Making the Most of Narrative Distance
Updated: Sep 16
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, involves ‘zooming in’ to the maximum extent, to the point all your reader is experiencing is your character’s thoughts and emotions - with very little specific physical sensations. At this level, your scenes of intimacy will be meant as more meaningful, than erotic.
Consider this excerpt from Claire Atkins’ novel Nona and Me at an extremely close narrative distance.
I feel his hands at my shoulders, pulling my dress straps down, touching my bra. My head is spinning. What the hell is happening? It’s too much too fast. Then Nick’s on top of me, grinding into my pelvis. I can feel him hard against me. I am pinned to his mattress. I can hardly breathe. My thoughts are a blur. What did I expect? He’s in Year 12. He probably does this all the time. Does he really like me? Oh my God. He’s taking my bra off. He knows how to undo the back. He’s definitely done this before.
Atkins maintains a very close narrative distance during this scene, only punctuating her narration with action to maintain context. The focus is on the MC’s thoughts about the situation. Now, let’s consider a scene with the narrative distance moved farther out in Aimee Bender’s Quiet Please.
Inside the back room, the woman has crawled out from underneath the man. Now fuck me like a dog, she tells him. She grips a pillow in her fists and he breathes behind her, hot air down her back which is starting to sweat and slip on his stomach. She doesn’t want him to see her face because it is blowing up inside, red and furious, and she’s grimacing at the pale white wall which is cool when she puts her hand on it to help her push back into him, get his dick to fill up her body until there’s nothing left of her inside: just dick.
This scene is clearly much more erotic, describing to the reader not only the MC’s feelings on the situation but also her physical experiences with more visual detail.
To slow down your pacing. Focusing on smaller details has the effect of slowing down your pacing, as you spend more time on tiny, but meaningful visuals. There are a couple of reasons why you might want to slow your pacing during a specific moment in your plot. Firstly, you may wish to build suspense. Slowing your pacing before big reveals keeps your reader waiting with bated breath. Think about the moment in a movie when an agent is taking aim to shoot the man holding his partner at gunpoint. The scene slows; we see his eyes focusing, we see the terror on his partner’s face, we see two fingers on two triggers, tightening, ready. All of this is meant to build suspense and give the viewer (and in our case, the reader) time to consider each possibility and the consequences. After or during a detrimental revelation or action. When our bodies are filled with adrenaline, it can feel like the world is slowing down around us. Really, this just our perception of the world becoming more acute. We become more aware. In writing, it can make sense for scenes filled with fast paced action to suddenly slow down before or during a final blow. The benefit of this is that it places more emphasis on the blow, allowing the reader to fully take in what has just happened, and, just as I said before, consider the consequences before it has even been confirmed.
Take this example from J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
The second jet of light hit him square on the chest. The laughter had not quite died from [Sirius’] face, but his eyes widened in shock. Harry released Neville, though he was unaware of doing so. He was jumping down the steps again, pulling out his wand, as Dumbledore, too, turned towards the dais. It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall: his body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backwards through the ragged veil hanging from the arch. Harry saw the look of mingled fear and surprise on his godfather’s wasted, once-handsome face as he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which fluttered for a moment as though in a high wind, then fell back into place.
Consider the two paragraphs in bold compared to the first three. In the first three, Rowling presents a series of actions without any interference in thought. The pacing is quick, and the narrative distance about medium-far. However, come the fourth paragraph, the pacing significantly slows as the narrative distance moves in. Rowling spends time explaining exactly how Sirius is falling, what his face looks like, the fluttering of the veil as he falls through it. It almost feels as though the rest of the scene has been blocked out, and we are focused solely on this one, detrimental moment in Harry’s life; the loss of his godfather.
To disorientate. Zooming in on objects, feelings, and actions without context can quicken your pacing, and create a dizzying, disorientating effect. This is great to use when: Characters are under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or even poison. Characters are on the verge of passing out from injury, panic, etc. Characters are in intense pain, unable to focus on anything but. Characters are being ambushed or surprised by an assailant. Characters have just experienced something emotionally traumatic.
I use this technique in my novel Seeking Shadows when two characters walk into a trap.
