December 6, 2019

The Levels of Narrative Distance

This is the second of a three-part series exploring the mechanics of point of view: what the elements are and how they can be manipulated for greater writing success.

Today’s post covers the other elements of point of view: Number of Accessed Viewpoints and Narrative Distance. Part 1 distinguishes the three crucial roles every author must step into in order for point of view to be properly executed.

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The Elements of Point of View Continued . . .

There are five primary elements that comprise point of view:


  • Grammatical Person
  • Pronoun Number
  • Verb Tense
  • Number of Accessed Viewpoints
  • Narrative Distance

Last week, we covered the first three elements. Let's jump back in!

4) Number of Accessed Viewpoints

Your narrator can either have unlimited access to all viewpoints, including animal and non-sentient perspectives, limited access to a certain number of character viewpoints, or no access to any viewpoint at all.

Here is where your first, second, or third person narrator becomes an omniscient narrator!

Omniscient

If your narrator is omniscient, he can access and share many viewpoints, along with exercising other special abilities due to his God-like persona. Omniscient narrators share these multiple viewpoints in the same scene, which is the hallmark feature of omniscience in storytelling.

Think of this like controlled, orderly head-hopping. (You may have heard of head-hopping, which is when the narrator switches character viewpoints in a scene in such a way that it frustrates and alienates the reader.)

Limited (Single)

If your narrator is restricted to a single viewpoint, he will share only that one viewpoint for the duration of the story. Every scene and every chapter will be from this viewpoint character’s perspective.

Limited (Multiple)

If your narrator is restricted to multiple viewpoints, he has access to multiple single viewpoints. Every scene and chapter will still only feature one viewpoint at a time, but they will instead alternate viewpoints for the duration of the story.

None

If your narrator does not have access to any viewpoint, then he only shares what can be externally observed: body language, action, and dialogue. Just as in real life, the reader must infer what a character is thinking or feeling. 

5) Narrative Distance

Whether we’ve realized it or not, we’ve all picked up on distance in the books we’ve read, either between the narrator and the characters of a story, or between ourselves and what happens in the book. Maybe you’ve always wondered why some stories didn’t have the emotional connection you had anticipated while others did.

This is narrative distance, the degree of emotional intensity the narrator presents to the reader about the viewpoint character and events of a story. This results from the narrator’s own emotional connection to the story and the level of distance between him and the storyworld.

This aspect of point of view provides the connection experience a reader seeks, either by vicariously living through the character, or by projecting emotion toward the character (think frustration or embarrassment—we’ve all cringed for a character at some point).

When choosing the level of emotional connection available in your story, it can be helpful to evaluate narrative distance from several planes. These planes are not mutually exclusive, and one often correlates with another, but in terms of decision making, framing distance several ways can make all the difference.

These planes are called:

  • Physical Distance
  • Narrator’s Engagement Level of Character Interiority
  • Chronological Distance

It should be noted that not everyone recognizes all three planes. Most consider the first two, and the second far more predominately at that.

The first and third planes have three levels of distance and the second has four; their terminology varies. However, to keep things simple, when I refer to a level of narrative distance, I have chosen to collectively use the terms far, middle, and close.  

Physical Distance

Physical distance refers to the spatial length between the narrator and the viewpoint character or storyworld events.

There are two ways to visualize physical distance and both are equally important. The first is in terms of the narrator as a “person” in the storyworld and where he is relative to the viewpoint character. The second relates to a camera filming the viewpoint character.

Far is when the narrator is hang-gliding up in the sky or standing across the school yard. His camera provides an establishing shot to orient the viewer before tightening the frame; it captures the bigger picture.

The captain climbed up the last leg of the hill, the tropical overgrowth parting into a clearing at the top. He stopped and looked around. Ocean spanned the island and his ship could be seen in the cove below. The sound of water drew his attention. A small waterfall was on the other side of the hill; it disappeared under nearby foliage. 

Middle is when the narrator is on the other side of the room or only a few feet away. He tightens the camera frame and it picks up a moderate level of detail.

Jones climbed up the last leg of the hill. Large tropical leaves parted into a clearing backed by the horizon. He stopped, breathing heavily, and looked around. Ocean spanned the island and his ship, The Sea Snake, could be seen in the cove below. The sound of water drew his attention. A small waterfall was on the other side of the hill. The water poured over rocks sticking out of the hillside and then disappeared under low-hanging branches.

