Free Indirect Style

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.

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24 comments on “Free Indirect Style

  1. Hi Shawn. Thanks for another great post! This one sent a lightning bolt through me. My mind is racing with possibilities.

    You said we need to have a good reason and to “think hard about where in the novel to insert these kinds of shifts” if we use them for more than one character, that every single time needs to be “a critical and productive choice.”

    Does the same advice apply if we use this technique for the protagonist only? Do each of those times need to be critical and productive too or can we use the technique more freely, more often and for no specific purpose except to show the protagonist’s intrapersonal world? (I think this is what you are saying. I just want to be sure.)

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Once you establish the technique with your protagonist, you can use it whenever you’d like. Usually when the stakes and stress rise on your lead character is when she starts to internally talk to herself. Just like real life. When things are fine we don’t self talk but when shit hits the fan we do.

  2. It’s nice to have a name for this. A lexicon, the shorthand of labels: what a useful tool.

    I want to push myself to write more third person. Being conscious of Free Indirect Style will make it easier to transition from my mostly first person thinking.

  3. Mary Doyle says:

    There is a lot to think about here. I have to confess that considering my own choices in terms of being “critical and productive” is more than a bit intimidating. I let instinct guide me much of the time, but beyond that I can’t really articulate even to myself why I make one choice over another. Steven Pressfield has said that you don’t always know why something works or why it doesn’t. These posts are challenging me to think about this at a deeper level. As always, thanks!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      My response to Debbie below should answer your question. Think about when you talk to yourself. Under stress (both positive and negative). And yes those moments to guide the use if the technique.

  4. “…limit the number of brains that you open up to the reader in a novel.” How many is too many, Shawn? Three? Four? My head is spinning just thinking about it!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I’d let each scene be your guide in the first draft. That is go with what you think will be the most compelling choice scene by scene and them in the second draft read through for continuity and comprehension. And then adapt those scenes that se too jarring back to your protagonists point if view.

  5. Brian Cunningham says:

    Comics and graphic novels also allow a writer to get inside the head(s) of their characters. While there’s no prose per se, first-person narration or Free Indirect Style can be used very effectively with static imagery.

    P.S. I love this blog! It’s making me a better editor.

  6. Fran Civile says:

    Shawn, I appreciate getting definitions for the different narration styles you just described. I’ll begin by dissecting most everything I read before I feel confident in settling for one or the other styles or a combination.

  7. Jeff says:

    Hey, Shawn,

    This is awesome stuff. I’d heard the term before but hadn’t really understood what it meant, though I had noticed it at work in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Sometimes it’s just easier to see stuff at work in short stories than novels, I guess.

    Anyway, here’s my question: Way back in your post on Going Deep:

    You closed with these last two paragraphs:

    “The master Stephen King is that rare novelist who can do both. But it’s interesting to note how he pulls off this trick in his novels like The Shining and Misery. He does it by creating horror elements that can serve as symbols for inner turmoil. In The Shining, alcoholism’s inner abuser takes form as supernatural spirits egging on the protagonist to kill his family. And in Misery, King has recently revealed that he created Annie Wilkes as a stand in of sorts for his personal struggles with cocaine. Cocaine was his #1 fan…pushing and egging him on to furiously complete his pages.

    Stephen King knows better than anyone how unchecked internal wars can morph into external horrors.”

    Is that the real payoff for Free Indirect style? Since it represents a sort of elision between the objective and subjective worlds, is the point to be able to “elements that serve as symbols for inner turmoil” — to put the character under pressure of the mysterious?

    Or am I going to literary and it’s really just all about making 3rd Person POV more flexible?


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I think Free Indirect Style works because it mirrors the way each person experiences the world. We “hear” a voice inside our own heads and it is usually the voice of what Steve Pressfield calls “Resistance.” The inner critic evaluating our world in a way that we’d never give voice. But the thing is that this “inner voice” is 99.9% full of shit. It’s all about protecting us from external and internal turmoil. I’ll not get into the Freudian stuff hear, but suffice it to say that it’s a big fat liar trying to get us to do the least amount of work possible for the greatest gain. What’s so great is that FIS gives this inner bastard a platform. And it’s a great way of presenting internal antagonism “directly.”
      This is getting a bit heady, but my advice is to let your inner bullshit artist run and imagine what your character’s inner critic would be saying to them when they come under stress. The trick is to always be putting your character’s under stress (positive as well as negative). If you have zero stress as a human being, you’re not hearing from your inner critic. When you venture forth and put your work on display or make a particular choice…then all inner hell breaks loose.
      Hope this helps.

