He Said What? Direct vs. Indirect Speech

I have a new crit partner who just happens to be a line editor and might be a reincarnation of my dreaded high school English teacher, Mrs. Howard, although I’ve never actually met him in person.

Gypsy with lurid clothes while begging on the streetMrs. Howard resembled a bag lady and according to urban legend she apparently wound up as one. A ragged brown cardigan hung from her shoulders each day, her mousy brown hair looked like she cut it herself. Her face wore the lines of an unhappy woman who had a difficult life. She had a dry wit, often not appreciated by a gaggle of fourteen-year-olds. The only time I ever saw her really smile was the day we were doing improv in drama class, our paths crossing once more when I was a senior. I had to present as an older woman trying to pick up a young guy at a party. I entered the stage, stopping in front of a pretend mirror and primped myself, hiking up my boobs so they didn’t look saggy. (Of course they were still perky in those days). I glanced to the back of the room and caught a smile, one that reached her eyes, which she quickly smothered with her hand.

I’d breezed through middle school (we called it Junior High School in the olden days) getting As in English class with little effort and even served as the grade-level spelling bee contestant several times. I always lost because I was too terrified to spell in front of an assembly of 800 classmates and faculty. Upon entering high school, my first few days in ninth grade English class found me confident and engaged and I submitted my first assignment and awaited Mrs. Howard’s praise. I got it back with a giant red C- circled on top, which was an F in my book. There were so many corrective comments I could barely make out my own writing. Needless to say, I was devastated, but quickly set to work to improve. This went on for months until I finally earned an A. I had to admit that Mrs. Howard improved my writing skills tenfold that year and I left her class feeling like I’d accomplished something. Punk Girl Fails Test

Fast forward to tenth grade. Who do I meet in English class that first day? Madam Howard. Now I felt cocky. I knew what she wanted. This would be easy-peasy. My fellow classmates were going to get massacred on that first paper. Not me. I knew how to get an A in her class. Sporting a smug grin, I accepted my graded theme as she handed it to me. A giant bloody C+ glared back at me. WHAT? I think I stopped breathing. But, once more, she took me to new levels of expertise in writing.

And so here I am again. I thought myself a reasonably accomplished writer until I met- we’ll call him- E.T. Of course you always make mistakes, even though you know better and can always polish your skills, but the first time we swapped pages I got back a chapter with so many edits that the side bar was completely filled with red boxes. My pulse accelerated into the freak-out zone. Thankfully, some were positive comments, many were just suggestions, but plenty were corrections. I had only been looking for story edits and hadn’t truly polished the novel to that level of editing, but… I was still mortified.

Turns out he’s been incredibly helpful and I’ve learned some new stuff. One being the use of indirect speech to change up or even eliminate dialogue. I’d never heard the term before, nor did I understand the subtle distinction between indirect speech and direct speech. They get the same information across, yet in a more interesting way. I mentioned it in my last blog and promised to shed some light on it this week.

The definition is simple enough.

Direct speech reports speech or thought in original form as phrased by the original speaker. It is usually enclosed in quotes and the cited speaker is either mentioned or implied.

Indirect speech converts direct discourse into a statement that reports what someone else said without using that person’s exact words. It’s also sometimes called reported speech or indirect discourse. It often doesn’t use quotation marks, but may and may include the word that.

             Direct:    “I’m going to the store,” he said.

             Indirect: “He said he was going to the store.” or “He said that he was going to the store.”

             Direct:    Michael said, “I don’t want to bother you.”

             Indirect: (Alice says) “Michael said that he didn’t want to bother you.”

             Direct:   “I like chocolate.”

             Indirect:  Josh said, “She says she likes chocolate.”

 Using an example from last time, instead of Mary saying “Sorry I’m late.” How about this?

        Mary hurried into her office hoping her boss wouldn’t notice. He stood at his door, his dark gaze focused her   way. “Steve said there was an accident on the 304,” he said. “I figured you’d be late. I need you in a meeting right now.” Mary sighed in relief.

So, you’ve established that Mary was late without her opening her mouth.

What this boils down to is letting other characters say what you’d expect someone else to say. It switches things up a bit, just for a change of pace. When reporting speech the tense changes. This is because when we use reported speech, we are usually talking about a time in the past (because obviously the person who spoke originally spoke in the past). The verbs therefore usually have to be in the past too.

At first I thought this to be the complete opposite of good writing, making me a delinquent at the School of Lean and Mean (where E.T. is the Principal) because it takes too long to say what needs to be said. I wouldn’t use it all the time, just occasionally, for something different. It works well in inner monologue and can sometime erase the need for a conversation entirely. Take one of your scenes and give it a try. Let me know what you think.

Up Next from Caryn:  On becoming a word gatherer.



Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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