Reported speech is a way of writing dialogue to maintain the brevity and focus of a scene.
New writers sometimes get confused by the phrase “show don’t tell”. They write dialogue that is a laundry list of the day’s events.
While it is true you should show and not tell, showing everything causes the story to lose focus.
You must show the reader that the character is sad, or angry or happy and not just tell him.
But there comes a point when showing every detail of a character’s existence will increase the story needlessly.
Hang On. Let Me Show You Rather Than Tell You.
The following portrays the speech of a Hungarian immigrant from The Vagabond King. It contains both direct and reported speech. Let’s take it apart and see what is going on.
He yelled and swore at me in both English and Hungarian as spit flew from his tongue and lips.
This is reported speech. It works better than direct speech because it is not really important what he said but the way he said it.
“You think this place is some kind of burdinghaz?”
This is direct speech. Because it shows the man’s accent it allows the reader to get a real feel for the conversation.
He raised his open hand toward my face and I closed my eyes and tried to shrink from his grip but he clenched his fist so hard his arm shook.
(Dialogue should always be interspersed with description to create suspense and believability.)
“You don’t pay no bills, you don’t got no worries.”
This is direct speech. It is necessary at this point to portray a specific issue that the conversation needs to address for the plot to continue.
“Pofa be!” He said each time I tried to explain. “Shut up!”
Again, this is direct speech. We see him using his native language and then translating it into English. This is much more convincing than just telling us he spoke broken English.
He conjured up devils and demons as he cursed me out and invoked the blackest dogs of Hell to come take me to their master, but not before I was struck down by lightning bolts and the cock of God Almighty himself.
This is pure reported speech. Again, it is not the specifics of what he is saying but the emotion of what he is saying. We also get a sense of the crudeness of his language.
It could have been portrayed through direct speech but it might have taken two or three paragraphs. It would have continued longer than it needed to. The scene would have lost focus.
“You aren’t worth a piece of shit in a pig pen. Fasz kivan! I’ll send you away like I throw the cat out to have a shit!”
Fictional Dialogue Is Not Realistic, It Can’t Be.
Record a conversation between two people.
It has long pauses, switches back and forth between different topics and trails off into nothingness.
If you were to portray this realistically no one would read it. Fictional dialogue is artistic. You must delete and generalize when necessary.