      1. Joel D Canfield says:

        If I write down what the $*&^%& liar in my head is screaming 24/7 will it finally shut up? I’d sure love to torture my characters with that noise rather than putting up with it myself.

        Feel free to bring Freud, Jung, and their buddies into the conversation anytime you like, Shawn.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          It’s been my experience that he’ll be a lot more helpful to you when you let him feed you lines. God knows he feeds off of you, time for him to pay his share of the load. Make him work for you, not the other way around. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s a worthwhile goal and a good way to remind yourself who’s in control.

          1. Joel D Canfield says:

            I am reminded of the scene in “A Knight’s Tale” where Geoff tells Simon the Summoner “I will eviscerate you in print.”

      2. Jeff says:

        Thanks. That does help.

        “Giving the inner bastard a platform” by “presenting internal antagonism directly,” which appears most prominently when the character is put under stress — i.e. conflict. Certainly ties a lot of stuff together in terms of making a scene work on multiple levels.

        Thanks again, Shawn. This blog and material is revelatory.

      3. Jeff says:

        Saw this recently and the first Mike Nichols quote brought me back to your comments, Shawn. Here’s the quote:

        “I’ve always been impressed by the fact that upon entering a room full of people, you find them saying one thing, doing another, and wishing they were doing a third. The words are secondary and the secrets are primary. That’s what interests me most.”

        – 1965 interview in The National Observer

        And here’s the commentary from the blog’s author, Billy Mernit:

        “Succinctly and quickly Nichols directs us to the heart of what makes a story compelling here, suggesting that in any given scene, conflict is immediately inherent if you look to human nature. There’s the voice we use to present ourselves to others, the actions that betray our truer nature, and the hidden desires that motivate us, often unconsciously. Put this tri-level truism to work when you put your characters in a scene, and you’re good to go from the get.”

        If you’re interested, you can read the rest of the post here:

        Many of Nichol’s comments on Improv echo what you’ve said about acting and the ability to craft scenes.

        Thanks again for all you’re teaching us.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Love Mike Nichols and especially that quote. Thanks for this!
          All the best,

  8. I thought this style was called, third person limited? (limited being the one character’s head you’re in)

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Like all things to do with Story, there are a whole bunch of different terms to describe the same thing.

  9. Sue Coletta says:

    I’m jumping back from today’s post, but I do have a question. With Free Indirect POV do you need italics? I’ve seen it, and used it, in regular print, too, but have never heard this term. So, now I’m wondering if that’s a different technique. I’ve heard it called Deep Third POV. So my question is, do you suggest first using italics as a cue to the reader that you’ll be using Free Indirect, and then you can use regular print (unquoted, of course)? Or do you think it’s better to always use italics?

  10. Tina Goodman says:

    So, Direct Speech is the narrator retelling a character’s speech, and Indirect Speech is the narrator telling a character’s thought?

    1. Tina Goodman says:

      I should have written “retelling” instead of “telling” a character’s thought.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Yes, the but indirect speech is more reporting the thought. I like to think of it as reporting more than telling. And free indirect is taking out the “she thought” reportage. I think that’s a good summary. Thanks Tina for this very good question.

  11. A.R. Arias says:

    I know I’m late with this comment, but I’ll throw it out there. I had an editor tell me that it wasn’t a good idea for first-time novelists to use anything other than third person omniscient POV. This was several years ago before digital was gaining traction.

    So I went back and changed the second half of the story to 3rd person, which I felt took away the intimacy of first person, or FIS that I’d chosen for the protagonist at that point in the story.

    I’ve always thought reverting back to only 3rd person diminished the telling but I tried to follow the rules for new writers if that meant a better chance for publication.

    I’ve yet to submit that full ms., but I’ve always been inclined to revert to both 3rd person and FIS.

    I really think it makes a much better story with multiple POV’s and maybe publishers these days don’t frown upon new writers who mix POV’s.

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