Nefarious Narrative Distance

My name is Bluestocking and I have a problem with narrative distance.

Or at least that’s one of my problems. As I polish my historical romance novel, I keep finding sentences that just fall flat, DOA. Nothing’s wrong with them grammatically, but they simply aren’t doing enough work for my story. They are missed opportunities for character and voice, and as such, they keep reminding readers that yes, you are reading a story. Hence the narrative distance.

I’ve known for some time that this was an issue with my writing, particularly with this book, since it’s my first novel. I kept getting the agent equivalent of “I’m just not feeling it” and had to work out what that meant. Because I’ve been toiling away on this story over a period of years, it’s been subjected to the full range of my writing abilities — the good and the bad — and I’m at the point where I can finally see the bad and get rid of it.

This difficulty with narrative distance, especially in third person, is what led to my resolve to write in first person for any new writing projects (even those that will ultimately be in third person), and I’ve seen a tremendous improvement in my ability to capture my character’s voices and deepen the story’s immediacy. And while all that is great, it doesn’t help me go back and revise stories I wrote before I attained enlightenment on this issue.

So let’s hash out narrative distance.

Dave King (who co-authored Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) says narrative distance is “a more advanced use of point of view” particular to third person and “a continuum that measures how close your narrative voice is to your viewpoint character’s voice” (from Decoding Narrative Distance). Essentially, when handled poorly, it’s can be a more subtle, or shall we say nefarious, type of author intrusion (and Roni Loren has a great roundup in her recent post Author Intrusion: 12 Pitfalls To Avoid).

King also says:

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”).” (also from Decoding Narrative Distance)

Some stories will work more naturally with close, medium, or far distance. But as Jennifer R. Hubbard (author of The Secret Year) says in her post on Narrative Distance: “In general, a story with very close narrative distance must stay consistently close, or risk disorienting its reader.” In Character, Emotion, Viewpoint, author Nancy Kress suggests when using close third person, “start chapters with the more distant narrative you want to include, then move in closer to the character’s mind and stay there. This duplicates the movement of a camera in film as it glides from a set-up shot to a close-up” (2005, p. 187)

Like everything else in writing, the level of narrative distance must be balanced with other elements of craft. As Janice Hardy (author of the Healing Wars trilogy) points out in Keeping Your Distance, far narrative distance can make it feel like you are telling instead of showing your story, whereas close narrative distance can drag your story down with too much detail and reaction to every single thing.

Because narrative distance goes hand-in-hand with POV, it is important you understand those conventions, which are covered in any halfway decent book on writing. But if you are looking for a more technical examination of POV, check out Juliette Wade’s article on Point of View.

So what am I actually doing to remove the distance from my manuscript (and tightening POV by extension)?

  1. Making sentences as active and immediate as possible, except when passive is appropriate (ex. when something is being done to my viewpoint character).
  2. Which brings me to mimetic writing, where sentences mimic the action they are describing. This is especially important for action scenes or emotionally charged moments. Be sure to read Mary Kole’s post on this for a great overview of the concept.
  3. Removing filter words and (if necessary) recasting the intent of the sentence – things like “he felt/heard/smelled/tasted” or “she thought/knew/believed.” Chuck Palahniuk has a great essay on “Thought” verbs that is a must read.
  4. Ensuring worldbuilding, backstory, or other “infodumps” are incorporated as seamlessly and naturally as possible from my character’s perspective. This is hard to do in historicals and in speculative works (and I write both), where worldbuilding is so crucial to a convincing narrative. Anytime you stop the story to explain something to the reader, automatic narrative distance. Author Beth Revis recently pointed out the difference between “the door opened” and “the door zipped open” in her post My Best Tips with regards to seamless worldbuilding.

I’m sure there are more ways to improve things, but this is what I’m focused on during this pass through my MS.

What are your tricks?
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4 thoughts on “Nefarious Narrative Distance

  1. K.D. says:

    Great info here. I love 1st person, both reading and writing it. It adds an immediacy and makes it all seem more real/”present” for me.

    Also, I love your Blogger profile about me. Very well-worded. 🙂

  2. K.M. Weiland says:

    This is a fabulous post! I wish all my clients could read your tips here. Narrative distance is something so many newbie authors have a difficult time wrapping their minds around. But once an author “gets” it, a whole new world of story possibilities open up.

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