Define It

Monday, November 30, 2015

I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on “The Art of Reading” from The Great Courses. I recently completed a series on the English novel by the same lecturer, Professor Timothy Spurgin. While I’m enjoying the lectures, Dr. Spurgin and I don’t always use the same terminology. I’m comfortable with mine because it comes from the many books on the writing craft that inhabit my shelves. The difference in terminology might be the difference between academia and genre writers, but it highlights the importance of defining your terms (which Professor Spurgin does).

Here are some examples.

Free Indirect Discourse v. Close POV*

Dr. Spurgin says free indirect discourse (or free indirect speech) occurs when the narrator borrows the language or vocabulary of the central characters. He uses passages from Emma by Jane Austin as an illustration. I’ve read all of Jane Austin’s books, including Emma, and I’m familiar with her way of mixing language and vocabulary borrowed from a character with a more neutral narrative language. As far as I can tell, this is no different than what many popular writers call close or deep third-person POV. Here is a description of close POV from page 186 of Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress:

Paul’s POV is third person, yet some of his phrases are in the same words he would use in either speaking or in telling his story in first person . . . . In addition, the narrative at this point is inside his head: these are his memories . . . and his thoughts. . . .

At the same time, close third person is not as claustrophobic as first person. It’s easier for the narrative to pull back from the character and include sections of exposition about them.

Scene and Summary

Dr. Spurgin defines scene as dialogue and summary as narrative. The many craft books on my shelf refer to scenes as containing both dialogue and narrative. In those books, scenes are defined more by time, place, action and reaction than by the elements (e.g., dialogue and narrative) used to compose them.** Imagine that a harassed mother comes into the kitchen to discover that her toddler has pulled a carton of eggs out of the refrigerator and dropped it on the floor. The mother wearily cleans up the mess before scolding her daughter, and then she gathers the crying girl into her arms. In most explanations, this is all part of a single scene even though it begins and ends with a description of the mother’s actions rather than with dialogue.

Reliable and Unreliable Narrators

I’m going to end with an example that may have some disagreement even among more popular writers. When discussing the Sherlock Holmes mysteries in the Art of Reading course, Dr. Spurgin called Dr. Watson a reliable narrator because he can be relied on to accurately describe the observable facts. Yes, his physical observations are accurate, but I consider him an unreliable narrator because the conclusions he draws from them are not. Even though we know that he is often wrong and Holmes will have to set him (and us) right, we can still get sidetracked and mislead by Dr. Watson’s conclusions.

* * *

So if you intend to use words and phrases idiomatic to a particular field or profession, make sure you define your terms.


* I mentioned Professor Sturgin and his terminology in my September 21 post on Jane Austin.

** See Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell (pages 113-129), Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell (page 78), Carol Umberger’s essay on “Point of View: Connect with Your Characters” from A Novel Idea (page 75), The Plot Whisperer Workbook by Martha Alderson (pages 39-43).


The picture of Watson and Holmes at the top of this post was drawn by Signey Paget (1860-1908). It appeared in the December 1892 edition of The Strand Magazine as an illustration for the Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” The image is in the public domain because of its age. 

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