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Writing Advice

Decoding Narrative Distance

by Dave King

Most writers have already mastered the basics of point of view — choosing first, third or omniscient and sticking with a single viewpoint character within a scene. But control of narrative distance — a more advanced use of point of view — is a technique many new writers still need to learn. Though it is difficult to master, control of narrative distance will help to convey subtle emotions, give characters a rich internal life, and draw readers more effectively into the world of the story. These are often just the elements that are needed to push a writer's work over that all-important line from promising to pro.

Judging the Distance

Narrative distance doesn't break down into nice, neat categories. Instead, it's a continuum that measures how close your narrative voice is to your viewpoint character's voice. There are four things that determine where your narrative voice falls on the continuum, the most basic of which is the vocabulary and grammar you use. The words we have at our disposal to describe the world around us arise out of our history, our education, even our culture, which is why the Inuit have so many words for snow and the Irish so many terms for a rainy day. When you describe your settings and action using only words from your viewpoint character's vocabulary, you're not only telling your readers the facts, you're running those facts through your viewpoint character's history and worldview. On the other hand, when the voice of your descriptions is more sophisticated, more verbose, perhaps more acutely observant than your viewpoint character's voice, you've put distance between the two.

Consider how much of Little Lucien's life experience comes through in this brief description of a summer's evening from Carolyn Chute's Letourneau's Used Auto Parts:

Junebugs growl like bulldozers in the corners of Big Lucien Letourneau's slanty old piazza and the old twisty tree-sized lilac bushes put off a smell. Big Lucien is nowhere around tonight. Norman is not around. Little Lucien is squatted with his back against the clapboards, his eyes closed, listening to the tantes whisper in French just inside the screen door … something about the gas stove, he surmises…

Even though it's not clear we're in Little Lucien's head until near the end of the paragraph, his view of life is already there in the comparison of Junebugs to bulldozers and the way lilacs "put off" a smell.

You also control your narrative distance when you choose which details of your settings and characters to include. For one thing, we see what we expect to see, look for what interests us, notice what we feel is important. When your descriptions include only the details your viewpoint character would notice, you're writing from an intimate point of view. If, for instance, your viewpoint character walks into a strange room and notices first whether or not the books are lined up on the shelves and the paintings are hung straight, you learn as much about the narrator as you do about the owner of the room.

The details we notice also depend on our state of mind. If your hero is fleeing for his life through the woods, he probably won't notice what species the trees are as they flash by. If your heroine is fighting for her life, you might describe her enemy's movements in precise detail to underscore her tightly-focused attention. When you describe details that aren't appropriate to your character's state of mind or history, you're putting more narrative distance between your character and your readers.

Another stylistic technique that controls narrative distance is how you handle your interior monologue. The more intimate your writing, the more the interior monologue starts to blend into the descriptions. The more distant your writing, the more you set your interior monologue apart through separate paragraphs, italics or even thinker attributions ("he wondered," "she thought").

For instance, consider this passage:

There had been no rain for two weeks. Last year's dried leaves crackled underfoot as Winston made his morning trek down Spruce Corner Road to the mailbox at the intersection. Then, just before he stepped out of the woodland and into the open land near Dymond's farm, he sniffed. Wood smoke.

Brush fire? It was too warm for anyone to be using a stove. Or had the neighbors started a brushburn without a permit again?

And now a more intimate version:

Hadn't been rain for coming on two weeks, and the leaves crunched underfoot. Winston would have to get the hose out of the basement when he got home, get some water on the garden. He stepped out into Dymond's land and stopped. Was that wood smoke? It was too warm for anyone to be using a stove. Brush fire? Or had the neighbors started a brushburn without a permit again?

Note how the other techniques for controlling narrative distance are reinforced by the handling of the interior monologue mechanics. When the language is more idiomatic ("Hadn't been…" rather than "There had been no…") and the choice of details more personal (Winston probably wouldn't think of the name of the road he walked every morning), the interior monologue should blend seamlessly into the narrative. When the language is more neutral and the details impersonal, Winston's thoughts should be marked off as something separate.

Finally, you can control your narrative distance by how much you allow your viewpoint character's emotions to color your descriptions. For instance, while I worked on this article, I was watching snow fall outside my office window. We'd had two feet earlier in the week and were expecting another six inches - I was already walking the dog on snowshoes. A scene written from my point of view might describe the snow as falling "slowly and inexorably, smothering the landscape." The two little girls who live down the road, and whom I saw leaping from their swing into the soft drifts after the last storm, would doubtless feel very differently about it. A scene from one of their points of view might describe the snow "floating gently down and making the yard fresh and new again." Same facts, different feelings.

Note, by the way, that narrative distance really only applies to writing from your character's viewpoint in the third person. The first person, where the narrator talks directly to readers, is intimate by definition. The omniscient, where the narrator is not a character, is as distant as you can get. It is only when you use your viewpoint character in the third person that you have some control over the narrative distance.

Getting Up Close and Personal

So how do you determine how much narrative distance you need? In most cases, the more intimate your point of view the better, simply because an intimate point of view is such a powerful storytelling tool.

For instance, allowing your viewpoint character's feelings of the moment to color your descriptions lets you convey a wide range of emotions, including ones so subtle that your viewpoint character may not even be aware of them. This can be a powerful corrective for writers who take the "show, don't tell" advice too much to heart, stripping all hint of emotion out of their narrative for fear of slipping into purple prose. The result is often writing that is cold and spare, if not worse.