Close is when the narrator is attached at the hip to the viewpoint character (you can also think of the narrator perching on the viewpoint character’s shoulder, having shrunk in size, of course). His camera catches it all.

Jones climbed up the last leg of the hill, slipping on a root. Large, tropical leaves parted into a grassy clearing backed by the horizon. He stopped, breathing heavily. His eyes crinkled from the harsh sun as he looked around. Ocean spanned the island and his tired ship, The Sea Snake, could be seen in the bright cove below. The sound of water drew his attention. A small waterfall was on the other side of the hill. Crystal clear water poured over slick, black rocks sticking out of the hillside and then disappeared under low-hanging fan-like branches.

Physical distance tends to, but not always, as in the case of omniscient narrators, match the next plane of narrative distance.

Narrator's Engagement Level of Character Interiority

The narrator’s engagement level of character interiority simply refers to what degree the narrator chooses to connect with, and subsequently share, the viewpoint character’s thoughts and feelings with the reader.

It’s a bit of an unwieldy phrase, but one that keeps the narrator’s role ever present in the mind.

This is the plane of narrative distance also known as “psychic distance” or “emotional distance.”

It should be noted that John Gardner originally discusses five levels of psychic distance in his book, The Art of Fiction, but does not label them. After careful study of each of the levels, I noticed that differences between levels two and three and also four and five were relatively minor; many writers fluidly shift within each pair without even realizing it. As such, I have condensed each paired set into one level each and given all three levels names: Far (Objective External), Middle (Objective Internal), and Close (Subjective Internal).

I also noticed that these levels of psychic distance only fit an impersonal, external narrator or a personal, internal narrator. They did not speak to the qualities of a personal, external narrator, such as the Essayist Omniscient narrator.

Essayist narrators love to express their opinions, which sway a reader’s emotions one way or another. So it is only natural for these narrators to impose their assumptions and perceptions upon their external observations. I’ve called this fourth level Far (Subjective External) and placed it between the Far (Objective External) and Middle (Objective Internal) levels.

Far

In the far level, the narrator never enters the viewpoint character’s mind and has two options in how he shares his observations about the viewpoint character.

1) Far (Objective External)

When the narrator engages in an objective external capacity, he only report facts and his impartial observations. He never connects with the viewpoint character.

Mary spun the postcard rack. It started squeaking loudly upon each rotation and she grimaced. She glanced around. A man flipping through the pages of a book looked up and his eyes landed on her. The clerk stared at her over the rim of his blue glasses as two nearby children giggled.

Mary suddenly grabbed the rack, making the postcards shudder in their slots. “Sorry, sorry!”

Notice how the level of detail is similar to that of the far physical distance level. Very little is revealed about Mary’s experience, which limits the reader’s vicarious connection.  

2) Far (Subjective External)

When the narrator engages in a subjective external capacity, he inserts his perceptions alongside the facts and observations he reports. He still doesn’t engage with the character. He only provides his interpretation of what he believes is going on inside the character.

Mary spun the postcard rack. It started squeaking loudly upon each rotation and she grimaced. She glanced around. A man flipping through the pages of a book looked up with apparent confusion. His eyes landed on her. The clerk bore into her over the rim of his blue glasses as two nearby children giggled.

Her bright ears declaring her mortification, Mary suddenly grabbed the rack. The postcards shuddered in their slots. “Sorry, sorry!”

Here, the narrator is providing his assessment of the characters’ responses to the squeaking rack. He perceives the man flipping through the book is confused. He observes the clerk’s stare is loaded with emotion and uses “bore into” to capture that perceptual, more personal connotation. He assumes Mary stops the rack due to embarrassment from the group’s less than pleasant reception of her action.

These few details alone give hints to the reader of the emotional landscape in the example.

Middle (Objective Internal)

In the middle level, the narrator goes inside the viewpoint character’s mind, but only to a degree. The narrator engages in an objective internal capacity by reporting the thoughts and feelings of the viewpoint character.

Mary spun the postcard rack. It started squeaking loudly upon each rotation and she grimaced. Why did I do that? she wondered. She glanced around. A man flipping through the pages of a book looked up and his eyes landed on her. The clerk locked eyes with her and she tried to look away, but couldn’t. Two nearby children giggled.

Mary felt her skin go hot and prickly. She suddenly grabbed the rack, making the postcards shudder in their slots. “Sorry, sorry!”

