Mary Rosenblum writes SF and writes Mysteries as Mary Freeman. She has published eight novels and more than 60 short stories as well as numerous nonfiction pieces, and teaches writing and writing workshops. www.maryrosenblum.com
By Mary Rosenblum
You’ll come across the word in ‘how to’ writing books; narrative distance. It sounds important (and actually is quite important), but just what does it mean? And more importantly, just how do you actually make use of it?
Narrative distance is the difference between the reader’s perspective and the Point of View character’s perspective. If the reader seems to experience the scene through the senses of the main character, then the narrative distance is near zero. But if the effect is one of sitting in seats in the audience and watching the action up on a stage, then the narrative distance is greater and if the readers’ perspective is of watching from a vantage point far removed from the scene, perhaps watching a huge battle unfolding between two armies, the narrative distance is very large.
Let’s look at a scene and vary the degrees of narrative distance.
The sun beat down on the sage and juniper, baking the desert soil to cracked pottery. The three illegal Mexican border crossers huddled in the meager shade of a stunted juniper, waiting out the heat, their eyes turned longingly toward the towering silhouette of the Nevada Mountains. Water hid in those invisible valleys and folds in the distant mountains. Salvation. Life and a future. As the sun crawled overhead and not even the scorpions ventured out, the young woman, slipped a worn pewter medallion from around her neck and stared at it, then lifted it in a slow salute to the distant peaks.
Here we have quite a large narrative distance. We are standing back at the far edge of this desert landscape watching the three illegal border crossers crouch in their shade. We are looking at the mountains far beyond. We have very little sense of these people, who they are, we’re not even close enough to see their features, although we know that one is a woman.
Let’s move closer:
The sun beat down on the sage and juniper, baking the desert soil to cracked pottery. Maria, Silvado, and Gorges huddled in the meager shade of a stunted juniper, waiting out the heat, panting and licking salt from their lips. Maria kept staring longingly toward the towering silhouette of the Nevadas. They all kept looking. Water hid in those invisible valleys and folds in the distant mountains. Salvation. Life and a future. Not even the scorpions ventured out and the sun seemed to hang, unmoving in the hot sky. Maria slipped the worn pewter medallion from around her neck and stared at it, then lifted it in a slow salute to the distant peaks. I will find you, she promised silently. I will live and I will find you.
Clearly we are no longer back at the edge of the desert using binoculars. We are now close enough to know names, to see them licking salt from their lips. We now are in Maria’s POV and we hear her thoughts as the promises to find someone. We have reduced the narrative distance.
Let’s take it to near zero now.
The sun beat down, hot as Annunciata’s stone bread oven. Maria watched Gorges and Silvado huddle deeper into the shade that was not really shade beneath the thin juniper, panting and licking salt from their lips. Silvado said they would wait out the heat, make it to the mountains and water in the cool night. Maria stared at the so-far-away peaks. Water hid there, Silvado said, and he promised he knew where it was. Water meant salvation. It meant life. And Juan Jesus. She wasn’t sure that she believed Silvado anymore, tried to swallow and winced at the dry rasp in her throat. Not even the scorpions ventured out and the sun had stopped moving in the hot sky. Maria slipped the worn image of Maria de Guadalupe from around her neck. You gave me this to return, Juan. Her dry throat swelled and hurt and she lifted the image of the Virgin to face the mountains. Help me, she prayed silently. Help me to live and to find him.
This is near zero narrative distance. We are inside Maria’s head. We know only what she sees, remembers, thinks, and feels. Many of the details that we could see from our distanced narrative we can no longer see through her eyes. We know there is an Annunciata with a bread over in her past, we see nameless mountains ahead, but we don’t know that they are illegal border crossers, although we can probably infer it.
So is near zero narrative distance what we all should strive for? More distance? Less? How do we know?
Narrative distance should suit the story. If the plot drives the story, if what the characters do and say is more important than who they are, then more narrative distance is probably good. If the personal success or failure of one particular character drives your story, then the closer you can bring that narrative distance to zero the better, in most cases. Of course if your main character is a negative character and we can’t wait to see him ‘get his’, then a lot of narrative distance keeps us at a safe distance from this unsavory character.
It all depends on what you write. There is no ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ here. You must decide how close to bring your readers, or how far away they should stand to watch your scene. And narrative distance may vary from up close and very personal to more distant as syoru story moves from small, intimate events to sweeping action. You can judge your narrative distance from where you stand as you see the scene you have described. If you have to stand ‘inside’ the POV character to see these details, then you have near zero narrative distance. If you are in the seats in the theater you have significant distance, and if you’re looking at the scene through binoculars then you have a very large narrative distance. Just make sure that the distance you use is the one that is appropriate to chapter, scene, or the story you are telling.
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