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Five Tools for Controlling Narrative Distance

There are two ways to convey the substance of a story: to float apart from it or to dive into the deep end.


But once a writer has decided on an approach, how is that closeness or distance achieved?


There are lots of great articles written about narrative distance (for a list of some of my favorites, see the end of this article) and many examples of distant passages vs. close passages, but I've yet to come across a breakdown of the specific tools writers use to create, or lessen, distance.*


This may be because most of these articles are by talented novelists who intuitively get it. But as a line editor, I often grapple with the whys so I can justify the changes that I suggest: Why this word and not that? Why does this sentence feel jarring or out of place here but works there?


But before we get to the tools, first thing first.

 
*Since writing this article, I came across an article called Voice in Fiction by novelist Susan Vreeland. She makes a lot of the same points I make in this blog post, but includes wonderful examples from her own novels showing how to move between a distant and close narrative voice.

What is narrative distance anyway?


Narrative distance is the perceived distance between the narrator in a work of fiction and the main characters in the story.


Imagine your story is a movie and then ask yourself where the camera lens is at any given time. Is it overhead, taking in a whole battlefield and observing the action from above? Is it hovering near a group of characters and focusing on whichever one is currently the most interesting to the story? Is it sitting on the shoulder of one character in particular? Or is it inside the head of that character, looking out through their eyes and hearing their thoughts?


The three elements of narrative distance


I think of narrative distance as consisting of three different elements: psychic distance, temporal distance, and spatial distance. But these aren't really separate entities; they intertwine to create an overall feeling of distance (or lack thereof) and can't always be teased apart.


Psychic distance:

This term is often used interchangeably with narrative distance. Essentially, it's how aligned to a character's psyche the narration feels.


Do the narrator and the main character feel like the same person all the time, some of the time, never? The closer the psychic distance, the more immediate the character's experiences feel.


Spatial distance:

Is the narrator viewing the scene from physically far away (bird's-eye view) or zoomed in close? Psychic distance and spatial distance are theoretically two different things, but in practice are pretty much interchangeable.


Temporal distance:

In some stories, the narrator is recounting events retrospectively, with the wisdom and perspective that comes from the passage of time. In others, the events feel like they're being described as they unfold, as if they're happening in the present.


If the narrator isn't existing in the same moment as the action, then even though the narrator may be the same person as the main character (in first person stories*), the narrator is a separate entity—a future self—and the narration will feel distant.

 
*A note about first person: Most of what is written about narrative distance in this article, and other articles on narrative distance, is specific to third person. This is because a first person story is necessarily being told from the perspective of a character. The character and the narrator are one and the same. However, there can be two distinct narrators in a first person past story: a retrospective narrator and an experiencing narrator. When this is the case, the narrative distance in first person can vary in a similar way to third person stories. For more on this, see the last section of this article.

The variability of narrative distance


The narrative distance in a given work of fiction doesn't have to stay the same throughout. In fact, the ability to zoom in and out is an important factor in the flexibility of a third person point of view. (For more, see this blog post on POV, and this article by Sarah Callender at writerunboxed.com.)


However, any changes in narrative distance should be smooth, deliberate, and controlled—otherwise you'll jar or confuse the reader. But how is this done?


First, an example from John Gardner's The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. This example is used in articles/blog posts about narrative distance all the time, and for good reason: it clearly demonstrates differing levels of narrative distance, from far distant (1) to extremely close (5), with each subsequent sentence zooming in closer to the character.


1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snow.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul ...

According to Emma Darwin in this article for jerichowriters.com, most contemporary authors hang out around level 3 and 4, and that zooming out for transitions (or to switch to another character's point of view) usually involves moving from 4 to 3 to 2 (the neutral narrator level), then back, 2 to 3 to 4. Level 1 is useful for setting the scene, and level 5 is useful for intensely emotional moments or temporary breaks with reality.


But what elements in your writing serve to control these levels?


Controlling narrative distance mostly boils down to diction (a fancy way of saying word choice). But which words create distance, and which words draw in the reader?


I've grouped the words that affect narrative distance into five categories, but these categories aren't necessarily distinct—there's some overlap.



The tools that control narrative distance


1. How you refer to your characters


Titles

Titles create the most distance. Notice that in sentence 1, the character is referred to by an impersonal label—"a large man"—rather than a name. Titles and labels create distance: the young woman, the doctor, a handsome man.


A common error inexperienced writers make is to try to avoid repetition of names or pronouns by suddenly referring to a character by a descriptive title, inadvertently creating a jarring shift in narrative distance (and sometimes confusing the reader about who's being referred to).


Names

Names can be distancing, but aren't always. Sentence 2 contains a full name, which is more distancing than just a first name, as in sentence 3. Nicknames and shortened forms of names bring you even closer to the character.


