POV: A Literary Choose-Your-Own-Adventure

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By Jiaming Tang

Trying to decide on a narrative point-of-view can feel like trying to pick a country to vacation in. Just like how vacationers might say: “Japan is beautiful but China is cheaper,” a writer might say: “First-person constructs a colorful narrative experience, but third-person offers a more objective view of the world.”

But what if there was an option that had the potential to merge the positives of each of the above choices? What if the vacationer could go to a country that is both beautiful and cheap, and the writer could choose a narrative mode that is both colorful and objective?

No, I am not referring to the second-person point-of-view. I am talking about “free indirect style;” a mode of telling which effectively combines first- and third-person narration by representing a character’s thoughts in their exact idiom while maintaining a third-person point of reference.

Let’s briefly examine one character’s thought (Henry) that has been reported in three different narrative modes:

  1. I saw the most beautiful flowers in the store! (First-person)
  2. Henry thought they were the most beautiful flowers in the store. (Third-person)
  3. Oh! What beautiful flowers in the store! Thought Henry. (Free indirect speech)

Sentence 1 conveys the speaker’s mental state without having to delve into extraneous explanations. Both the exclamation mark and the modifiers “most” and “beautiful” let us know how the speaker feels about those flowers. However, some readers might feel wary because they don’t know whether or not the flowers actually are the most beautiful in the store. They might ask themselves: Can we trust this speaker? What if he’s biased? How do we know he doesn’t have bad taste?

In Sentence 2, the reader can readily accept Henry’s thought because it is being expressed by the objective narrative voice. Because we are told explicitly that Henry is the one who thinks the flowers are the most beautiful in the store, we don’t have to worry about whether or not the flowers are actually beautiful. They are beautiful to Henry, and that is a fact any reader can accept. On the flipside, however, this sentence can only tell us how Henry feels, whereas Sentence 1 can show us his enthusiasm using an exclamation point.

Sentence 3 combines the positive aspects of the two aforesaid sentences. Henry’s potentially biased thought is acceptable to the reader because the narrative voice lets us know that it is subjective. The “Oh!” and the exclamation point also shows us how excited Henry is, and conveys his interiority without excessive telling.

Free indirect style (Sentence 3) can be an effective narrative tool because it allows the writer to report a character’s thought objectively and colorfully. Even if you aren’t comfortable with writing an entire novel or story in the free indirect style, both its flexibility and accessibility make it easily insert-able in most narratives.

I wrote my last workshop story in third-person because I believed the implicit objectivity of the narrator conveyed a sense of trust to the reader. This trust between narrator and reader was important to me because the narrative (which was somewhat surreal) often called for the audience to suspend their disbelief. And yet, I also wanted to colorfully construct the absolute befuddlement of my characters. So I decided to utilize the free-indirect-style. Sentences like: “Ronnie didn’t understand the nature of this world,” became “Huh? What’s going on here?” [Ronnie thought]. The difference seems slight, but the latter sentence is more expressive—showing confusion rather than telling.

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