Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Free indirect third-person narration

Here’s a first page and critique at Jane Friedman’s site.

There’s a first page, of course, and then the critique. Here’s a bit from the first page:

Lainie was scraping the last bit of peanut butter out of the jar when the land-line rang. She didn’t pick up; her friends only called her cell. The ancient answering machine clicked on and a perky, professional voice chirped “Tini Ferrari here, KNWD-TV?” Lainie knew that name. Pronounced teeny. Everything she said sounded like a question. “I’m phoning about a possible New Year’s Eve interview with Madeleine Stanton? I understand you were Ohio’s first millennium baby? I’d love to talk to you about a feature we’re doing, now that you’re turning twelve. Give me a call?” Tini gave a phone number and clicked off.

A feature on 2K-babies, on TV! She’d be the star, having come into the world at precisely midnight at the turn of the millennium to 2000. It had been years since anyone had mentioned it. It might be fun to be in the spotlight for a few minutes. An image of herself surrounded by kids at school flashed through her mind. But what if something went wrong—if she belched, or got sweaty? Or said something stupid? If she messed up on TV? The worst moment of her life would become unerasable entertainment online for the world to see forever—potential boyfriends, colleges, employers—it could end all hope of a normal life!

Anyway, Dad and the Uncs wouldn’t like it. They’d probably freak-out at the attention it would bring to the family. Lainie was wondering whether to ask her dad when she heard the stamp of his boots in the mudroom. A minute later he walked in in his stocking feet, face red from the cold, briefcase under one arm.

And here’s the bit of the critique that caught my eye:

The next thing this opening does well: it thoroughly and consistently engages the experience of a character by way of its third-person narrator. It does so through a technique called free indirect discourse, also known as free indirect style … the narrator is free to dip in and out of the point-of-view character’s (in this case Lainie) interior dialogue …

And so when we read “The ancient answering machine clicked on and a perky, professional voice chirped …” we intuit that the opinions expressed by the words “ancient” and “perky,” and the comparison of the “professional voice” to a bird’s, reflect not only Lainie’s consciousness, but her vocabulary. They are her words, or anyway they’re the sort of words she would use to describe those things.

Read through the rest of this first page, and time and again you’ll find Lainie’s personality infusing the third-person voice, to where at moments it reads exactly like a first-person narrative: “Anyway, Dad and the Uncs wouldn’t like it. …”

I’ve also seen this called “close third person.”

The above novel opening does indeed provide a good example of writing third person as though it were first. This is often the way third person is written. The voice of the protagonist is then expressed in their interior thoughts, so the only time this doesn’t happen is when those thoughts are never revealed.

I can think of some situations where third-person narration is used to hide the thoughts of the protagonist, sometimes to excellent effect. In Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings, Lymond’s thoughts are always hidden. That is one of the techniques Dunnett uses to make this story so very powerful: the reader is kept guessing about Lymond’s thoughts and motivations right to the end.

One author who brilliantly uses very close third person narration to bring her protagonists to life is CJ Cherryh. I believe she always uses this kind of narration, so her books work well for me only when I like her protagonist(s) — which I do, almost all the time, except not soooo much in Hellburner and Heavy Time. I’ve only read that duology once because first, I don’t much like Ben (the reader is not supposed to like Ben very much) and because the universe is highly claustrophobic for me, meaning not technically claustrophobic, but it’s the kind of universe where people are often metaphorically stuck in bad circumstances. I find that kind of setting difficult to tolerate.

I think you’ll mostly find, if you pay attention, that a lot of authors slide in and out of close third person — now very close, right into internal dialogue; then in the next scene a more distant third person. Then close again. That can be an effective way to draw the reader into an intense scene and then create a restful scene, not only by using action / slowdown but by using closer / more distant third person.

Here’s a great post about revising a story from more distant third person to close third person.

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