Excerpt from James Wood, How Fiction Works (2008): 7-11.
Square brackets denote page breaks and a footnote.
So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her [7/8] way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called “free indirect style,” a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for—”close third person,” or “going into character.”* [* I like D. A. Miller’s phrase for free indirect style, from his book Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style (2003): “close writing.”]
a. He looked over at his wife. “She looks so unhappy,” he thought, “almost sick.” He wondered what to say.
This is direct or quoted speech (“ ‘She looks so unhappy,’ ” he thought”) combined with the
character’s reported or indirect speech (“He wondered what to say”). The old-fashioned notion of a character’s thought as a speech made to himself, a kind of internal address.
b. 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, and flagged as such (“he thought”). [8/9] It is the most recognizable, the most habitual, of all the codes of standard realist narrative.
c. He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?
This is free indirect speech or style: the husband’s internal speech or thought has been freed of its authorial flagging; no “he said to himself” or “he wondered” or “he thought.”
Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words. The writer is free to inflect the reported thought, to bend it around the character’s own words (“What the hell should he say?”). We are close to stream of consciousness, and that is the direction free indirect style takes in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: “He looked at her. Unhappy, yes. Sickly. Obviously a big mistake to have told her. His stupid conscience again. Why did he blurt it? All his own fault, and what now?”
You will note that such internal monologue, freed from flagging and quotation marks, sounds very much like the pure soliloquy of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century [9/10] novels (an example of a technical improvement merely renovating, in a circular manner, an original technique too basic and useful — too real— to do without).
Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” In my example, the word “stupid” marks the sentence as written in free indirect style. Remove it, and we have standard reported thought: “Ted watched the orchestra through tears.” The addition of the word “stupid” raises the question: Whose word is this? It’s unlikely that I would want to call my character stupid merely for listening to some music in a concert hall. No, in a marvelous alchemical transfer, the word now belongs partly to Ted. He is listening to the music and crying, and is embarrassed — we can imagine him furiously rubbing his eyes — that he has allowed these “stupid” tears to fall. Convert it back into first-person speech, and we have this: “ ‘Stupid to be crying at this silly piece of Brahms,’ he thought.” But this example is several words longer; and we have lost the complicated presence of the author. [10/11]
What is so useful about free indirect style is that in our example a word like “stupid” somehow belongs both to the author and the character; we are not entirely sure who “owns” the word. Might “stupid” reflect a slight asperity or distance on the part of the author? Or does the word belong wholly to the character, with the author, in a rush of sympathy, having “handed” it, as it were, to the tearful fellow?
Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge — which is free indirect style itself — between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.
This is merely another definition of dramatic irony: to see through a character’s eyes while being encouraged to see more than the character can see . . . .