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What Is Direct Discourse?

By Ken Black
Updated May 23, 2024
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Direct discourse is the practice of relaying what a speaker has said word for word. It is in contrast to indirect discourse, in which the author uses paraphrasing to get across the meaning of a speaker. The purpose of a direct method of discourse is to relay something exactly as it was being said, and provides the reader with an assurance that the words were the exact words used by the speaker in the conversation. The method has some advantages in writing, but also some disadvantages.

The easiest way to determine direct discourse from indirect discourse is simply to look at the punctuation used. Quotation marks are a good sign that an author is using the direct discourse method in a text. Generally, in written communication, quotation marks should be used whenever portraying an exact word-for-word rendering of a speaker. While it may be possible for quotation marks to be used in other situations, the use of other words, such as he said or she said, can also provide clues along with the punctuation.

Typically, direct discourse is used in prose, rather than rhythmic writing, such as poetry and song. This is simply because of the difficulty in making ordinary speech constrain to the limitations that other forms of writing may put on it. While it is not impossible, and it has been done successfully by some writers, most tend to use indirect discourse in prosaic text.

Many advantages exist in using direct discourse in writing, both in fiction and non-fiction. In fiction, the method can help break up the monotony of the text and provide a reader with clues as to the education level, and personality of individual characters. In non-fiction, it can be used so that the reader does not have to worry that an author is misinterpreting the words of another party.

In non-fiction writing, there could also be a number of disadvantages in using a direct method of discourse. In some cases, selectively quoting a speaker could still be open to interpretation, especially if the author uses a quotation inappropriately, such as taking it out of its original context. Also, the author must make sure the speaker used those exact words appearing inside the quotation marks, which could mean taking detailed notes or using a recording device of some sort. Authors should be especially careful if they were receiving information on what a speaker said second hand. If that is the case, indirect discourse would be the safest option.

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Discussion Comments
By ddljohn — On Mar 26, 2014

@fBoyle-- An example of direct discourse is: Sarah said "I don't want to speak to my dad again." If the same was said in indirect discourse, it would be: Sarah said that she doesn't want to speak to her dad again.

So in direct discourse, we know what Sarah said word for word. But in indirect discourse, the writer is paraphrasing or explaining what Sarah said. Direct discourse has quotations, indirect discourse doesn't.

By fBoyle — On Mar 25, 2014

Can anyone give me examples of direct discourse versus indirect discourse?

By ysmina — On Mar 25, 2014

Direct discourse is also frequently used in script-writing for theater or cinema. There are different ways to write a script and every writer's style is a bit different.

Some writers write the script as a story with the dialogues in direct discourse in between the story. I like this type of writing, it's very fluid and easy to read. At the same time, there is no confusion about who is saying what.

Scripts may also use direct discourse and indirect discourse together. Especially unspoken indirect discourse is common when the writer wants to explain what a character is thinking from the writer's point of view.

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