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Free indirect discourse is a writing technique that makes the writing display the character's thoughts whilst still remaining in third-person narrative, with 'he' or 'she' as pronouns. As an example, Jane Austen used it in Northanger Abbey:

The manuscript so wonderfully found, so wonderfully accomplishing the morning's prediction, how was it to be accounted for?--What could it contain? . . . and how singularly strange that it should fall to her lot to discover it! Till she had made herself mistress of its contents, however, she could have neither repose nor comfort; and with the sun’s first rays she was determined to peruse it.

Limited third-person narrative describes the viewpoint of usually exclusively one character in a narrative as oppose to omniscient third-person, which has access to all the characters' viewpoints. An example of this would be from Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World:

As Rand watched his side of the road, the feeling grew in him that he was being watched. For a while he tried to shrug it off. Nothing moved or made a sound among the trees, except the wind. But the feeling not only persisted, it grew stronger.

Both keep the 'he' and 'she' pronouns characteristic of third-person narrative, but act like first-person by displaying the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist, so is there any difference between how free indirect discourse and third-person limited narrative appear on the page?

  • The second uses 'he.' The use of 'her' in the first is as an adjective, not object. I find this link helpful because it explains in depth and the logic of the writing. I assume it is correct: emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2013/09/… – DPT Feb 13 '18 at 16:56
  • And now I wonder if it is OK to slip between the two styles. Example, is it OK to have free thought I can't stand this and third person narrated thought 'he thought how little more he could stand.' within the same piece of work. – DPT Feb 13 '18 at 16:57
  • @DPT Lengthened the first quote to include 'she'. Thanks for pointing that out :) – Fabjaja Feb 13 '18 at 17:04
  • In that case perhaps it is the presence of her thought in her voice '-What could it contain?' instead of 'she wondered what it would contain' If a thought 'what is out there?' was added to the second, it would be free-er discourse, I believe, but do not know for certain. – DPT Feb 13 '18 at 17:31
  • @DPT Maybe, but I think question style thoughts do appear in limited TPN too. – Fabjaja Feb 13 '18 at 17:51
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In reaction to the clarifications in the comments, I've greatly edited my question and tightened it a bit, including a fourth way of presenting dialogue and excluding references to the Portuguese 19th century novelist Eça de Queirós, with whose works the Free Indirect Speech is taught at High school.


I believe that you may be mixing narration and discourse techniques. I know Wikipedia states that "Free indirect speech is a style of third-person narration" in the opening sentence, but there are no sources for that statement and I'll try to explain why I believe it's false.

The way I see it, the narrator is an element of narrative while the dialogue (and all the ways of presenting it) is a mode of presenting text (I'm sorry, this is a very poor translation of the term I usually use in Portuguese). Therefore, they're two completely different things. That means they cannot be compared as 'peers'. One should first look at them separately and secondly see how they can work together.


First of all, there are four main ways of presenting dialogue in a novel:

  • direct speech

  • indirect speech

  • free direct speech

  • free indirect speech

- direct speech

"Hello," Charlie beamed as he joined the group. "I've aced the exam. The easiest thing in the world! I went in, spent two pens on miles long answers, and finished before everyone because every little detail was on the tip of the tongue. That is what proper studying does for you, guys!"

John rolled his eyes and sneered.

"You should wait for the results before gloating, Charlie."

The traditional approach. Gives rhythm and vitality, but can become boring when the dialogues become longer.

- indirect speech

Charlie joined the group with a boisterous hello, saying that he had aced the exam. He went on that it had been the easiest thing in the world! He had gone in, spent two pens on miles long answers, and finished before everyone because every little detail was on the tip of the tongue. But when he smuggly added that that was what proper studying did for folks, John rolled his eyes and sneered that he should wait for the results before gloating.

Avoids long dialogues but gives a sense of 'telling' rather than 'showing' when used too often.