The narrator objectively reports Mary’s thoughts and feelings by including the attribute tags “wondered” and “felt.” He also reports her internal attempt to look away from the clerk’s domineering stare.

By including these components, the narrator reminds the reader he is still at a distance from the viewpoint character; the level of emotional detail is similar to the middle physical distance level, which limits the reader’s immersive experience of Mary’s situation.

Close (Subjective Internal)

In the close level, the narrator goes completely inside the viewpoint character’s interiority. He engages in a subjective internal capacity by taking on the viewpoint character’s language, as if the character herself is the one narrating her thoughts and feelings.

Mary spun the postcard rack. It started squeaking loudly upon each rotation and she grimaced. Oh, why did I do that? Well. It’s not really that loud. She glanced around. A man flipping through the pages of a book looked up and his eyes landed on her. Okay, maybe it is a little. The clerk locked eyes with her and she tried to look away, but couldn’t. The pointed giggles of two nearby children filled her ears.

A hot, prickly flush crept up her neck. She suddenly grabbed the rack, making the postcards lurch in their slots. “Sorry, sorry!”

The narrator has left out the attribute tags and let the viewpoint character’s interiority pepper the text. The reader experiences Mary’s brief frustration and overconfidence and, as she observes the individual reactions of the group, building humiliation from the innocent, yet juvenile action.

The level of detail in her physical and emotional responses is also quite similar to the close physical distance level. A much richer, more intense picture is created for the reader.

Chronological Distance

Chronological distance refers to the length of time between when the narrator tells the story and when the events of the story occurred. While chronological distance can have relevance for a second person narrator, it is the key component in distance for a first person narrator.

The distinction of the roles you, as the narrator, and you, as the character, is even more critical with first person! These are two separate entities operating in different places in time: you have to experience something first before you can tell it.

So even if your first person narrator is telling his story in the present tense, he (as the narrator) is always a few seconds behind himself (as the character).

Let’s imagine for a moment a first person narrator is telling a story from ten years ago. He is going to recall and share a very different emotional intensity of the events than if they had only taken place last week.  

This occurs for a couple reasons related to time. Time gives you greater understanding and perspective about yourself, others, and the situations you experience. It can also make the memory grow fonder and more concise. Wounds heal. Minutiae are forgotten.

Because the above narrator is separated by ten years of chronological distance, he is going to have greater perspective of the entire story he is recalling. His narrative will reflect an understanding about his now-story self, the tertiary characters, and the situations in which he found himself that is difficult to achieve when events are still fresh.

When compared with the dialogue and interiority of his now-story self, who is in the thick of the story events and doesn’t know which way is up, there will be a subtle difference with the narrator’s more mature observations.

His word choices will be more neutral, creating that feeling of distance, while more dramatic word choices would be used for a closer chronological distance, as they would reflect the intensity of the now-story character’s emotional experience.

While it depends on the narrator’s persona, the sentence structure in the narrative may also be a touch more complex or formal when compared with shorter or “rambling” sentence structures that would more likely reflect a shorter chronological distance.

Chronological distance’s terminology has time-appropriate substitutions for far, middle, and close.

Distant is more than five years ago.

Removed is anywhere from a couple days to several years ago.

Immediate is anywhere from a few seconds passed to a day ago. 

These definitions are relative as it really depends on your narrator’s memory and personality.

Is your narrator’s memory razor sharp? Does he hold a grudge forever? Or is your narrator the forgive-and-forget type?

Only you will know which term is best and what it means exactly when applied to your unique first person narrator.

***

While the planes of physical distance and the narrator’s engagement level of character interiority are tangible and therefore easier to consciously manipulate, chronological distance is abstract. It requires a greater mental effort to separate how the narrator and character each relate to the story’s events while blending the two seamlessly together.

Next week, I’ll break down three common POV types, show what a scene looks like rewritten in each, and then include an analysis of each—each scene features a different level of narrative distance.

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Did you know I created a free cheat sheet that pairs with this series? It breaks down all eight POV types, organizes their 35+ different names, and includes example scenes and the chart above so you can see each POV type in action! You can get access by subscribing to my blog. 

Writing The Treasure Hunter revealed several little-known truths about creating a story. In the context of sharing my short story's creation process, I will explore these important truths. Truths like your premise can change multiple times. Or, your beta readers can unknowingly help you discover your artistic goals. Or, joy keeps your writing standard high.

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