Writing 2017-12-23

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 1

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the first of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 1: Narration

Wood breaks down the types of narration into four distinct techniques. That said, he thinks only two are really worth examining. These are first-person narration and third-person narration.

Third-person narration has the least amount of time spent on it in this chapter. This is primarily because Wood makes a distinction between “authorial” and “free indirect” narration styles. Third-person narration is more closely associated with “authorial” style. That is to say, the reader is always aware that the author is telling the reader something rather than the characters. This has the effect of causing the reader to be more mindful of the writer than the characters themselves. Third-person narration is generally felt to be the “omniscient” voice and generally useful only when observing the world of the story, not investing in it. In addition, it’s this authorial (also referred to as “direct”) style where a reader tends to hear more of quoted speech. As explained further below, “free indirect” or first-person speech need not have quotes since we’re living inside the character’s mind.

The chapter spends most of its time on the subject of “free indirect speech”. Which is to say, the story is narrated from the subjective perspective of one or more characters in the story. This is more of a stream-of-consciousness style of storytelling with fewer quoted sentences. Rather, the dialogue can happen directly within the narration, especially if the character is thinking the speech rather than actually verbalizing it.

This use of first-person/free indirect speech means the reader is never really quite certain which words belong to the author or the character. Everything starts to blend together. It is also easier to jump from one perspective or character to another. This allows the author to intermingle the author’s words with the character’s words for maximum effect. In addition, it’s possible to have an “unidentified free indirect style”. This means that the stream of consciousness is more a collective voice of a group (townspeople at a town hall, for example) rather than an individual.

The chapter returns to the concept of third-person perspective with a technique referred to as “authorial irony”. This is where the author freely transitions from an omniscient authorial perspective (third-person) to a free indirect style (first-person). An example might be describing a town (authorial), but ending the paragraph with the personal opinion a character may have of that town (free indirect). This can be quite powerful because it intermingles the author’s voice and the character’s voice, but the author must be able to separate the two so that the character is not just a stand-in for the author.

I have to admit, I’ve never thought of fiction in these terms before. As I read fiction in the future I’ll try to keep in mind the ideas presented in this chapter. I do wonder, however, how would this work in a screenplay? Would, or could, a screenwriter write in free indirect style for the action descriptions and then write the dialogue as usual? It’s been said that a screenplay should be enjoyable to read, but is the format different enough that the presented ideas don’t matter?

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.