Free Indirect Speech

how fiction works.jpg

One of my pet peeves in writing is a poorly-used first person point of view. Used well, it can be a means of creating a feeling of intimacy with between reader and character; used poorly, it can seem clumsy and unrealistic. In either case, first person POV is limiting, cutting away everything but one person's awareness, hearsay, and media.

But there is a way to marry this intimacy with the breadth and power of third person POV.

I picked this up intuitively, from reading a ton, paying attention to what was happening, and probably some learning by osmosis. At some point int he process I became aware of it, but didn't have the words to articulate what was going on. I even had a writer friend of mine ask me what POV I used, and I replied that it was kind of third person... but not really. She was quite upset by this, and gave me quite a lecture on the three possible POV's (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), and that it had to be one of them. Well yes, it does... and it doesn't. What I was doing turned out to be nothing new, but it wasn't until I read a book by James Wood that I could put a name to it...

It's known as Free Indirect Speech.

In short, it works like this. You narrate just as you normally would in third person, but the characters interject thoughts, sentiments, or even extended sentences as if they were narrating. Importantly though, there is no indication of the change. here's an example:

Duke walked into the room, the soup stain hardening down the lapel of his best dinner jacket. He could feel eyes on him from every table, but the jerks didn't even acknowledge he was there.

In this sample, it is only "the jerks" that is free indirect speech. It is free in that there is no indication that we switch from narrator to character and back again. It is indirect speech because it is not really dialogue, and yet serves a similar purpose.

Chances are, you've used this yourself, and may have been aware of it. I find it one of the most effective ways to bring mood into a narrative; a single, well-chosen word can steer a whole paragraph of information, backstory, description... and the list goes on. When next you're engrossed in a third person narrative, watch for these little kernels of literary power - then practise using them deliberately yourself.

If you want some deeper understanding of free indirect speech, and with that always comes an increase in how effectively you use it, I recommend How Fiction Works, by James Wood. It reads like you're sitting in a room with a world authority and he lets himself get taken away with talking about his favorite books... great for reading a while, then pondering what he had to say. I don't recommend writing books lightly, but this one is a gem.

Jeff SpenceComment