I’m sharing a writing exercise in which I’ve written the same scene from first-person perspective and then from a free-indirect (or, I guess, third-person) perspective. I don’t really understand the “free-indirect” thing yet, but I think that’s what I’m doing.
I’ve chosen here to include my request for feedback (in case someone reading on CaponeTeaches.com wants to offer it on the points I’m asking about), and I’m including my observations of my experience writing the scene from those two perspectives. Maybe someone out there wants to try this and compare experiences as I have.
Both scenes are short. They total just over 900 words.
So here’s my request for feedback, which I offer to the wide world of web surfers: Do I paint the scenes with the right amount of description? I struggle with offering irrelevant descriptions (going on about the scenery, etc.), and I’ve been trying to cut back to describe only what is relevant to the protagonist in focus.
The scream of brakes hurts my ears as the train pulls into the Ústí nad Labem station. I’ve spent twenty minutes examining the route details taped to the car door, trying to spot matches for the villages I see as blurs. I check my ticket again. I think this is right, but I’m not sure of anything.
I step down onto the cracked-concrete platform.
It’s empty. I’ve got to figure out which of the three platforms in this station I need to be at in eight minutes when my train is supposed to depart. The flip-letter sign board overhead is broken. I take the stairs down to the underpassage to find a timetable. The ticket, stamped with stylized “CD” of the Cesky Drahy, lists a time – seven minutes from now – and a train number, along with some other information I don’t understand.
I race downstairs, hiking pack weighing heavily on my shoulders and upper back. I dance around an older couple moving up the stairs. The old man is pulling luggage up a ramp that runs parallel to them. I wonder where they’re going.
Maybe there’s an attendant I can ask for help? The passageway stinks of urine. Graffiti covers the walls. It’s not artful graffiti like the giant spaceman or person made of people eating people I saw on Berlin apartment buildings – just ugly and overlapping tags.
Yes! There’s a schedule in a hazy glass panel fixed on the wall tiles. I read over it, throwing all my effort into making sense of the muddle of days, times, train numbers, and destinations. I groan.
I notice the bathroom and its attendant behind me, and suddenly I have to go to the bathroom. 10 Kč, the sign commands. An old man is reading a newspaper. As I’m standing there, thinking about the coins in my pocket, a boy pulls into the underpass on his bike, dismounts, and drops a coin in the bowl on the table where the man sits. I only have euros. I put the bathroom problem out of my mind. I can deal with that on the train.
I turn again to the incomprehensible list. I look at my ticket – 42572 – and scan the train numbers on the weekly list of departures, comparing them. I can’t find it anywhere. I have two minutes to the departure toward Karlovy Vary, according to the ticket and assuming I’m in the right station.
I stare at the list on the yellowed wall again. Maybe I’ll have a breakthrough in understanding if i stare hard enough.
A shriek of brakes tells me I need to get back upstairs. Maybe that’s the train I need. A woman wearing a dark cap with a built-in visor and a jacket with the familiar, blue “CD” symbol on its breast pocket stands outside the train, smoking a cigarette and joking with the old man managing baggage. Is this the train for Karlovy Vary? She nods. She thinks I’m a nincompoop. I feel it in full.
I climb aboard, hoping for the best.
The man stands in the space in a blue Cesky Drahy train car near the door that will open at Ústí nad Labem station. He’s wearing a heavy looking backpack weighing in a careful position high on his waist. He stares out the window as the train slows to a creaking halt. No one lines up behind him because no one is exiting the train but him. He grimaces at the timetable before stepping onto the platform.
The man, pausing momentarily in uncertainty on Platform #3, makes a sudden turn as if kicked into gear. He marches down the stairs. He banks around a local man and his aged wife. The old man drags luggage up the ramp running alongside the stairs as the wife looks on in the silent judgment of a person who both requires someone’s assistance and one who doesn’t approve of the manner in which the assistance is being rendered.
The young man with the backpack takes this in, keeps on toward the underpassage, and scans its yellow-tiled walls for something to help. He approaches a glass-paneled box on the wall and stares at it in utter bewilderment.
A boy wheels into the station passageway and dismounts. He pays the bathroom attendant a coin, dropping it with a clink into a small dish beside the attendant’s newspaper, and disappears into the lavatory – or “wash closet” as it is usually rendered into English in these parts. There’s a fee for the bathroom.
The traveler frowns at the bathroom and turns back to the placard hosting the timetable for trains departing and arriving at the station. “What the…” he mutters to himself, running his finger top-to-bottom on what must have been his third pass over the list. He checks his ticket and compares it ot the schedule on the wall.
He frowns again. He grumbles.
At this moment, a train announces its arrival at a platform overhead, and the man with the backpack takes off at a light jog up the stairs. Out of breath, he asks the Cesky Drahy employee who’s just deboarded for a smoke break whether or not this is the train for Karlovy Vary. She nods, offering the look of a native who is annoyed with an outsider. She mentions something to the old man with the luggage. He chuckles in shared knowledge as the traveler boards the train.
Observations of the shift between the two:
I noticed most distinctly that different elements seemed to leap out as worth mentioning (or not worth mentioning) in one version versus the other.
I noticed that the people who were most important seemed slightly different or to be different in varicating ways from one to the next.
I noticed that there was an opportunity as the author of the piece to know more about the characters other than the protagonist in the third-person narrative than the first-person narrative.
I also noticed that the intensity of confusion seemed stronger in the first person than in the third person, though I am realizing now that I’ve written the second in something I’ve heard termed “free-indirect style” (I think) rather than a limited third-person perspective in traditional terms.
I notice that I had a lot more to say when I was in the character’s head versus describing the action as a floating and following camera because I’ve trained myself to think in terms of action (and for better or worse, inner monologue) as a way of relating the character – and I’ve gotten away from lengthy descriptions of setting.