Wednesday, January 19

Keeping Your Distance: Narrative Distance

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Narrative distance is that feeling of closeness (or lack thereof) between the reader and the characters. There's no right narrative distance, and it's up to the writer to decide where they want the reader to be. But it's easy to fall into that "limbo narrative" where it isn't clear where--or even who--the narrator is.

There are some common words to help determine narrative distance. If you're unsure where your narrator is, or want to get closer or farther away, here are some things to search for:

Stage Directions

These are the little words like to and for that imply motive. In a close POV, they show the action and let the reader figure out the motivations by what's said and done. A more distant POV might tell (explain) those motivations.

Close Distance:
The zombie lunged through the open window. Oh crap! Bob grabbed the shogun and pulled the trigger. 

Jane bit back a frustrated scream. There was never a shotgun around when you needed it. She spotted an axe hanging behind the bar. That'll do. 
Far Distance:
Bob reached for the shogun to blow the zombie's head off. Oh crap! he thought, and pulled the trigger.

Jane ran for the axe hanging behind the bar. She realized there was never a shotgun around when you needed it.
(Here's more on the difference between telling and a far narrative distance)

Emotional Signposts

These are words like: felt, thought, sensed, believed, realized, ignored. They explain to the reader what the narrator is thinking or feeling instead of showing actions that let the reader figure out these things from observation. These can feel told, but there's a difference between a distant narrator and telling, though it can be a subtle thing. Telling is more common when we rely on the explanation to convey the information to the reader, and do nothing in the text to back that up. It also feels more told when there's no sense of a narrator to those explanations, just the author filling in the gaps.

Telling: Jane could feel the zombie just beyond the edge of the light. They'd found her.

Showing:  Jane's skin prickled. The zombie groaned beyond the edge of the light, a presence in the darkness, a lurking hunger. They'd found her.

Telling: Bob ignored the warning signs that zombies were close and went in anyway.

Showing: Bob ignored the the shuffling feet, the groaning, even the smell, and went in anyway. 

Easy Explanations

These are words like: by, since, after, when, before. They're explaining the order of events from a distance because the narrator knows what happened. It could also be summarizing a decision the reader never gets to see the POV character make.
By the time Bob got to the gun, the zombie had broken through the door.

Since Jane was already on top of the dumpster, Bob ran for the Chevy Suburban.

When Sally came out of the house, then zombies charged at her.
Pitfalls of Narrative Distance

A far narrative distance makes it easier to tell instead of show, so if you decide on far, just make sure the one doing the "telling" is the narrator, not the author poking in to explain things. 

On the flip side, a close narrative distance makes it easier to throw in every single thing a character thinks and does, so the story bogs down. Even though readers are close in the narrator's head, we don't have to show every thing they think or do. We can summarize a bit or skip things entirely if they story reads better that way. It's all about balance.

(Here's more on common red flag words for telling)

Which Narrative Distance Do You Use?

It's just like POV--whichever you prefer. It all depends on how close in the head of your narrator and POV character you want the reader to be. The closer you get, the more personal and judgmental (as in, characters judge what they see and have an opinion about it, not the snotty type) the story reads.

ETA: You hear all the time about filter words and POV, and Juliette Wade did a fabulous post on this. A must read if you really want to get this concept.


  1. This is a really well-written post. Great for any writer. Tweeting you.

  2. Great post and answers some questions for me about third person limited. I didn't realize adding "he thought" adds some distance. I have seen a few authors, like in Tyger, Tyger, do third person limited without the "he thought" and without italics. I'll need to pay more attention to this. Thanks.

  3. I write deep POV. I don't want "ME" on the page. Even in narration, I try to remain true to each character's voice. There should never be a jolt between "the character is talking" and "someone else is talking" for the reader.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Excellent post (another one going into my Writing Documents for posterity and later reference!).

    I really like to use the deep POV too, and I don't like the "he thought" and "she thought" tags at all. They feel intrusive to me. I'm just beginning to know what you're talking about between the subtle diff between narrative distance and Telling, too. Good stuff!

  5. I think I have at least ten of your blog posts bookmarked, and I just added this one. These are such great references, especially in the editing phase. Thanks so much!

  6. I will also be bookmarking this. First time here and I learn a new thing. I've not heard of the difference in telling and far narrative distance. I also use the deep POV, it comes more naturally to me.

  7. Salarsen: Thanks so much!

    Natalie: There are so many ways to add or reduce distance. Finally getting this was another major light bulb moment for me, actually. I'm always amazed at how tiny word changes can affect the text on so many levels. Maybe it's the geek in me, but I think this stuff is so cool :)

    Terry: I totally agree. Deep POV is my favorite, too, both to read and write.

    Carol: Thanks! Narrative distance is such a cool thing to play with. All aspects of POV have enormous range on what you can do with them.

    A.B. Fenner: Most welcome :)

    Myne: Welcome to the blog! Lots of deep POV fans here as well ;) It's my favorite, too.

  8. I have to tell you: I have learned more from your posts on POV than from many books I read. All your posts are awesome for that matter, I just keep adding them to my Evernote 'writing' folder. You make it so practical and every time I've read a post, I go back to my writing and fix mistakes. Thanks a lot!

  9. Thanks!I do try to do more than just say "this is how you do it." I strive to find things you can do to improve and see the changes in your work.

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  11. Err, sorry, removed the wrong post on the wrong blog. My bad. I was just saying that I went back and evaluated when I used each of those words and found that I use 'felt' a lot when I don't need to. By rewording it, my pages read a lot better. Sensed, thought, and realized, I rarely used and when I did it was with a purpose. It's amazing the things your blog teaches! I guess that's why you're my absolute favoritest blogger.

  12. Awesome :) And thanks so much! Hearing that makes all the work worth it.

  13. Oh, I love this post--I'm linking to it tomorrow! :)

  14. Wow, great post! I've been thinking of doing a post on narrative distance and will definitely link to this when I do. Just found your blog today but am loving it already!

  15. I've only written the one novel, and the first draft was third person limited, but I tried to keep the narrative distance pretty close. The novel ended up going on way to long, or rather I did, while writing it, but I've since re-written it into first person, so I suppose the distance is even that much closer now.

    Great post! Thanks so much.

  16. Gabi: Welcome to the blog, and thanks for the future link!

    Matthew: So which do you like better? First or third?

  17. Narrative distance is a delicate balance I often have difficulty with. I just love the examples you've added to your post.