Point of view is the vehicle that drives a story. Get it right, and your novel hums along smoothly and your reader never notices.
Get it wrong, however, and your book becomes an unbearable clunker rife with confusion.
Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid, has read a lot of critically acclaimed and successful books, and noticed something about their point of view. All of these books used a specific style of narration, and you can use it too.
The Problems With Other Points of View
The two points of view with which you are likely familiar are first person and third person omniscient.
First person is fantastic for doing what novels are supposed to do — dig into the mind of a character — but inadequate at exploring anything outside of that one person. This is why certain sections of first-person books can get boring. If the protagonist is out of the loop, the reader will be too.
Third person omniscient, on the other hand, faces the opposite problem: a lack of intimacy. This perspective can lapse into excessive “telling” as well, alienating the reader and leaving the intimate behind.
While both of these points of view have their limitations, there is another that takes the best of both worlds and blends them together: Free Indirect Style.
How to Write in Free Indirect Style
In The Story Grid, Shawn Coyne describes Free Indirect Point of View as “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.”
In other words, you tell the story with the omniscience and distance of a narrator. You write the protagonist’s name instead of being inside his or her head and saying “I.”
Yet you stick to what he or she knows, and only reveal new information when he or she learns it. The thoughts you share are the protagonist’s, and only the protagonist’s.
To accomplish this effect with maximum power, there are two stylistic choices you need to make with consistency: Use italics with thoughts, and use clear breaks to transition points of view clearly.
Put Thoughts in Italics, or Isolate Them
The difference between Free Indirect Style and third-person narration has to do with the conveyance of thought.
Normally, a narrator would write “he thought” after such a notion. But as Coyne explains, with Free Indirect, you skip the tag and simply write the thought in italics. This also frees up words and space in your story for additional characterization or conflict.
Here’s the difference in the context of a longer beat:
- Third Person: I’d love to see him again, Allison thought. She watched him walk away with a lump in her belly.
- Free Indirect, With Italics: I’d love to see him again. Allison watched him walk away with a lump in her belly.
- Free Indirect, Isolated: Allison watched him walk away with a lump in her belly. She’d love to see him again.
The difference is subtle but effective. There is less separation, or telling, between the protagonist’s thought and it becoming the reader’s thought.
One of the most important jobs of a good storyteller is to eliminate barriers between the characters’ experience and the audience. By limiting your “telling,” and delivering the thought in an immediate and striking format, the barrier is broken down quite well.
Use Breaks to Transition Point of View
In order to effectively implement Free Indirect Style, you need to make it clear whose thoughts and perspective is front and center at all times. This establishes trust between you and the reader. If you violate that trust, the reader might not continue enjoying your work.
Two principles apply here: Transition rarely, and transition when it makes sense to do so.
Ideally, entire chapters are devoted to one character’s point of view, usually your protagonist or one of several protagonists. Then, when the chapter is done, the reader benefits from both the visual break of the chapter’s end and the narrative break from the scene’s resolution. He or she can “reset” and accept a new character’s point of view with ease.
If you must transition mid-chapter, you MUST provide both of these cues, but at a lesser scale.
In other words, there must be a paragraph break. Authors usually provide three asterisks (* * *) to signal this shift.
Also, there must be a narrative cue that makes such a shift acceptable, and that shift has to do with agency. If the character cannot or will not act any further, then his or her agency is gone. The story cannot likely continue from his or her point of view, so it must logically shift. This happens when characters fall asleep, get captured, give up hope, and so on.
But if you decide to transition back-and-forth during an intense scene of action or conflict, it can be wearying for the reader. Make sure a full narrative arc occurs, even if it’s a micro-arc within the larger structure of your chapter, before jumping to someone else’s point of view.
Enjoy the Freedom of Free Indirect Style
If your current work in progress is giving you headaches, point of view might be your problem.
First person point of view might be limiting the scope of the story you want to tell, anchoring you to a character that you’re sick of. Third-person point of view might leave you confused, unsure where to focus as you tell the story.
Give Free Indirect a try. It has all the benefits of intimate first person and “free” third person, allowing you to explore the minds of multiple characters across chapters and acts of your book.
Remember, point of view is the vehicle that drives your story. And your reader needs to know that he or she can trust you on the way. Use a point of view that thrilled readers for decades and editors like Shawn Coyne recommend.
You never know what heights your writing might reach!
Do you use free indirect style in your writing? Let us know in the comments.
For today’s practice, you have two options.
Have a work in progress? Find a scene from it that is written in first person or third person omniscient, and possibly has two or more characters in it. For fifteen minutes, rewrite the scene in Free Indirect Style, focusing on limiting the scene to the protagonist’s point of view, and converting some of his or her inner/secret thoughts to italics. Then use a paragraph break to continue the scene from another character’s point of view.
Or, start with this prompt: Maria has just arrived home, and Henry has a mess to explain. Take fifteen minutes to write a scene using Free Indirect Style. Limit the scene to one character’s point of view. Then, use a paragraph break to continue it from the other character’s.
When you’re done, share your writing in the comments below. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers, too!