James Wood and the Breezy, Free, Indirect Style

Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog

I’m still recovering from the news that the publication date for The Western Light has been moved up to August 2012 because my publishers are enthusiastic about the novel. It’s what one hopes for and I’m superstitious enough not to want to talk about it. In the meantime, let’s look at James Wood and his discovery of a fiction technique called “the free, indirect style.” He writes about it in his book of non-fiction, How Fiction Works, which also has interesting things to say about specific concrete detail, for those of you learning how to describe the world of your characters. What Wood calls “free, indirect style” isn’t really new. Novelists have been doing it for a while without realizing it. Here are three examples that demonstrate what Wood says. The examples are in single quotes:

Example One: ‘He looked over at his wife. “She looks so unhappy,” he thought, “almost sick.” He wondered what to say.’ Wood calls this straight reporting, the old-fashioned notion of the character’s thought as a speech made to himself, a kind of internal address.

Example Two: ‘He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say.’ This is reported or indirect speech, the internal speech of the husband reported by the author as such. It is the style writers of realism traditionally use.

Example Three: ‘He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?’ The third example is what Wood calls the free, indirect style because the husband’s internal speech has been freed of its authorial flagging, no “he said to himself”or “he wondered” or “he thought.” There is a huge gain in flexibility, Wood claims, because the narrative seems to float away from the novelist, and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words.

Here’s something else about it that Wood doesn’t mention: free, indirect style closes the psychic distance between the reader and the character. The psychic distance in fiction is like a camera.It can move in for a close up or do a sweeping panoramic shot of what’s going on. So in a sense, you are always writing a close up when you use free indirect style because the psychic distance between the reader and the character becomes more intimate. It also feels breezier, and that makes your writing look like effortless story telling. And that’s important. So get to recognize the technique and learn to use it to your advantage. As a veteran novelist, I’m still finding out how to make the best use of it too.




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