A shooting pain flashed across my shoulder blades, pushing me forwards. My arms flailed out to catch my fall, Luc’s body tangling with my own. Sharp grit bit into my forearms and a mess of dark lines obscured my vision. “Balance!” I cursed as my nose smacked into the ground.
When to Zoom Out
Characterised by sweeping statements addressing broad details, with little to no mention of character thoughts and feelings.
Setting the scene. Your characters have just entered a new environment, so what do you do? You zoom out, presenting a great, wide, panning shot to give your reader context and wow them with visuals. When zoomed out, you have the benefit of not being inside your character’s head. This means you can get away with exposition. However, keep it concise and relevant. Remember; when zoomed out, make sure your characters have a good vantage point. You can’t describe what they can’t see or don’t know unless writing in Omniscient.
Here's an example from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien.
There was a specially large pavilion, so big that the tree that grew in the field was right inside it, and stood proudly near one end, at the head of the chief table. Lanterns hung on all its branches. More promising still (to the hobbits' mind): an enormous open-air kitchen was erected in the north corner of the field. A draught of cooks, from every inn and eating-house for miles around, arrived to supplement the dwarves and other odd folk that were quartered at Bag End.
In this extract, Tolkien maintains a 'far' narrative distance when describing the set up of the party at Bag End. No detail is dwelled on for more than a sentence, and exposition is expertly intertwined with visuals to give the reader backstory without drawing them out of the scene being painted.
During large scenes of jumbled action (such as battlegrounds). Mentioning all that’s happening in a single paragraph emphasises busyness and chaos.
Take this extract from Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, for example:
The children streamed after [Lyra], every one, dodging the snapping jaws of the wolves and racing as hard as they could down the avenue towards the beckoning open dark beyond. A harsh scream came from behind as an officer shouted an order, and then a score of rifle bolts worked at once, and then there was another scream and a tense silence, with only the fleeing children’s pounding feet and gasping breath to be heard. They were taking aim. They wouldn’t miss. But before they could fire, a choking gasp came from one of the Tartars, and a cry of surprise from another.
During this scene, Pullman is paying little attention to Lyra specifically, instead opting to show what is going on around her. He has zoomed out of the scene, allowing the reader to get an impression of everything that’s going on. By including lots of different actions in different areas across the same paragraph, and even the same sentence, Pullman is appropriately illustrating the bedlam of the scene.
During extreme trauma/pain. Sometimes characters will go through a moment of such intense pain or trauma that they disassociate. At moments like this, you will likely remove yourself from their head completely, focusing solely on actions that others are performing on your character; sitting them down, holding them back, pulling them away, etc. In terms of scenery, sensations will be describe in relation to a sense, rather than alone. (E.g. ‘Birds chirped’ becomes ‘He heard birds chirp.’) At stages like this, it is okay to use passive voice.
When to Stay in the Middle
And finally, you don’t have to always be ‘close’ or ‘far’. In fact, I suggest that the majority of the time you stay comfortably somewhere in the middle. That way, when you do zoom in or out at appropriate times, those moments have more impact as they will clearly contrast with the rest of your narration.
During dialogue is a good time to stay in the middle. Unless your character is watching someone closely, there’s no need to be too close. Likewise, don’t go too far; you still need access to your MC’s reactions
Bonus point! Ever wondered how to pass time using narrative distance? Well, there are two ways; you can go extremely close, or extremely far. When close, descend into your character's thoughts. Give no visual context (this includes actions and dialogue), and simply allow them to lose track of time while they mull over whatever is relevant. On the other side, you may wish to go far. This is when you zoom out and give detail on the changing scenery (think landscapes), or simply dissolve the scene in exposition. The key is to jump straight back into middle or the opposite extreme as soon as you 'press play' and find yourself back in the scene. If you continue into your scene at the same distance you were passing time, your risk your reader not realising the scene has restarted.
Here's an example of how to pass 24 hours in a breath.
Then the weather clouded over. That was on Wednesday the eve of the Party. Anxiety was intense. Then Thursday, September the 22nd, actually dawned.
Got to love Tolkien!
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