Give Me Some Space: Narrative Distance 101

If you’ve spent much time exploring books on story structure and fiction writing, you’ve probably run across the term “narrative distance.” As a concept, narrative distance is not hard to grasp. Finding the right narrative depth for your story can get tricky, though.

What is narrative distance?

Narrative distance is the space – or depth – between the narrative voice and point-of-view character. To a certain extent, POV determines narrative distance. A first-person narrative, for instance, will probably have a closer narrative distance than third-person omniscient.

Consider the following examples:

  1. Her brother approached. Gazing at his feet as he walked, he held a long stick in one hand, dragging it behind him in the dirt.
  2. As her brother approached, she felt a pang in her chest. He was upset. She could tell by the way he hung his head and dragged his favorite walking stick through the dirt.

Both example are in the third person, but each employs a different level of narrative distance. In Example 1, the narrator keeps the reader at a distance; the audience knows what is happening and extrapolates emotional connection with the character from his body language. In other words, we assume the boy is upset or dejected by the way he’s walking.

Example 2 engages readers’ emotions using a deeper (or closer) narrative distance. Instead of describing the scenario, the narrator drops a few hints about the POV character’s thoughts and feelings. Greater narrative distance, such as Example A, forces readers to glean this information for themselves.

Learning to Identify Narrative Distance

Narrative distance is a fluid concept. It is a spectrum between two abstract principles. Identifying this distance, in others’ writing and your own, is an important step in learning to use it. Think about it like this: greater narrative distance gives the narrator independence. On this end of the spectrum, the narrator is omniscient. On the other end, the narrator is the POV character.

Most stories fall somewhere in between these extremes. Here are a few ways to identify narrative distance:

  • Descriptions
    If author chooses to describe the setting – a church, for example – as a whole, the distance is greater. If the narrator focuses on specific element of the setting, such a row of dusty hymnals tucked behind a wooden pew, the setting becomes intimate.
  • POV Character Opinions
    If the narrator reveals the POV character’s opinion about something, the narrative distance is close. “A stinking pile of steamed squash” narrows the gap between the narrator and the audience because it implies the POV character doesn’t like squash.
  • Filter Words
    Filter words attribute a thought or statement to the POV character. They also create distance between the character and narrator. Consider this example: The piccolo squealed like an angry piglet, he thought. Without the phrase “he thought,” the distance between character and narrator decreases.

Choosing the Right Narrative Distance for Your Story

Narrative distance is flexible. While POV generally remains constant, the distance between narrator and POV character can change. Used correctly, narrative distance can enhance the emotional nuances of your story. An epic battle sequence, for example, may call for greater narrative distance; a scene depicting pain, on the other hand, may require a smaller gap between the character and storyteller.

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