I once had a client who tried to convey nearly all of his characters' emotion through dialogue and interior monologue. As a result, his characters only felt the most self-conscious, intrusive emotions — primarily anger, fear and lust, which wore on his readers after a while. He had to learn to allow his viewpoint character's mood to color his narration before he could capture ennui, anticipation, contentment and a host of subtler emotions.

How do you avoid purple prose if you write with narrative intimacy? The key is to pay attention to your viewpoint character. It's usually only when an author focuses too much on trying to achieve an effect that the metaphors start to grow forced and the language turgid. Forget the reviewers, focus on your characters, and you will probably be all right.

Showing your readers the world as your viewpoint character sees it is also a terrific way to generate sympathy for your character. It's hard not to understand and appreciate somebody when you're seeing life through their eyes. This is true even if you disagree with them.

I once received a workshop submission from an author who opened her mystery with a narrated statement against the destruction of woodlands for the sake of development. She needed to lay these ideas out because they would eventually lead to the murder of an environmentalist. She wanted to know how she could make the statement without alienating readers who weren't environmentalists. I suggested that she open with a scene in which her environmentalist took a walk through a new development, remembering what it used to look like and seeing the damage done. Because readers inhabited the environmentalist's head and experienced her love of the woodlands and sorrow at their destruction, they were drawn to her. They may have still disagreed with her, but they felt what she felt, and that created a human connection that transcended differences of opinion.

Finally, because an intimate point of view lets you build your characters' history into the narrative, it allows you to convey the facts of that history powerfully and subtly. For instance, if your point of view character spots an old Mustang and recognizes from the sound that it has a 302 Windsor under the hood with dual carbs and a Holly glasspack muffler, then you get a feel for how he spent his high school years. Or, as was the case in a Writer's Clinic submission, if your main character idly thinks about how much she enjoys staying up all night and plans to meet a friend she's known for seven centuries, you eventually get the feeling she's a vampire.

When to Pull Back

Of course, there are times when you're going to want more narrative distance, when you want the narrative voice divorced from the point of view character's voice. Say, for instance, that in order to set up a particular plot twist, you need to show a scene from the point of view of a very minor character — what is known in theater as a "spear carrier." If you were to write the scene with great narrative intimacy, you would leave your reader feeling that they knew your spear carrier well and that he was a much more important character than he really is. So you might want to write that scene from a bland distance, so your readers pay more attention to the facts than to the character you needed to use to convey them.

Another case where you might opt for more narrative distance is where your character is in a state of mind that's painful or difficult to inhabit. If your viewpoint character is sinking into a drug-induced delirium, for instance, you'll probably want to back away from him or her. There's only so much delirium your readers can stand.

Take for instance, Claudia Osborne's Over My Head, her memoir of how she recovered from a head injury caused by a bicycle accident. The injury robbed her of her short-term memory to the point where she had to write notes to herself reminding her to eat breakfast or carry bus fare. If she were to write scenes of her altered state with narrative intimacy, readers would be left as hopelessly confused as she was. She had to write her scenes with just enough intimacy to convey her confusion clearly.

Finally, there are certain states of mind that can only be conveyed by using narrative distance. Powerful emotions often blow through children who don't yet have the language to describe them. Truly capturing a moment of ecstasy or epiphany in words is beyond most people's capabilities. So what language do you use to convey states of mind that your characters themselves could probably never convey?

Consider the following passage from Edith Pargeter's The Eighth Champion of Christendom, in which Jim, her main character, first hears the radio announcement of England's declaration of war on Germany in 1939:

"That means we've declared war. Did you hear that, Dad? We've declared war."

"'Bout time too," said his father roundly. "Folks was beginning to wonder if they meant to."

But it was easy for him. He was old. He didn't have to turn around and look at the thing and find it the only thing in the world. His very self would endure and would not be changed. The responsibility was not his, the terror was not his. If there should be a vision, the vision would not be his, and that was gain as well as loss. To be an old man at war, with the weight of life behind you and little need to do anything about anything, that was an easy thing. But to have the whole of life ahead of you, and to have the earth reeling under your feet and the sky bowing over your head, and to feel fallen on your sole self the onus of keeping the one secure and the other suspended, that was not so easy.

He didn't think of it like that. He thought, I'll have to make up my mind what to do. Up to me to do something now.

Nothing clearer, nothing more complex than that.

Note that Pargeter's narrative voice here is quite distant. She clearly marks off Jim's conscious thoughts, for instance, and "fallen on your sole self the onus" is probably not a phrase that Jim would come up with on his own. But though the passage isn't in Jim's voice, it clearly conveys his complex state of mind at a critical moment in the story. The language is sophisticated, but because Pargeter stays focused on Jim, it never goes over the edge into purple prose.

So experiment with narrative distance. Learn to judge how close you are to your characters and to decide how close you want to be. Once you're familiar with the tool, you can use it for some remarkable effects.

Some years ago I worked with a client whose main character discovered her husband dead in their bedroom. The key scene started with her arrival home after a nighttime meeting, tracking her driving through the neighborhood, walking up her walk, moving through the house. And the closer she got to the bedroom, the more intimate the narrative grew. At the beginning her interior monologue was in the present tense and in separate paragraphs. By the time she snapped on the bedroom light and saw the body, it was in past tense and blended seamlessly with the descriptions. Readers would doubtless never notice the mechanics at work, but the effect was to subtly build the tension right up to the moment of revelation.

That's the kind of power control of your narrative distance can give you.

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