Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Free Indirect Style

The air has suddenly turned crisp here in Maine, signaling the onset of fall. Even though I graduated from college some fifteen years ago, this time of year always makes me feel a bit academic; I start reaching for the classics and for books about the writing process. To this end, I recently purchased a copy of critic James Wood’s HOW FICTION WORKS.

While the book is touted as a guide for writers and readers alike, I think all but the most critical of readers will find the book will find the book confusing and—dare I say it?—a tad boring. But for writers, this stuff is gold. Wood takes numerous examples from the literary canon and shows specifically why a passage does or doesn’t work. Readers may be a bit confused because it seems to me that it’s necessary to have attempted to write through some of these problems to fully understand the points being made.

The first twenty pages of the book alone are worth the price of admission and I encourage all novice writers to take a look. The topic is point of view. In brief: Wood argues that third person is rarely fully omniscient, that the narrator has a tendency to want to follow the thoughts of whatever character he happens to be talking about. Wood calls this “free indirect style”, but it is also often called “close third person”.

Close third person is sometimes likened to a camera perched on the shoulder of a character. We see everything through her eyes. This definition is a bit limiting, because it implies there still is a bit of distance—there are the narrator’s thoughts and the character’s thoughts. The camera both tells the story and tells us what the character is thinking.

Free indirect style, while basically the same thing, has a slightly different connotation. As Wood illustrates, free indirect style is more of a cross between straight omniscient narration and stream of consciousness. It allows the writer to tell the story from the narrator’s point of view and the character’s point of view alternately and simultaneously, often right within the same sentence. We dip in and out of the character’s thoughts, sometimes with just the choice of one word. Wood uses a masterful example from Henry James’s WHAT MAISIE KNEW to illustrate the point. The character we are close to is Maisie, a child. In a single passage of close third narration, James shows us three points of view simply with strategic word choice: 1) Maisie’s opinion, 2) the adults’ opinion, and 3) Maisie’s childlike version of the adults’ opinion. For further detail, I urge you to read James' passage and Wood’s analysis.

For this blog, I’ll offer a decidedly less brilliant example from my own writing. Here’s an early draft of a passage from the novel I’m currently working on. It pales against what Henry James accomplishes, but it’s enough of a taste of free indirect style to illustrate the point.

Ovid Kingsley tripped on air and landed face-down in the vestibule of his apartment building, wondering who—other than himself—was to blame for this unexpected fall. Splayed on the floor, Ovid rested his cheek on the gritty linoleum. In that blank moment between bewilderment and pain, three of his limbs swept in helpless arcs around him, while Ovid’s right arm, having failed to break his fall, crumpled rudely beneath his chest. As the pain yawned from wrist to elbow, Ovid uncoiled a comprehensive list of expletives aimed at all parties responsible for this moment: his mother and her toothpick ankles, which he’d inherited; Windy Bluffs, that pink bubble on WXYZ, who once again failed to forecast the correct time line of this sudden deluge; the anonymous Chinese laborer who no doubt incorrectly glued the soles of his shoes—just to name a few.

Most of the passage is told in the narrator’s voice, but I’ve highlighted a few words and phrases where Ovid’s voice is interjected, where his thoughts almost seem to interrupt the narration. These words are a bit more loaded—Ovid is trying to blame everyone but himself for the fall, so phrases such as “toothpick ankles” or “that pink bubble” or "who once again failed" or “who no doubt incorrectly glued” are tinged with anger. The narrator has no reason to be angry, so we know that these words belong to Ovid and not the narrator.

Free indirect style adds finesse to your writing. Rather that opting for the easy way out by telling the reader what your character is thinking, trying weaving your character’s state of mind within the narration using carefully chosen words. It will give your narration life.


Adventures of Garden Boy said...

Nice synopsis of the first pages of How Fiction Works.

Urizen2000 said...

Flaubert is one of the early users of free indirect style and Woods uses an excellent passage to illustrate that which many authors would later use in their own writing. 'Unspeakable Sentences' is another great book on the technique in action.

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