Complex sentences

Unique meanings

Describing the world indirectly—thinking, feeling, perceiving

When we report speech, we describe what one character says to another character.

When we report thought, we’re essentially describing what one character says to themselves.

Can you see both reported speech and thought in this snippet?

Some people say I will never return home but I believe firmly in my heart that I will.

I Am MalalaMalala YousafzaiSource

Some people say I will never return home but I believe firmly in my heart that I will.

I Am MalalaMalala YousafzaiSource

Some people say I will never return home but I believe firmly in my heart that I will.

I Am MalalaMalala YousafzaiSource
Your turn

Do you notice how both the reported speech and reported thought segments of that snippet follow the same reporter-delivery-message structure?

Here’s another example:

He thought it was suspicious that so many of the haunted places were inns that needed some publicity and restaurants where the rugs smelled weird.

The Old, Dead NuisanceM.T. AndersonSource
Your turn

We can take the idea of reported speech a step further into describing the world through a character’s senses.

We only need to extend our definitions of ‘reporter’, ‘delivery’, and ‘message’ a little:

  • The ‘reporter’ is who is saying, thinking, feeling, or perceiving something.
  • The ‘delivery’ is how they are saying, thinking, feeling, or perceiving it.
  • The ‘message’ is what they are saying, thinking, feeling, or perceiving.
What is 'reporter-delivery-message' in grammatical terms?

Can you find the reporter-delivery-message structure in these snippets?

Bod heard Scarlett choking back a scream.

The Graveyard BookNeil GaimanSource

Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger's ears were shining with a faint silver light.

Watership DownRichard AdamsSource

Indirect description is useful for a couple of different effects.

It gives us access to a character’s internal world

In particular, how they perceive and interpret people and events.

This information is important to how we understand cause and effect in stories—in particular why characters do the things they do—and we have whole lessons just on this topic, like this one about goals and motivations.

It highlights the reliability of a statement

We tend to take narrator statements as straight fact:

  • Her sister stole the cookie.
  • My sister stole the cookie.

But when the narrator reports their perceptions, we as readers become aware of the potential reliability or unreliability of the statement: 

  • I saw my sister steal the cookie.
  • I heard that my sister stole the cookie.
  • Billie, who's a compulsive liar, said my sister stole the cookie.
  • I'm pretty sure my sister stole the cookie.

(The fancy term for this is “evidentiality”—literally ‘what evidence do we have that something is true’.)

Some example thinking/feeling/perceiving verbs
Your turn
Your turn

Like what you see?

You’re not logged in!

If you want to save your writing, login and either assign this lesson to yourself or access it via your group.