Narrative Distance


I remember when I first learned about narrative distance. I was in a workshop and someone used the term to talk about my work. I had no idea what they were talking about. At the time, I thought it was some sort of literary snobbery and that I would never need to know. But it's actually pretty important and now that I'm a more established writer, I think about it a lot.

Narrative distance refers to the space between the reader and the narrator or character in a story.

Is the reader right inside the narrator’s head feeling their emotions, hearing their thoughts and seeing the world through their eyes, or is the reader at greater remove, viewing the narrator through more of a camera lens, seeing them more objectively and not being privy to all of their thoughts?

Narrative distance is a more advanced form of POV and matters mostly in third person limited POV. In first person POV, the narrative distance is by default very close and intimate. As a result, it is sometimes the preferred POV in modern literature as it can more easily foster the desired emotional response in readers.

In third person limited POV, narrative distance can vary more, depending on the effect that the author is trying to create.

Some novels are written in close third and maintain that aspect throughout; others are written in more distant third. Most, however, pan in and out as necessary, and thus their narrative distance is on more of a continuum. The panning out effect can also be utilized to switch POVs and is sometimes referred to as the sliding POV technique.

A key element of varying narrative distance is ensuring the panning in and out of the camera lens occurs unobtrusively so that the reader does not notice it and is not jarred out of the story. Narrative distance is important for establishing character and pacing. In emotional moments when the character is upset or the pacing is fast, a closer narrative distance is often preferable as it lends an urgency to the writing. In quieter moments, it is sometimes better to pan out.

Techniques for Establishing Narrative Distance

1)  Use of vocabulary and grammar

The words a character uses are reflective of their education, culture, intelligence, age and worldview. If you present facts or scenes using the words that the character utilizes in their thoughts and dialogue, you are narrowing the narrative distance. If you utilize a different voice to describe scenes or events – perhaps one that is more articulate or descriptive you are creating greater narrative distance.

2) Choices regarding what is observed and how the character feels about them

What a character observes and views to be important in a scene is also reflective of their character and state of mind. A man might not notice a messy house and would not be concerned about it if he did,  whereas a woman might be acutely aware of and troubled by the piles of unfolded laundry strewn about. If a character is fleeing or emotionally overwrought, they may notice less, or focus only on specific things. If what is presented in a scene is only what the character would consider to be important, you are narrowing the narrative distance, whereas presenting the scene from a more objective standpoint widens it.

3)  Management of interior monologue

The manner in which the writer handles interior monologue also has significant impact on narrative distance. In close third person POV, interior monologue is often blended right into scene descriptions and events. In more distant third person POV, the writer will often distinguish interior monologue with italics or ‘he wondered’ and ‘she thought.’ Some would argue thatt o convey a complete sense of intimacy in third person POV, one can shift from third person POV to first for interior monologues. However this is a technique that should probably only be utilized by accomplished writers.

4)  Provision of facts as part of the scene

When the narrative distance is greater, writers will often provide facts for the reader as part of the scene or event description, such as names of places, important background information, last names of characters. For example, “She walked down Spring Garden Lane.” When the writer is utilizing a narrow narrative distance, they will often not provide these same facts, as it would be unusual for the character to think of the name of the street as they walk down it, if it is a street they frequent regularly.

5)  Use of tags on observed elements of a scene

The use of tags such as “She saw the trees were a resplendent green,” or “He glimpsed the man hiding in the trees,” increases narrative distance. We don’t think in our own minds “I see the trees,” we just see the trees. A closer narrative distance in these cases would be to say "The trees were a resplendent green," or "The man hid in the trees."

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