No one bothered to ask my permission, but the university where I teach had added a theater major, and any student who wanted to study acting would have to take my fiction-writing workshop. I’d been teaching that workshop nearly twenty years. I enjoyed my students and the stories they wrote. They were literature majors who were interested in writing. All of them were well read and grammatically practiced, and they had a passion for stories. Now a bunch of acting students would be crashing my little party. I was pretty sure they’d ruin it for everyone.
But a few weeks later, when the students submitted their first round of stories, I was flummoxed. In every case, the actors kicked the English majors’ butts.
It took me a while to figure out what was going on: While my students had been trained to put words on paper, the actors had been trained in Method acting. They were coached to see the world the way their character would—to experience a scene rather than merely report it.
It was a slightly different way of thinking, but it made a world of difference in the immediacy and vibrancy of their work. The actors ignored the narrator and focused on the character, and that drew the reader more deeply into the world of the story. I’d been doing the same thing as a writer for years. I’d picked the technique up from Graham Green and Anne Tyler and Colson Whitehead, and the other literary writers I loved. But, until those actors arrived in my classroom, I’d never stopped to think about it.
In my fiction writing classes, I now call this third-person technique “the free indirect style,” a term I borrowed from James Wood’s book How Fiction Works. The technique dates back at least to Henry James, who—like a Method actor—committed himself to, “disavowing the pretense of [authorship] while I get down into the arena and… live and breathe and rub shoulders and converse with the persons engaged in the struggle.”
The free indirect style is the difference between these two simple sentences:
She heard the doorbell ring.
The doorbell rang.
The distinction is subtle, but the second example is, I think, far stronger than the first. In that first sentence some narrator is reporting on a character’s experience. In the second, that narrator has vanished. The doorbell rings, so we know the character had to have heard it. How else would it end up in her story?
The idea is to strip away, as much as possible, any “person” in the voice telling a third-person story. This way the reader experiences the events along with the character—rather than having the story relayed to them by an intermediary. It’s a difficult technique to teach and explain. It seems to be something we pick up intuitively as writers as we develop. We see it suddenly, the way the shape hidden in a stereogram poster jumps out at us once we stare at it a while.
Here are a few, perfectly-good sentences that might appear in a perfectly-good novel:
She looked at him across the wooden picnic table. “When it comes right down to it,” she thought, “he’s just a child.” She heard birds singing in the branches overhead and distant traffic rumbling by on the avenue. She wondered if anyone so young and inexperienced could truly understand the damage his words had done.
There’s nothing wrong with these sentences. They’re clear and concise and aren’t likely to confuse or annoy our reader. But there is a narrator who comes between the reader and the story, and that interposed person occupies a kind of psychic space. It keeps us at a distance from the character.
But when we remove the voice that’s reporting the character’s thoughts and experiences, we draw the reader closer to the action.
Here are the same lines with that invisible narrator removed:
She looked at him across the wooden picnic table. He was just a child, when it came right down to it. Birds sang in the branches overhead, and distant traffic rumbled by on the avenue. Could anyone so young and inexperienced truly understand the damage his words had done?
We, as readers, feel closer to what’s going on now. No one is interposed between us and the character we’re following. For that reason, when we’re given a free-floating thought, like “He was just a child, when it came right down to it,” we’re not inclined to attribute it to the author or to some omniscient narrator. We know that’s the character’s judgment—and she may or may not be right in her opinion. The whole story thus bends to meet our character, and that kind of closeness makes the story more vivid and visceral. Our readers experience the character’s experiences, instead of being told about them.
Since those actors arrived uninvited in my classroom, I’ve come to appreciate the free indirect style as one of the most important tools we have as writers when we’re telling a story in the third-person. I use it in my own fiction, like the Jim Keegan mystery novels I’m currently writing.
(c) Paul Buchanan
About Valley of Shadows:
The second novel in the PI Jim Keegan series.
A reclusive millionaire hires PI Jim Keegan to look after her interests, she is currently hidden away at the legendary Chateau Marmont hotel. All Keegan has to do is humour her, keep her important papers in his office safe, and make weekly checks of her LA properties, but within a week she goes missing. Keegan suspects her ne’er-do-well young nephew of murder—but all the evidence he can find is circumstantial, and there’s a good chance the kid will get away scot free.
‘Valley of Shadows is an excellent blend of the golden era of crime fiction and sharp modern plotting that reminded me of Poirot, Sam Spade and Columbo all in the one character of Jim Keegan… The plot in Valley of Shadows is a corker.’ Linda’s Book Bag
‘With a clever sense of humour, Paul Buchanan has put together a solid mystery that is engrossing, entertaining, and engaging. Fans of the genre will not be disappointed!’ TheJoyousLiving.com
‘Unforgettable, page turning… this crime novel should be on all our book shelves’ @bookandstitch
‘I thought Valley of Shadows was terrific’ The Book Lover’s Boudoir
Order your copy online here.