Smoothing the Way

Smoothing the Way

Modulating Between Direct and Indirect Discourse

By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes

In the previous craft note, “Writing Dialogue: The Hidden Art in Plain View,” we explored the tonal qualities separating direct from indirect discourse, and as a further refinement, we saw how synoptic indirect could work with detailed indirect to enhance dialogue. We now extend those explorations.


Moving dialogue along: the art of modulation. Skillfully blending direct and indirect discourse will enable the writer to achieve useful goals: it can facilitate fluency in moving an interaction forward, allowing the writer to pull certain quick moves that the reader won’t notice and imbedding in a passage hints and insinuations that the reader isn’t likely to pick up on first reading.

Here I offer a passage that will give you a chance to practice at several things: (a) discerning how direct and indirect can be blended; (b) seeing how synoptic and detailed indirect can be made to work together; (c) noting how subtle innuendo might be achieved; and (d) seeing how transitions can be smoothly effected:

The Salesman and the Client

The salesman said they ought to review the car’s special features, the easiest first. He invited Mrs. Wilkins to slide in on the passenger side, and began explaining to her how the cruise-control worked.

She said she didn’t get it. “—But if I’m going sixty, say, and suddenly want not to…” She was totally confused.

But it was simple, the salesman said. “Look!” He explained it to her again.

Mrs. Wilkins wagged her head.

He suggested they change places—that she get behind the wheel. “Okay!” he said. “Now. First.” He went through it again. “… Then you push here. Just once. Done! Does that help?”

“Ah-h!” She went over it. “So. Just touch this—and the cruise-control releases.”

“Right.” He congratulated her. Now, about the GPS and the new electronic functions. “Do you want go over them?”

She smiled. “Sure! I’m game.”

These, he said, weren’t too hard.

Note how the salesman’s mere suggestion that they switch places in the front seat causes it to have happened—a trick of “elision” that writers should always be aware of! … And might we ask (if only ask) if any undercurrents exist in this innocuous interaction between client and salesman? What kinds of subtle overtones could we discern here?

You needn’t explain—the reader doesn’t care! The function of suggestion and the virtues of compression:

A number of implications might be deduced from this interaction and the compact, lively “dance” that occurs along the way among the elements we’ve discussed—“live” direct discourse; synoptic indirect; and detailed indirect. All three are at play here, intermingling freely. You might note as well that the whole of the passage is nearly pure speech-act! Even Mrs. Wilkins’ wagging her head (technically, it’s narrative) constitutes non-verbal, “gestural” speech, her way of saying “No.”

The implications are several, the first being this: by using so efficiently synoptic indirect  (e.g., “He explained it to her again,” “She went over it”), the writer can omit the expenditure of words that would have been required to fill in the information, the technical details, that the client and salesman are engaged in reviewing. Given the reader’s indifference to those technical details—they have no bearing on the human interaction, the focus of the passage—they may simply be left to the reader’s imagination, though, in truth, few readers will be competent to imagine them!

By strategically omitting all detailed explanations and employing synoptic indirect in such a way, the author compresses the action of the passage, and thereby endows it with a key form of economy. And this act of compression (which also helps to give the passage narrative glide) enables us to articulate a fundamental rule, one that reaches well beyond the art of writing dialogue:

Fiction as an art-form appears to give “fullness of information” to the reader without ever providing such “fullness of information.”

It’s remarkable (I’m hardly the first to notice this) how extensively fiction invites us to “token in” details not provided, supplying from our minds the plenitude of information we fancy we’re being given—a key element, again, of that reader’s share we’ve discussed here before.

There are two other implications we’ll consider for the moment: they pertain to tonal balance and the management of structure. In the previous craft note, I’d observed how skillful writers will “infect” long stretches of indirect discourse with a feeling of proximity and hands-on immediacy by adding just a tincture of “live” dialogue to what might otherwise seem like a long-enduring absence from the sound of a human voice. And I’d cited “Shiloh,” Bobbie Ann Mason’s masterful story, as exemplifying such strategic “infection.”

So: I invite you to perform a brief thought-experiment on “The Salesman and the Client”! “Translate” mentally all of the live exchanges, all the spoken statements framed in quotation marks, into indirect discourse, and note how immediately the whole scene “floats away” from you—recedes into the distance, becomes more remote, less audible to your ear. It instantly forfeits any here-and-now immediacy, the dramatic intensity, together with the tone that we associate with it. Inversely, mentally translate (you’ll scarcely be able to, given your lack of technical knowledge) all of the exchanges into direct discourse—into “live” dialogue—and see how impossibly unwieldy it becomes… and tedious as well! You needn’t explain—the reader doesn’t care! The reader wants from you only pertinent information. 

Finally, concerning structure: since indirect discourse (detailed or synoptic) has the features I’ve enumerated in our previous craft note [see charts], it gives the writer an effective means of moving expeditiously—cursorily and swiftly—over a long narrative stretch that serves as “precursor” to a more important moment in the drama of a story, the moment where the action then “slows down,” becomes more detailed, more textured, more rendered—and allows direct discourse to come to the fore. I know of no better instance than Updike’s early story, “A Trillion Feet of Gas,” which moves us briskly through a cocktail-party scene via indirect discourse, tinctured with just enough verbatim speech to keep the feeling of the “here-and-now” alive . . . and then issues out into the “big” scene at the end, where the pace of the action slows, the camera moves in close, and we get the full drama of the story’s major scene, played out in… dialogue!


A subsequent craft note will consider how readers play “catch-up” in reading dialogue—are invited to infer both context and backstory from what the characters are saying while “listening in.” A caution, too, will be offered about dialogue-writing habits that might best be avoided! And in the next note or another, we’ll begin to examine the remarkable versatility of the “attributions”—the “He said’s” and “She said’s”—that constitute a staple in writing dialogue.

Read Richard Wertime’s short fiction, “Soccer,” in WTP, and find his other reflections on craft here

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