Thoughts Without Strings

One of the greatest pleasures in reading is getting to settle into someone else’s head for a while. Point of view can be seen as another way of saying whose thoughts we get to hear. One of the attractions of first-person narration is that the transitions from observation to thought to action can be so seamless. In a sense, an entire novel in first person is a confiding of thoughts by its protagonist, particularly if it’s written in past tense. The writer has no need to use quotation marks or italics or attributions such as “I thought” or “I wondered,” unless those verbs need to be emphasized in some specific situations. Otherwise, the first-person character’s thoughts should flow onto the page as they come to mind based on her experiences. “Sam came into the room, but he didn’t meet my eyes. He’d lost weight. From missing me? If only that were true. June followed close behind him; he smiled and reached back his hand for a squeeze. The smile creased his cheeks – he looked fit, younger, stronger even. Free.” What the character observes, how she feels about it, and whatever else it makes her think of, including memories, are all of one piece.

What may surprise you is that the same can be accomplished in close third person by using free indirect style.

James Woods does a masterful job of explaining free indirect style in his chapter on “Narrating” in How Fiction Works. He contrasts three different approaches to the sharing of thoughts in third person.

(1) Quoted: He looked over at his wife. “She looks so unhappy,” he thought, “almost sick.” He wondered what to say.

(2) Reported: He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say.

(3) Free indirect style: He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?

As Woods goes on to explain, narration in free indirect style seems to float away from the writer toward the character. The voice coloring the words becomes the character’s own. It is in this way that a novel written from a third-person limited point of view can be just as saturated in its protagonist’s voice as a novel written from a first-person point of view. But in third person, the barely visible narrator also retains a slight hold on the words – an ability to open up dramatic irony by encouraging the reader to see more than the character may see. In Woods’ example, I think the word “tiresomely” could be read as the character’s own, or it could be read as a knowing observation about the character’s feelings on the part of the writer, or possibly a bit of both. This complexity and richness is part of the appeal of third person. With free indirect style, the writer has the flexibility to shade language like this, as well as to zoom in and out seamlessly.

If you’re new to free indirect style, you should begin by eliminating the direct attribution of thought and instead let yourself move toward the character’s own way of putting things, without shifting out of third person or past tense (assuming that’s the tense you’ve been in). Any reporting or quoting of thought should be avoided – that would risk breaking the spell. Small actions and other visual clues can work to signal that we’re going in closer. (See Movement With Meaning.) Don’t be afraid to use fragments or lists to represent thought. The more agitated or emotionally affected a character is, the more likely she is to think in fragments. You may find yourself wanting to use swear words – James does in his example – swear words seem to give writers the sense that they’re pulling unvarnished thoughts out of their characters’ heads. You can always tone it down when you edit. Sometimes it helps to write a section in first person and then do it over in third. The more you work in free indirect style, the more natural it will seem. You’ll still need to go digging for the deepest and most surprising thoughts you can get your character to reveal. (See Pushing Your Characters Deeper.) But free indirect style will give you a tool to get there in third person – to write closer to the bone – with greater flexibility, style and grace.