Showing posts with label free indirect speech. Show all posts
Showing posts with label free indirect speech. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 27

Free Indirect Discourse: Its Advantages

Free Indirect Discourse: Its Advantages


When I began writing, I wrote from the first person perspective. Lately, though, I’ve been experimenting with free indirect discourse.

What's so great about free indirect discourse? I hear you ask. Well, with free indirect discourse, the narrator can float between the third person and the first person.

Because you're writing in third person, your narrator can be in any scene, but because you're using free indirect discourse your narrator can plunge into the viewpoint character’s consciousness.

If you're a bit dubious, please let me try to unpack what I just said! 😀 (BTW, if you want to read more about this topic, I've put links to a few articles on the subject at the end of this post.)

The Benefits of Free Indirect Discourse


Here are a few examples:

Direct discourse:


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Heart pounding, she thought, “That bullet came altogether too close!”

Indirect discourse: 


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Heart pounding, she thought that the bullet had come too close.

Free indirect discourse: 


Alice sensed something fly by her cheek. Her heart pounded. The bullet had come too close.

As you can see, free indirect discourse draws only a hazy distinction between the character’s thoughts and the narrator’s voice. Perhaps you feel differently (and, if so, I’d love to hear from you!), but I feel that the free indirect discourse version of the sentence is more immediate.

I think that free indirect discourse is the key to good writing. Here's why:

Intimacy 


One of the reasons why Stephen King, one of the most successful writers of all time, is so successful is that he is able to create an intense sense of intimacy, and, as a result, gets his readers to bond with the characters.

How is intimacy created? 


Of course, free indirect discourse isn’t going to be enough to write a great story, but it is a very powerful tool to have in your writer’s toolkit. (By the way, if you’ve never read Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing, please do! If I could have just one writing book as a reference, I would choose that one.)

Anyway, back to intimacy.

As I’ve said, free indirect discourse creates intimacy because it allows the reader to dip into (and out of) a character’s consciousness like the first person does, but it doesn’t restrict the narrator. Let me try to unpack that.

Access to a character’s thoughts 


I know I’ve given this example before, but here is my favorite example of free indirect discourse. It is from The Shining:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little #$@^&.” [2]

Instantly we know three things:

a. Jack is an angry person 


We have a pretty good idea what Jack Torrance is like: he is prone to anger. Of course, we can’t know that for certain from just the one line, but as we continue to read we discover anger is one of Jack Torrance’s core characteristics and that it drives his alcoholism. In turn, Jack’s alcoholism is a large part of what makes him vulnerable to the malign spirits within the Overlook.

And, thanks to free indirect discourse, this is all set up in the first, very short, sentence! I truly believe this is a big reason for the popularity of The Shining (as a book). The first line grabs the reader's attention from the very first line and sets up the major themes early.

b. Jack hates the person he is talking to. 


The first line also tells us that, whoever Jack is talking to, he hates them. The next two paragraphs unpack this. IMHO the following two paragraphs are writing at its best.

“Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

“As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk-under the circumstances.” [2]

c. Jack realizes he is being unfair.


In the second paragraph, we find out that Jack isn’t being fair to Ullman. We also find out that Jack is self-aware enough to admit this to himself.

Jim Butcher: Comparing the first person perspective to the third 


Here’s what Jim Butcher, New York Times Bestselling author of the Dresden Files has written about the first person perspective in his livejournal blog:

“First person offers the novice writer an intuitive advantage in writing a strong, emotional central character. It creates a few problems for your plot, but nothing that can't be gotten around. It's best suited to a story focused upon a single central character, and as such is most often found in mysteries and thrillers, with occasional appearances in fantasy/sf.

“Third person is far more flexible and offers you a wider range of options, dramatically speaking, but it's also considerably more difficult to learn to handle well--but if you learn to do it, you can really go to town, creatively speaking. Third person is found in every genre, but is particularly prominent in romance, on account of most of the romances like to present the story from the perspective of the two principal characters at the very least.” [1]

Disadvantages of the third person perspective 


While it is true that in the third person it is possible to convey the thoughts, emotions and opinions of a character, the first person is more intimate because we have access to the character’s actual thoughts.

There is a big difference between:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little #$@^&.” [2]

and

“The man sitting in front of Jack Torrance was officious.”

Disadvantages of the first person perspective 


The first person perspective is restrictive. You are confined to your protagonist’s mind. That means your protagonist has to be in every scene. I have read books which introduce two or more characters who are written from the first person perspective, this can be confusing for the reader.

But! Good news! There’s a solution to this problem. Yep, you guessed it: free indirect discourse.

Free indirect discourse is flexible 


I used to write everything in the first person, in part because of the (excellent!) advice Jim Butcher gives about this[1], but now I use the third person and free indirect discourse.

With free indirect discourse you have the benefits of the third person without the drawbacks. For example, you can have a viewpoint character other than the protagonist. That’s a huge advantage!

Of course, there are workarounds for authors who write in the first person. For example, In the past I’ve had to change the plot so my protagonist could be in a particular scene. Some Science Fiction and Fantasy authors have given their protagonist special powers so they can send their consciousness elsewhere. In this way they are able to observe what is happening in a space the viewpoint character doesn’t occupy.

For example, the viewpoint character could be locked in a wizard's high tower, but she has the power to concentrate and send her consciousness downstairs to spy on the wizard. She can see who he talks with and overhear their conversations.

That’s it! I hope you try out free indirect discourse. Perhaps write some microfiction. If you do, please share!

Support the Blog


Thanks for reading! Each blog post takes me a few hours to complete. If you like this content, please consider making a small contribution. Ways to support the blog:
Thanks!