Pronouns

And while names create less distance than labels, they create more distance than pronouns, which show up in sentence 4 and sentence 5. One way to go deeper in third person is to avoid using names for your POV characters except where they're needed for clarity.


2. Filter words


Filter words describe the act of experiencing from a narrator's point of view. Since these words act as a filter between the character's immediate experience and the reader, using them increases distance. Examples of filter words include noticed, knew, realized, saw, felt, wondered, thought.



While filter words are often considered detrimental to writing, they're extremely useful for increasing narrative distance when needed for a transition. (For an example of this, see my analysis of an excerpt from Ain't She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips in "Writing Wrongs: Mind Your POV Ps and Qs"). Like many tools that can be overused and misused, filter words have been unfairly maligned.


That said, if your goal is to decrease narrative distance and write in a close POV, cutting most of the filter words is a great way to do so.


3. Time and position markers


These are words that show the reader the vantage point of the narrator in either time or space. A distant narrator would use words that convey temporal and spatial distance, and an experiencing narrator would primarily use words of immediacy.



Is the narrator aligned with the POV character? Then the narrator/character is telling the story as it unfolds and speaking from the vantage point of the present time of the story. That narrator will use words that convey immediacy like now and today.


Is the narrator distant, either because it's a future time (a retrospective narrator) or because they're merely an observer of the action? Then words that convey distance from the events of the story will usually work better.


For a more in-depth explanation of when to use words of immediacy and distance, see this article.


The next two categories aren't specific types of words, but rather an overall tone that's achieved through the sum total of your word, syntax, and even punctuation choices.


4. Register


Register refers to the overall level of formality in a particular passage of writing. It can vary from sentence to sentence, or even from clause to clause. (Though these types of abrupt shifts are often jarring to the reader.)


High diction or a formal tone tends to create distance.


Proper grammar, eschewing contractions, and using Latinate words instead of Germanic words are all things that, when done in combination, contribute to a formal tone and create distance.


(There's a reason many writers—mistakenly—believe you shouldn't use contractions in the narrative, only in dialogue. Because in the past, when omniscient narrators were more common, narration tended to be more formal than reported speech.)


Low diction, or direct colloquial speech, tends to lessen distance.


Abruptly varied sentences, sentence fragments, slang, and sensory details all serve to lessen distance.



For a vivid example of the difference between formal and informal tone, take a look at the contrast between sentence 2 and sentence 4 from the example above:


2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snow.
4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.

And for more on register in creative writing, check out this excellent article by Jimmy Kindree.


5. Voice


When it comes to writing, the term "voice" is often used to describe the authorial voice—the particular voice of a particular author that distinguishes them from all others—but I'm using it here to refer to the voice of the narrator, and how distinct it is from the voice of the point-of-view character.


The more defined and separate the voice of the narrator is from the voice of the focus character or characters, the more distant the narration feels. And the more the personality of the main character colors/aligns with the narration, the closer the reader feels to the character's psyche.


How the writer chooses to style a character's thoughts plays a big part in this.


Distant narrative voice: As Henry walked along the road, he thought, What a
beautiful day. I can't believe it's not even spring yet.

In the previous example, the narrator is a separate entity from Henry and is observing his actions and reporting his thoughts to the reader. Thought tags are useful to convey this kind of distance between the narrator and the focus character.


But putting the character's direct thoughts in italics eliminates the need for tags, which reduces the perceived distance between the narrator's voice and the character's.


Closer narrative voice: Henry walked along the side of the road, enjoying the warm
sunshine. God, what a beautiful day. I can't believe it's not even spring yet.

Free indirect speech

When the point of view character's voice aligns with the narrator's, this is called free indirect speech (or free indirect style/discourse). FIS is an amazing tool for achieving a close point of view.


Close narrative voice: Henry walked along the side of the road, enjoying the warm
sunshine. God, what a beautiful day. He couldn't believe it wasn't even spring yet.

Free indirect speech is the character's thoughts, but instead of being in present tense like dialogue, they are written in the narrative tense (usually third person past). Using FIS to create a close POV rivals, and possibly exceeds, the intimacy created by a first person POV, while still maintaining the flexibility of a third person POV.

 

So there you have it. The tools didn't fall into perfectly neat categories, but creative writing can be a wild and unruly beast, not lending itself to straightforward analysis. And I expect to refine and deepen my thinking on this topic with each manuscript I edit.


But hopefully my attempt the pin narrative distance down a bit contributes to someone else's understanding of an often difficult concept. I know that planning and writing this article certainly helped clarify my own thinking.

 

Already nailed the big picture elements like point-of-view and narrative distance? Check out my fiction style guide for advice on getting your manuscript as clean, clear, and consistent as possible. And if you're ready to hand your manuscript off to a professional, check out my services page, or drop me a line.



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