Writing Hacks #8: Infuse narrative passages with character using “free indirect speech”

Narrator or PoV character?

I first came across the term Free Indirect Speech when reading a book by renowned critic (and author in his own right) James Woods, in his book How Fiction Works. As an aside–it’s a great read, you should check it out if you’re interested in learning more about the craft of writing.

So what is Free Indirect Speech?

Well, i’d describe it as a blending of the narrative voice with the character voice in a narrated passage (i.e. not dialogue). Sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. Let’s look at an example, i’ve lifted this one off my current WIP.

While her friends at school acted grown up, she simply was and didn’t have to pretend. She had a boyfriend–Mark–an indulgence in his mid-twenties, who wore fitted shirts and worked for a high-end estate agent.

What makes this Free Indirect Speech as opposed to just a narrator’s passage? There are a couple of signals here but one single word flags it the most strongly. Can you spot it? It’s the word indulgence. Think about it, who’s word is that? To whom is Mark an indulgence? Certainly not to the narrator, therefore it must be point of view character’s word. She appropriates or even taints the passage with that word, pulling it towards her gravity. Substitute the word ‘indulgence’ with ‘man’ or ‘estate-agent’ and it becomes just a normalish narrative paragraph. The other flag here is the ‘high-end’ estate agent. That is a distinguishing detail important to her. Why? The astute reader will make inferences about the character that make her seems more rounded, real and complex.

Third Person

FIS only really applies when you’re writing in the third person. In first person everything being told is narrated by that point of view already. One of the reasons why some (including me) think third person is a preferable mode for narration is because it affords you the flexibility of techniques like FIS that just aren’t in the armoury for first person works (that isn’t to say there is no place for 1st person work!).

When should I use it?

Like everything in writing, don’t use it all the time or it gets boring. Variety and change of pace is a key technique to keep your reader enthralled in your book. Think of your book being told as if a camera were on the shoulder of your point of view character. There are moments when you want to zoom in, get closer to that character, to let the reader get to know them better. There are moments when you want to zoom out, and let the reader wonder what they’re thinking. FIS gives you a subtle way to get your reader a little closer to your PoV character in narrative passages that functionally are just there to ‘move the story along’. This is good because you aren’t now having to do EVERYTHING in dialogue or through direct action, there is a little glimpse into your character that can tell the reader a lot. For example, in my example above, what can you infer from the word indulgence? And ‘high-end’ estate agent? What does that make you think the PoV character is like and how she sees herself? In short, a few small words can do a lot of work for you.

If this is the first time you’ve read about this, you’ll probably start noticing it all the time in good writing – I did! Whether it’s Jane Austen talking about someone’s ‘tolerable fortune’ (tolerable to whom!?) or V.S Naipaul’s Mr Biswas sleeping on his Slumberking bed and consuming Maclean’s brand stomach powder….you’ll start to see FIS in the ether, everywhere!

Happy writing


Chris is author of Orca Rising, which you can read here, or if you don’t like paying with bank money, here.