Narrative Distance: What It Is and How to Use It Effectively

Narrative distance is the distance between the reader and the characters. With a close narrative distance, you feel more connected to the point of view character, and with a wide one, you’re further removed from the character. Essentially, with a close distance, you are in the characters’ heads and living the story.

In their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King beautifully explain how a close narrative distance can help your story:

“One of the most vital and difficult tasks facing a writer is creating believable and engaging characters, and an intimate [narrative distance] is a terrific way to do this. When you use your characters’ language in your descriptions, you not only convey the sights and sounds around them, you also convey their history, their education, and the culture they live in, without any additional effort. . . .

“When your descriptions simply convey information to your readers, they interrupt the story and slow the pace down. To avoid this, many writers pare description down to a bare minimum, often    leaving their writing sterile and their pace overly uniform. When description also conveys a character’s personality or mood, you can use it to vary your pace or add texture without interrupting the flow. The description itself advances the story. ”

You can create a variety of levels of narrative distance by carefully selecting

  • Word choice
  • What to focus on and what to ignore
  • Whether to emphasize the character’s thoughts and emotions

Narrative Distance Levels and Examples

The widest distance is like a bird’s-eye view. A bird can see the general details but not any personal or intimate details.

The closest distance is all about focusing on one character at a time and revealing their emotions and thoughts through their perspective.

With that said, narrative distance is a spectrum, not just wide and close. These examples only show three or four points on that spectrum. But other levels exist.

 

In third person

Widest distance: A woman rushed into the office building as the hail beat down on her.We know nothing about the character. Seems to be an omniscient narrator telling what is happening. Details a bird could see.

Not-as-wide distance: A woman, looking haggard, closed her car door and rushed into the office as the hail beat down on her.

The omniscient bird’s-eye-view narrator comments on the character (she looks haggard).

Medium narrow distance: Kayla Ernestine rushed into the office building. Another day at a job she hated.

We now know the character’s name and a detail about her experience (she hates her job). This detail is not something a bird could gather, as it isn’t something seen, but rather something the narrator just knows.

Narrow distance: Of course it was hailing again. Why did she stay in this horrible city working at her unfulfilling job? She knew why. But still. Why? Even the door into the office posed another obstacle. The damn door should just open with a keycard or a code. But, nope, multiple times a day she struggled with the door.

We are now in the character’s thoughts, expressed in her voice. This is called free indirect speech (her words in third-person as the narrator).

 

In first person

While first-person is inherently more intimate, given the whole story is told from the character, you still have a spectrum with the narrative distance.

Widest distance: Decades ago, a seed was planted that would change the lives of many.We know nothing about the first person character in this statement.

Medium distance: My mom told us the story of the magical seed that was planted decades ago. I marveled at the seed, at the possibilities it provided. I often thought of who would unlock its final powers.

We know a little of what the character thinks and how she reacted to the story, but these thoughts and feelings are told, not shown.

Narrow distance:  Wide eyed, I listened to my mom tell the story of the magical seed. As I glanced at my siblings, love and gratitude pulsed through my veins. This seed had saved them. But it could do even more. More? I shook my head and let out a laugh. Someone out there could unlock it. Probably Anitra. She certainly was good, maybe too good, and showed strength of character. It wasn’t me. It was never me. I didn’t even get saved by the seed. Maybe I could become worthy. Ha! Who am I kidding. Being perfect sucks, like draining-your-soul suck.

We are inside the character’s thoughts, expressed in her voice.


When to Go Wide and When to Go Close

You’re not limited to using only one narrative distance throughout an entire story. At times, you may need to go wider, and at other times, you may need to go closer.

While there are many blogs on how to close the narrative distance, at times you have a good reason to stay wide. It all depends on what effect you want to achieve in that very moment. It’s just like showing instead of telling: you need a balance of both to make for a dynamic story.

Combining both the narrator’s and the character’s voices in third-person and changing how much you get inside the head of the first-person character makes for a better read.

Going wide

You may want to go wide when you’re

  • Setting the scene: If you want to just set the scene and don’t need to develop the character at that moment, it’s fine to go wide. Perhaps our character feels nothing about the hail and likes her job (or her dislike of her job has already been established or will be later), then it’s fine to just say “Kayla rushed into the office building as the hail beat down on her.”
    • This establishes the setting: it is hailing and she is at her office building.
  • Stating needed information: In a first-person story not every scene and detail needs to be recounted from the voice and inner feelings of the character. You can just state the needed information, such as “My mom told us the story of the magical seed that was planted decades ago. I marveled at the seed, at the possibilities it provided. I often thought of who would unlock its final powers.”
  • Wanting readers to focus more on the action than the characters: Perhaps you have a scene with a physical fight between two characters. For the first segment (the initial swing and punches), you may opt to just describe the actual physical movement. Then as you move in the next segment of the fight, the viewpoint character can express their thoughts and feelings during the fight. Or you may stay wide the whole fight long and give the feelings after.
  • Writing a scene from a minor character’s viewpoint: If you write with a close distance, the reader will think the character is more important than they are. This also can take away from the room you need to go deeper with your main characters.
  • Describing a situation outside the character’s understanding and vocabulary: If your point of view character is a child or uneducated or doesn’t have the life experience to understand the situation, you can use a wide narrative distance to detail the situation.

 

Going close

Unless you have a reason to write the majority of your story at a wider distance (e.g., Little Fires Everywhere), you will want to close the majority of the time. My next blog details how to go close and get a deeper interority.


Transitioning from various spectrum levels

It can be disorienting to jump from a distant to close narrative, so you want to ensure a smooth transition.

This example is pieced together from various examples from Browne and King about narrative distance. I added in a transition between the wide and medium, then I wrote the close section.

“In small South Carolina towns, most houses are built in the shade of tall trees. Each autumn, the children charged with the yard care curse the leaves that seem to multiply. [Carol Blake was cursing them now.] . . .  She mopped the gritty sweat out of her eyes [hating the momentary sting] and gazed up at the dusty green underside of the oak. The dog days of August had settled in, it seemed, and like most [children] in Greeleyville, South Carolina, she took cover from the sun on her [beloved] front porch.”

While the cover shielded her from the sun, it couldn’t shield her anger. The big tree on the left side was a nuisance. Why had her parents insisted on keeping it? They had enough shade. Sure, she would still have to rake leaves. But not as many. Seriously, no one had to rake as many as she did. Penny needed to shut her mouth about how much she hated it. Her yard was small, the trees tiny. Ha! She wouldn’t last a day raking the Blake’s yard.


Conclusion

A balance of distant and close narrative distance can help keep your readers engaged. You don’t want to tell everything through the character’s perspective; sometime you just need to state facts.

But at the same time, unless your story has a wider narrative distance throughout for a reason, you want to close the distance more often than not. Readers want to feel like they are in the story and feel a connection with the character, even if it is a negative connection.

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