Notes: 


1. Jim Butcher, his Livejournal
2. Stephen King, The Shining

Helpful Articles:


  • Narration -- Everything you never wanted to know about first, second and third person!
  • Free indirect speech -- I haven't covered everything about free indirect discourse/speech. If you want to read more, this is a good starting point.
  • The Benefits of Free Indirect Discourse -- "Free Indirect Discourse is essentially the practice of embedding a character’s speech or thoughts into an otherwise third-person narrative." If you're interested in the topic, I can't recommend this article highly enough.

Thursday, April 10

Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul

Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul


I feel silly. 

For years I've noticed a technique of Stephen King's, I've even written about it and mentioned that it seemed to be a strange contortionist amalgam of first and third person. But I didn't have a name for it. 

Until now! Yes, I am doing a happy dance. And all because of this article: "So you want to be a writer ...".[4]

Free Indirect Style: What Is It And Why Should You Care?


Jon Gingerich writes that a "benefit of Free Indirect Discourse is it's a more comprehensive way to tell a story. By temporarily breaking away from the narrator's voice within descriptive passages, the reader gets to see things not only through the narrator’s eyes but through the character's eyes as well."[2]

When a skilled writer, someone like Stephen King, uses free indirect speech it is as though he gently pushes the narrator out of the way--or as though he, as storyteller, steps aside--and allows the reader to know the innermost thoughts of the character. 

To put it simply (if rather dramatically), in a master storyteller's hands free indirect speech can be used to lay bare a character's soul.

See what you think. Here's an example of free indirect speech from Stephen King's book Under The Dome:
"Big Jim also did not ask Who did you sleep with? He had other concerns than whom his son might be diddling; he was just glad the boy hadn't been among the fellows who'd done their business with that nasty piece of trailer trash out of Motton Road. Doing business with that sort of girl was a good way to catch something and get sick.

"He's already sick, a voice in Big Jim's head whispered. It might have been the fading voice of his wife. Just look at him.

"That voice was probably right, but this morning he had greater concerns than Junior Rennie's eating disorder, or whatever it was." 
In the quoted paragraphs, above, whose voice is it? Yes, it's the voice of the narrator (King employs an omniscient narrator; he/she/it is no one in the story and the narrator has godlike knowledge), but we get Big Jim's voice peeking through. We have access to the character's thoughts, we hear--not the narrator's voice--but Big Jim's. For example, in the first paragraph, the narrator would not say "diddling," that's Big Jim's word. 

That said, the narrator--and likely the author--are evident in the text along with Big Jim. For example, Big Jim doesn't strike me as the kind of person who would be fastidious about the use of "who" and "whom." 

In the last paragraph the narrator's voice is replaced by Big Jim's; it's almost as though the narrator has temporarily submerged himself within the consciousness of Big Jim; or, perhaps, it is that the narrator has simply stepped aside. He/she/it is no longer between you and the character; it's just you and Big Jim and you're like a god in that, in that moment, you know him. He is laid bare before you; his thoughts, his hopes, his ambitions. The kind of man he is. 

That is what--or at least part of what--can be so seductive about reading Stephen King's books. The slightly voyeuristic promise of being introduced to characters that you come to know completely. Intimately. That you come to know even as you know yourself.

That also shows us one of the principle strengths of free indirect discourse: intimacy. 

To sum up: In free indirect discourse the narrator can seem to dip down into a character and reveal to you their inner workings both through their thoughts (/mental workings) and their speech. In a sense it is third person temporarily masquerading as first person and, as such, goes a long way to eliminating the distance between narrator and character--as well as (and perhaps more importantly) between reader and character.[5]

Direct Speech vs Normal Indirect Speech vs Free Indirect Speech


Free indirect speech seems like it can be powerful tool but if you're still wondering what the heck it is, perhaps this will help. 

Direct Speech


Direct speech is quoted: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds. "Ahw," he said, the sound halfway between a curse and a sneeze. "Gonna rain."

In direct speech, the reader hears from the character himself; in this case, from Bob. Because this is Bob speaking, the timber of his voice, the kinds of words he uses, and so on, are going to be different from those the (omniscient) narrator uses.

Normal Indirect Speech


Normal indirect speech is reported: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds and thought to himself that it would rain.

This speech is indirect because we don't hear it from the character himself. What Bob says and does and thinks is filtered through the narrator. As a result we lose the timber of Bob's voice as well as the particular words he, as opposed to the narrator, would use. When I read normal indirect speech it can feel as though a veil has been drawn over the character, over his mind, his essence, and that I am forced to see him through the lens of the narrator's thoughts and feelings.

Free Indirect Speech


Here's an example of free indirect speech: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds; yep, it was gonna rain.

Here, as with direct speech, the narrator is shunted aside. You, the reader, no longer look at the character through the lens of the narrator's beliefs and hopes and judgements. Here you are shown Bob's unadulterated, unfiltered, thoughts as he thinks them. 

Free indirect speech: who started this wackiness?


Apparently, nineteenth century French novelist Flaubert was the first to be consciously aware of it as a style but both Goethe and Jane Austen used free indirect style consistently. Other practitioners of the form were: Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. [1]

Share your thoughts! What do you think of free indirect discourse? Do you enjoy reading authors who use the technique? Have you used it? Would you?

Notes


1. Free indirect speech, Wikipedia.
4. The article, So You want to be a writer ... is a collection of reactions--all by author-teachers--to Hanif Kureishi's statement that creative writing courses are a waste of time. It was Philip Hensher's essay that included the sentence that opened my eyes: "The focus [in Hensher's writing classes] is on technique as well as emotion and experience. Is the presiding consciousness the right one? Does he need to filter everything through his awareness? Is this the right tense? What is this thing called free indirect style?"

Miscellaneous Writing Links



Photo credit: "Cap Formentor" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.