- free indirect speech

Charlie joined the group with a boisterous hello, he'd aced the exam. The easiest thing in the world! He'd gone in, spent two pens on miles long answers, and finished before everyone because every little detail was on the tip of the tongue. That is what proper studying does for you, guys! John rolled his eyes with a sneer. He should wait for the results before gloating.

Again, it avoids long dialogues but it also diminishes the sense of 'telling' of the indirect speech since it feels a bit as if the reader is 'listening' to the actual speech.

- free direct speech

Charlie joined the group with a boisterous hello, the exam's been aced. The easiest thing in the world! Went in, spent two pens on miles long answers, and finished before everyone because every little detail was on tip of the tongue. That is what proper studying does for you, guys! John rolled his eyes with a sneer. Wait for the results before gloating, Charlie.

Note that free direct speech must be very close to the actual character's speech, without 'he' replacing 'I'. This makes the technique tricky in languages which require the subject to be always present, like English.

In Portuguese, on the other hand, the subject is not always necessary and, in a couple of verb tenses, the verb form for the first and third person singular is the same so this technique works like a charm, giving a lot of vitality and rhythm to the scene.

However, as the example shows, using free direct speech for long stretches can become awkward (in any language, though some are more tolerant). It's best to mix it with other techniques.

- direct speech + indirect speech + free direct speech + free indirect speech

Charlie joined the group with a boisterous hello, saying that he had aced the exam. The easiest thing in the world! He had gone in, spent two pens on miles long answers, and finished before everyone because every little detail was on the tip of the tongue. That is what proper studying does for you, guys! John rolled his eyes and sneered.

"Wait for the results before gloating, Charlie."

In the narration paragraph, mix indirect, free indirect and free direct speech (though you don't need the three at the same time). The vitality of the free speech will spice the basic indirect, but it won't become artificial. In English, it's best to use free direct only with exclamations and sentences which do not require personal pronouns when writing with a third-person narrator.


Since the question focuses on free indirect speech, I will now continue only with that technique for presenting dialogue and show how it can be used with all types of narrators (I'll go from the most to the least common).

third-person narrator

Sophie sneaked into the living room when Jack had his back to the door. Thankfully, she had no way of knowing he was talking to her brother. She sat behind the sofa, heart racing, as Jack said he'd had no way out. Julie knew everything, man! Should he have gone to prison because of her? Hell, no! And he'd do it again, damnit!

first-person narrator

I sneaked into the living room when Jack had his back to the door. Unfortunately, I hadn't heard the beginning of the conversation so I had no idea who he was talking to... perhaps he might still say their name. I sat behind the sofa, heart racing, as Jack said he'd had no way out. Julie knew everything, man! Should he have gone to prison because of her? Hell, no! And he'd do it again, damnit! How could I have loved that cold hearted man?

second-person narrator

You sneak into the living room when Jack has his back to the door. Unfortunately, you haven't heard the beginning of the conversation so you have no idea who he's talking to... perhaps he might still say their name. You sit behind the sofa, heart racing, as Jack says he'd had no way out. Julie knew everything, man! Should he have gone to prison because of her? Hell, no! And he'd do it again, damnit! How could you have loved that cold hearted man?


In conclusion, free indirect speech is used to present the voices of the characters. If that voice is spoken (actual spoken dialogue or monologue), it makes no difference who the narrator is because FIS can be used. However, FIS cannot be used to convey the thoughts of a first-person narrator (or a second-person narrator), but that is a limitation of the technique.

  • Thanks for editing and answering, you have provided a very good and very helpful explanation on what the terms are and how they are used and have clarified that mixing discourse and narrative techniques is wrong, and I do agree; but I'm not asking about what FID and limited TPN is and how they are used and how they are different categorically, I was asking the difference in the actual 'physical' appearance of FID and limited TPN when on the page. Really sorry if my question was unclear. – Fabjaja Feb 19 '18 at 20:55
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EDIT: I redid the whole answer, because I misunderstood the question.

