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Free Indirect Style

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How can you best tell a story? Through the vantage point of one character? Or multiple characters?

If you decide to write in first person, I went across the street to buy an ice cream cone, then you have taken on the central limitation/strength of the novelist. Choosing to write a novel gives you the best opportunity to explore the deep inner conflicts of one or more characters. The intrapersonal world (what is going inside someone’s head) is the novelist’s domain. You must master it. No other story medium (stage or screen) allows for such exploration into the inner life of a character like a novel. And the first person storytelling method is a Godsend to do that very thing. The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…these are among the great American novels and they all use first person narration.

But what of the many (if not majority of) novels that are not written in the first person? They are written in what is called third person omniscient point of view, meaning from a God like stature above the action, He went across the street to buy an ice cream cone. The advantages of third person omniscient writing is that you can have a broad cast of characters doing a whole slew of actions in multiple places, even all at the same time. If you take that Godlike approach, you are not limited to what one-character experiences, but rather you can report on the actions of many. Of such scope are epics made. War and Peace anyone?

Most commercial fiction in the primal external genres (novels written to be bought and enjoyed by strangers, not just your extended family and the Ivory Tower) is in the third person. So if the advantage of the novel is in being able to get inside a character’s head, but first person narration only allows you to write from the point of view of one character, how do the third person omniscient stories work?

In other words, is there a way to get inside multiple characters’ heads while also maintaining the proverbial Godlike/reportorial narrative of third person omniscient?

The answer is YES!

We have the Stephen Kings, Nora Roberts’, and John Irvings of their time…Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert (and many of his fellow French 19th century realists), to thank for the innovation.   Madame Bovary (Flaubert 1857) is generally recognized as the model for the intracranial technique. These literary lions wrote in what is now called the “Free Indirect Style.”

Essentially, Free Indirect Style is a combo plate of first person and third person. Meaning there are two distinct narrative beings present in Free Indirect Style. There is the third person narrator (you, the writer) and there is a character or multiple characters in the novel that also “narrate” through their thoughts.

For example, as I’ll be analyzing The Silence of the Lambs later on, let’s take a look at how Thomas Harris makes brilliant use of Free Indirect Style. What’s more, he transitions into it seamlessly, allowing the reader to attach to his lead character as a virtual observer of her behavior before he lets us “hear” directly from her. Harris begins the novel by reporting her thoughts as if he (the Godlike narrator) were capable of tapping her consciousness. Later on, he’ll drop the reporting element altogether and just give the reader her thoughts unvarnished.

In chapter one, Clarice Starling has been called into the big boss’s office, Jack Crawford, head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit.

“Starling, Clarice M., good morning,” he said.

“Hello.” Her smile was only polite.

“Nothing’s wrong. I hope the call didn’t spook you.”

“No.” Not totally true, Starling thought.

The last two sentences in this dialogue (“No.” Not totally true, Starling thought.) are written with direct (“No.”) and indirect (Not totally true, Starling thought.) speech. Direct speech (quoted) and indirect speech (reported) abide the traditional third person omniscient rules.

The omniscient narrator quotes the action directly. Starling says “No.”

Indirect speech is the narrator retelling the character’s thoughts. Not totally, true, Starling thought.

So technically, the first chapter is written in third person omniscient.  Harris has not yet ventured into Free Indirect Style.

But what’s interesting is that Harris chose to italicize “Not totally true,” even though he’s using the indirect approach and the phrase does not require it for his third person omniscient choice. I suspect Harris made this choice to signal to the reader, subconsciously, that he was going to eventually use Free Indirect Style and get rid of the necessity of having to write “she thought… she said to herself…she wondered” etc. that would be required to keep up the strict third person omniscient.

In the very next chapter of The Silence of the Lambs, when Starling meets with Dr. Frederick Chilton, the head of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Harris makes the complete shift into Free Indirect Style. He’s already let the reader get a global sense of who Starling is through his quoting and reporting her speech and thoughts. Now he’s giving them the intimacy of being able to hear her thoughts without his authorial reporting attached.

After Chilton tells Starling that he suspects Crawford is just using her to “turn-on” the killer Hannibal Lecter, thus her being given the job to interview him, Harris makes the transition to Free Indirect Style.

 Well fuck off, Chilton. “I graduated from the University of Virginia with honors, Doctor. It’s not a charm school.”

 This may all be a bit inside baseball for our purposes. The bottom line, though, is that Free Indirect Style is a wonderful tool for the novelist. It gives you the best of first person and third person narration.

Going inside a character’s head and giving the reader her thoughts (without attaching third person reportage) emotionally bonds the reader to a character. Jane Austen was one of the masters of Free Indirect Style. She was so skilled that a novel without some Free Indirect Style in it today feels sterile…devoid of heart.

Remember, though, that you must limit the number of brains that you open up to the reader in a novel. The use of Free Indirect Style signals to the reader that this character is our protagonist…this is the main person we will view this fictional world through. Especially at the beginning. If you use the technique with more than one character, you better have a very good reason. And you better think hard about where in the novel to insert these kinds of shifts.

Thriller writers often use Free Indirect Style with their protagonists and with their antagonists. Thomas Harris uses the Free Indirect Style for ten different characters in The Silence of the Lambs. And every single time he did so was a critical and productive choice.

Make sure your choices are too.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


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About the Author

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.