While reading a historical novel recently, I found myself growing bored, despite the tragic events and dramatic developments in the world around the characters. As I reflected on why such eventful happenings in the story were unable to hold my interest, I realized that I did not feel a connection between the main character. I felt detached, as though reading about a historical person in a text book, unable to fully relate to the tragedy of their existence. Like a very dry history professor, this author had managed to make the Spanish Inquisition, one of the bloodiest and scariest times in history, appear to be just another boring history lesson.
Narrative distance is the sense of closeness to our characters’ actions. Typically, the more emotionally invested you are in a story, the less distance there is between the reader and the main character (think romances). Stories intended to be objective (like histories or biographies) tend to have the greatest distance. There is no right or wrong use of distance, but a conscientious writer will try the affect of several styles before finding which is suitable for their story.
The first step to choosing the appropriate level of distance for your story is being able to identify the different levels of detachment or closeness. In order from most detached to closest:
- The Kent State Massacre occurred on May 4, 1970. Four students were killed…
- When four students were killed in the Kent State Massacre animosity erupted…
- I remember when I found out about the massacre…
- I felt the sounds of shots and felt as if I were struck as well…
As you can see not only do these examples narrow from the broad perspective to the personal perspective, but they include increasing amounts of emotion. There is no “I” in the first two examples, only in the final two do we see any personal involvement or interaction with the events mentioned. As the distance becomes closer we will find more emotion, more sensory details. The narrator’s thoughts and memories will intrude. There will be dialogue and reflection on the events taking place. The further the distance the more factual and serious the tone tends to be.
Generally the type of narrator we use (omniscient, third person limited, etc.) is considered sufficient when developing narrative distance. This is a major factor of managing this technique, however it is possible to mix and match narration styles and narrative distance. Whatever type of narrator you are using, try out these different levels of distance. See how it impacts the feel of your writing. Play around with this in different scenes. We don’t always keep the same type of narration constant throughout a piece of writing. It changes to suit our needs.
Reasons to change your distance
- Trauma: If your character is going through a traumatic experience, a death in the family, a debilitating disease, witnessing a horrific event, they may grow detached. Just as in real life, we often lose touch with ourselves and our former lives when something major happens. Let your readers experience that as well through a greater narrative distance.
- Intimacy: Depending on the type of intimate scene you are trying to create, you may want to move in closer to your character. Include sensory details, thoughts, emotion and memory to help your reader feel more of a connection during those key moments between your lovers.
- Criminal activity: Our characters often commit terrible crimes or atrocities, willingly or not. If you wish to show your characters disgust or lack of emotion you may show with vivid proximity the horrors that they are committing. A lack of feeling from your main character can show how they have changed for the worse.
When you are about to change narrative distance in a scene do so careful. Go through the varying levels of distance, either building from far away to very close, or very close to far away. Be careful not to startle your readers out of their reverie. These changes should be gradual, taking place over several sentences.
Practice this strategy by rewriting several scenes with varying levels of distance. If you are feeling that a scene is just not quite having the impact you were hoping for, this may be your solution.