Using Narrative Distance to Create Compelling Stories
If you were to step onto a film set today just as the director called ‘action!’, you’d see the camera focused on the scene in hand. It won’t, however, stay still. It will move with the action, zooming in and out, changing angles, shifting positions.
Narrative distance refers to how close your readers are to your character(s). There’s no single, optimum position, rather a spectrum. You must decide how close the narrative should be to the action for the most significant impact.
Do your readers need to be far away so they can take in the full picture; so close they can hear the faintest whisper or somewhere in between?
Making the right choices can have a powerful impact on your prose.
How far away are your characters?
Narrative distance is also referred to as psychic distance, a term that novelist and Professor John Gardner breaks down beautifully in his book The Art of Fiction.
As writers, it’s our job to see how far we can take our readers inside a character’s head. Here are two examples of narrative distance in third and first person point of view.
- It was the winter of 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
- In the far off days of Uther Pendragon, witches stalked the earth.
The narrative distance feels like a voice-over in a film. The narrator is relaying details about the characters and their personality, or the setting of the story. The narrator is in charge, giving us the information we need. However, this can lead to us telling rather than showing.
How the reader feels and how involved they are will strengthen their enjoyment of the story. We must, therefore, get closer at times, expressing a character’s thoughts and feelings, bringing the reader deeper inside their head through introspection or dialogue.
Five levels of narrative distance
John Gardner breaks narrative distance down into five simple levels:
- Remote – It was the winter of 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
- Telling – John Smith preferred the summer to winter.
- Includes personality – John loathed the winter.
- Starts the shift – Good gracious, how he hated these cold mornings.
- Close-up – Icy pathways that threatened to harm should you set your foot in the wrong place, the constant chill in the air that never ceases, snow falling in a continuous torrent adding to the weight on your shoulders…
When writing scenes, consider what level your narrative distance needs to be.
Sometimes, you may just need to set the scene or give perspective and you can do this at a distance. Other times you may need to bring the reader closer to the characters so they can engage with more intimate scenes, not just seeing but feeling the action.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. It can take time to get it right and it can be helpful to get feedback from others, one of the reasons writing groups are invaluable.
Narrative distance is an excellent tool when used effectively. The transition from narrator to character needs to be subtle so as not to pull the reader needlessly from your story.
Slide smoothly up and down the levels and give your narrative impact.