest example I can think of is instead of writing a whole conversation between two people where you write down every word uttered (followed by ‘he said’ or ‘she said’), you summarise the conversation with narrative (eg, ‘They had a conversation about X’).
It’s used in just about every novel out there, but it’s something I never really thought much about before until I started struggling with my own writing. Some conversations in my WIP novel(s) didn’t really work or dragged on too long, and probably could have been dispensed with a narrative summary instead of a word by word account. Conversely, other conversations which I summarised might have worked better if I strung it out more to give the characters more of a voice.
The problem extends beyond just speech for me. Looking through some of my older drafts, I tended to have a problem of not knowing how to create a scene. I might not know where to start or where to end a sequence or a series of actions, and it ends up being a long, drawn out, tedious scene where people just do things and talk and do things and talk for an extended period of time. The pace sags and even if a lot of things are happening it still feels slow and boring.
However, if I just summarise the scenes they end up losing life and take the reader out of the action.
So it’s a delicate balance. Knowing when to use free indirect discourse and when to summarise scenes and when to write them out in full is a true skill, and a difficult one to master.
The way I look at it now is that I’m a director of a film, and it’s up to me to decide which scenes I want to show, which scenes I want to omit, which parts I want to spell out for audiences and which parts I leave for them to fill in themselves. Is this scene worthy of being dramatised? Is the scene capable of creating drama or tension or helps develop a character or reveal something pertinent about the plot? Is there a point in the reader having to read the entire conversation or know every little thing that a person saw or did in that scene? Is there a purpose? If the answers to the questions are yes, then I go ahead and craft the scene in detail. If the answers are no, then I’ll have to think of an effective way to summarise it.
Either way, it’s not easy!