After some research, I can report that the short answer is that free indirect discourse is a subset of third-person limited.

In direct discourse, traditional third-person limited, thoughts from character are more obviously thoughts from the character. Example:

Tim ran into the woods as the wolf chased him. Will I survive?, he thought.

In free indirect discourse, thoughts are intermingled with narrative. Example:

Tim ran into the woods as the wolf chased him. He feared for his life as the wolf came in closer.

While those two examples aren't literary masterpieces, I hope they make the point. For a more thorough explanation check out this article.

  • @Fabjaja, I redid the answer to meet your clarification. Sorry for the misunderstanding. – White Eagle Feb 15 '18 at 18:06
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Limited third-person narrative and free indirect discourse are analytical categories invented by academics to classify the techniques of writers because classification is what academics do (regardless of whether such classification produces anything useful).

Academics are often bitter rivals so it is not a good idea to assume that any two analytical categories you find lying around are part of the same analytical system. They may well be rival ways of classifying the world, in which case the question of how they are different has to be answered very differently.They are different because the belong to two different analytical systems.

Classification systems for complex things like prose are often incomplete and inconsistent within themselves. Don't ever suppose that just because one academic proposes an analytical system that every artefact in the real world will fit neatly, obviously, and unambiguously into one category. Categorization schemes, like battle plans, seldom survive first contact with reality.

Contrary to superstition, writers don't always stay in the same narrative mode (by any definition of narrative mode you come up with). Like composers changing key, writers may change their narrative technique, sometimes for large sections, and sometimes only for a sentence or a phrase. Trying to put a whole work into one category, even accepting that the definition of the category is sound, is a category mistake.

Teaching writing is hard, so writing teachers often turn to the works of academics for some (supposedly) hard knowledge to impart to their students so that the students feel like they have got their money's worth. In the process they often misunderstand or corrupt the work the academics did, or use it for purposes for which it was not intended. It is teachers of this ilk that turn uncertain analytical categories into hard rules for fiction writing, regardless of the fact that anyone who has done any actual reading can demonstrate the falsity of these rules with countless examples from literature ancient and modern.

Yes, this is one of those annoying challenge-the-premise-of-the-question answers. But if the question is founded on a false premise, that is the only answer you can give.

If you are a student of literature, recognize that assigning analytical categories to literature is an uncertain business and that there are rival systems of categorization. You would be better served by first identifying the school to which the categories you are interested in belong and then asking in a forum dedicated to that school.

If you are an aspiring writer, however, you should recognize that these analytic categories will do absolutely nothing to help you become a better writer. In fact, they will almost certainly make you a worse and more stilted writer. Write naturally from the narrative viewpoint that makes sense for your story and for the particular moment of your story. If the choices you make present a categorization problem for later scholars, that is their problem, not yours.

  • Thanks for this answer. You have explained that categorisation is not always helpful to a writer and I do agree; but for my purposes I am actually studying the categorisations themselves (not in a literature context) so I am asking what the fundamental difference in characteristics there is between the two techniques, not what they are or how helpful they are in writing. – Fabjaja Feb 16 '18 at 15:48
  • @Fabjaja Then this might not be the best place to ask your question. What context exactly are you asking in, if not literature and not writing? And are you sure you are comparing terms from the same analytical system? Have you traced the terms back through the literature? – Mark Baker Feb 16 '18 at 16:01
  • I'm asking in the context of studying them as writing techniques. Free indirect discourse is a substyle of third-person narration so I think they are in the same system. – Fabjaja Feb 16 '18 at 16:11
  • @Fabjaja But that is my point. They are not writing techniques -- that is, not techniques for doing writing. They are analytical categories for studying what has been written. – Mark Baker Feb 16 '18 at 16:37
  • Thank you MB your answer addresses the Q in my comment at top. Much appreciated. – DPT Feb 16 '18 at 18:36

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