Think about the books you’ve read that have made a lasting impression upon you – the books that you go back to many times. Then think about the ones that you enjoyed well enough for one reading, but then went in the charity shop box. What made the difference?
There are lots of aspects of books that we enjoy – there might be a cast of amusing, well-observed characters, an intriguing mystery, a fast-paced adventure that hooks us in from the first page, or a fascinating historical setting with beautiful descriptions. But I think one factor that makes a difference between a book you enjoy quite superficially, and one that really gets under your skin, is narrative distance.
What is narrative distance?
This sounds mysterious, but really isn’t. Narrative distance is, essentially, how far away the narrator is from the viewpoint character. When the narrator is furthest out, they give the impression of not really being with the character at all, but are viewing events as a stranger. This can give a cinematic feel to a big scene that’s visually appealing, but it carries with it a risk of losing touch with the character. There’s also the danger of slipping into neutral viewpoint, which I discuss here, in which all actions are observable by everyone, and we forget which viewpoint character we’re with. Head-hopping and other viewpoint errors then lurk, waiting to catch us out.
When narrative distance is at its closest, the narrator almost is the character, and conveys what the character feels, thinks, reflects, wants – moment by moment through the scene. If you want your reader to experience events as your character experiences them, then closeness will be required. This may not be sustainable all the time, and there may be times when we want to step back from the current scene and reflect on events in the past, for example.
Emma Darwin’s blog here gives some great examples in which she describes the same scene but at varying levels of narrative distance (she calls it ‘psychic distance’, but there’s too much of an overtone of the ouija board in that term for me). Note how the descriptions go from distant (impersonal and quite vague statements) to close (the character’s specific feelings are given as facts within the general narrative – they’re not given as thoughts or dialogue, but we know that those statements are how the character feels).
While your narrative distance can vary through your story, I’ll be bold and give the view that unless you spend a substantial amount of time up close to a select few viewpoint characters, your book is unlikely to make a lasting impression. You may entertain, you may intrigue, you may have your reader turning the pages at high speed. But they’re unlikely to feel that they’ve seen into the soul of the person whose conflict is driving the story, and they won’t feel bereft at the loss of a soulmate when they reach the end. They won’t keep that book on the shelf and reach for it when they want to be reminded of their old friend.
Third and first person
If you’re writing in the third person, have a look here at Jane Friedman’s blog. This gives a great analysis of third-person viewpoints, describing them as omniscient, limited and deep.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that closeness is automatic if you write in the first person. The narrator and character are one and the same, but you still have to work to make the reader feel that they’re gaining an understanding of the character, rather than just observing events. The Jericho Writers piece here gives a great demonstration of this.
And note that I mentioned ‘a select few’ viewpoint characters above – it’s asking the impossible if you want your reader to have a close relationship with a cast of a dozen people (unless you’re writing The Lord of the Rings). You simply can’t give enough ‘on-stage’ time to all of them frequently enough. I sometimes feel dazed by the troops of characters that some books parade before me.
You’ll find it rewarding if you get up close to your characters, and make them the true heart of your story. Closing that distance will make the difference, I promise.
Originally posted 9 April 2021