Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Keeping Your Distance: How Narrative Distance Works in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The narrative distance in a novel has more impact on it than you might think. Especially when it comes to point of view.

Over the years, I've critiqued a lot of manuscripts, and a common area writers stumble over is narrative distance. They're not always sure what it is, how to use it, or how it affects their point of view.
If you've never heard the term before, narrative distance is that feeling of closeness (or lack thereof) between the reader and the characters. It's what makes the point of view feel close or distant.

There's no "right" narrative distance. It's up to the writer to decide where they want the reader to be, but it's easy to fall into a "limbo narrative" where it isn't clear whereor even whothe narrator is. When this happens, we often slip into telling or too much filtering and readers feel disconnected from the characters and the story.

The wrong narrative distance can push readers away or bring them in way too close. 

You might be inadvertently shoving readers around by using a narrative distance that isn't right for your story, or one that's inconsistent with your point of view.

Here are some things to consider about your novel's narrative distance:

How do you write your stage direction and action?

This is often where you feel how close or far the narrator is, because actions usually have motive attached to them, and characters moving around and "doing things" for reasons. Sometimes they state those reasons outright, other times they're implied, and sometimes, the author explains them.

In a close narrative distance, you'd show the action and let readers figure out the character's motivations by observing what that character says and does. A farther narrative distance might explain those motivations. 

This is what makes a deep point of view feel close and an omniscient point of view feel more distant or detached. It's how close readers are to that character's thoughts and feelings. For example:

Close Narrative 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 ax hanging behind the bar. That'll do. 
This shows what the characters are doing and thinking from inside their heads. There aren't any tags such as "he thought" or words that imply motive to their actions. They just do them.

Far Narrative Distance:
Bob reached for the shogun to blow the zombie's head off. Oh crap! he thought, and pulled the trigger.

Jane realized there was never a shotgun around when you needed it. She ran for the ax hanging behind the bar instead. 
This shows what's going on from a few steps farther back. You don't feel inside the character's heads, even though you do see their thoughts and actions.

The farther the narrative distance, the more likely it is you'll find words such as to and for that imply motive. The author is telling the tale and explaining they why and how.  

(Here's more with How Far is Too Far? Far Narrative Distance vs Telling) 

Are you using filter words?

Readers experience stories through the characters, but the farther outside those character's heads you are, the more you might need to explain how they feel and how their emotions affect their actions.

Filter words explain what the narrator is thinking or feeling instead of showing actions that let readers figure out these things from observation. 

Filter words such as felt, thought, sensed, believed, realized, ignored add an extra layer of distance between the character and the reader.

Filter words can feel like telling, but there's a subtle difference between a distant narrator and telling. 

Telling is more likely when you rely on the explanation to convey the information or emotion to readers, and add nothing in the text to support that information or emotion. It also feels more told when there's no sense of a narrator behind those explanations, it's just the author filling in the gaps. For example:

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

Showing:  Jane's skin prickled. The zombies 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 blocked out the shuffling feet, the groaning, even the smell, and opened the door.

In both telling examples, the filter words explain information that affect the characters, but you don't actually see what that information is. Jane "could feel the zombies" but there's no description of how. Bob knows there are "warning signs" of nearby zombies, but you get nothing about what those signs look or sound like.

(Here's more with You'll Have to Go Through Me: Eliminating Filter Words)

Are you explaining events from a distance?

A far narrative distance often shows the story from the perspective of someone who knows what happened and why, using words such as by, since, after, when, before. It might also summarize a decision readers never gets to see the point of view character make. For example:
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, the zombies charged at her.
Here, the situation is explained, not shown. Readers are told what's going on and why, but they don't get to actually see it happening.  

Pulling back far enough to see the bigger picture of the scene gives that scene a more omniscient point of view tone. It's not the point of view character experiencing these events, it's someone outside watching them in the story.

(Here's more with "When" Are You Telling? The Trouble with When Statements)

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. 

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, you don't have to show every thing they think or do. You can summarize a bit or skip things entirely if they story reads better that way. It's all about balance.

(Here's more with What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

Which narrative distance should you use?

It's just like point of view—whichever you prefer. It all depends on how close in the head of your narrator and point of view character you want readers 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. The farther away, the more weight the narrator has and the more "observer along for the ride" readers feel.

You hear all the time about filter words and point of view, and Juliette Wade did a fabulous post on this. A must read if you really want to understand this concept.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the narrative distance of your current WIP. Is it consistent? Is it the distance you want for your readers? Would changing it make the story better or worse?

What narrative distance do you prefer? Do you have favorites? Does it differ in what you like to read versus write?

Originally published January 2011. Last updated December 2023.

Find out more about narrative distance and how it affects show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you  can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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.

  18. Your book on this subject saved me $1000 on an editing bill. Narrative distance 'red flag' words drive me crazy in other people's books. I can't take the editing hat off. I'm surprised how often I find them in traditionally published books. Yours in one book a lot of editors and authors need to read.

    1. Aw, thanks so much! I have a hard time with the editor hat, too. For a long time, I couldn't read ebook because they felt like "working." I kept trying to edit as if I was doing a crit!

  19. Sasha Anderson7/27/2020 11:46 AM

    This is interesting, but there's no reason to stick to one fixed narrative distance for the whole book, right? Do you have any tips on 'zooming in' and 'zooming out' without jarring the reader?

    1. Well, most of the time you do to a certain degree. A little zooming in and out for dramatic effect is usually fine, but you don't typically see a story go from a far distance to a narrow distance and back out.

      If you're doing omniscient though, you might see more fluctuations, since everything is essential outside the POV character anyway.

      To avoid jarring, remember where your narrator is, and what they'd see/feel/think using your POV style. Also consider how different the "zoom" is. Pulling out a bit to be dramatic can work, but suddenly shifting from deep to an outside narrator will probably be jarring.