Making the Most of Narrative Distance

What is ‘Narrative Distance’?

Narrative distance is the distance between your narrator and the story they are telling. All narrators exist on the spectrum and can move along it. Think of it like watching a movie. Different types of shots are used to portray different things; Wide, panning shots are usually used to showcase scenery or scenes with large amounts of action, while close-ups are much more people and detail focused, drawing attention to particular movements or objects that carry meaning.

So you understand how camera angles are used in films, so how does this differ in writing? Not much, to be fair. Although writing allows us to go one place cameras can’t go; inside the minds and bodies of our characters.

The way you use narrative distance can affect all sorts of things, from speeding up or slowing down pacing, to engaging your reader emotionally or even manipulating your reader. However, your Point of View can also uniquely affect the spectrum available for you to slide along and also how your writing is received.


Narrative Distance in First Person POV

First Person is arguably the closest you can get in terms of narrative distance and is somewhat the most limiting. First Person gives you the bonus of the ‘extreme close-up’ (focusing on thoughts and feelings) and communicating your story through your character’s voice. For this reason, narrative distance can be affected by your character’s state of mind, and you don’t have much say on the matter (e.g. If you character is drunk, being eloquent and detailed in your writing won’t fit well). If you’d like to greatly increase your distance in this POV, your character must have a good vantage point to observe the scene playing out before them.

Narrative Distance in Third Person: Limited POV

Writing in Third Person: Limited gives you a little more flexibility to writing in First Person. You do not have to adhere to your character’s emotional state when describing scenes. Your character’s thoughts and feelings are being communicated through an objective filter, giving you the freedom to fluctuate your distance and tone regardless of your MC. Your narrative distance will never be as close, but remember;While in this POV, you still should only be describing what your character is privy to.

Narrative Distance in Third Person: Omniscient POV

Within Third Person: Omniscient, you have the Objective and the Subjective narrator. Both of these narrators have the ability to increase narrative distance exponentially, looking at a scene from space, if you want to! You have the benefit of utilising dramatic irony in where you place your ‘cameras’. However, only a Subjective narrator will have the ability to pull in for extreme close-ups that involve delving inside characters’ heads to unpack their thoughts and feelings (physical and emotional).


When to Zoom In

Characterised by focusing on intricate details and character thoughts and feelings.

  • During emotional scenes. Focusing closely on your characters’ reactions communicates emotion with impact.

  • During intimate scenes. There are three levels of narrative distance at which you can write sex and foreplay. The first, and furthest out, is the most graphic; it includes sights, physical feelings, emotions, and thoughts. However, physical intimacy doesn’t need to be graphic, and when you think about it, the closer you are to a person, the more you start to feel over see. This brings us to the next level of distance, where few sights are given, and description is largely dedicated to physical sensations alongside emotional and thought reactions. There will still be a certain amount of eroticism at this level, but substantially less, which opens you up to a more ‘squeamish’ audience. The third level, and closest, inv