Monday, October 11, 2021

How Far is Too Far? How Narrative Distance Affects Telling

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There can be a fine line between a far narrative distance and telling.

Not all points of view use the same narrative distance. A first-person point of view pulls readers in close, while an omniscient point of view keeps them at a distance. Both are valid narrative distances, but the farther away you get from the reader, the riskier it is you’ll slip up and start telling instead of showing.

Maybe you pull away from the narrative for style, or because you want to show more than just what the point of view character knows. Maybe you aren’t comfortable inside a character’s head and don’t yet know what’s going on in there. Or maybe your point-of-view-skills are still a little shaky and you don’t even realize you’re doing it—until your get feedback with comments such as “this feels told” or “I felt detached from the character.”

I see this most often in third person point of view novels, where there’s already a layer of distance between reader and character. If you’re not solid in the point of view character’s head, it’s easy to forget who’s narrating the story and start explaining why characters act as they do, or what a character knows. If a distant omniscient narrator is your goal, that’s fine, but if you want a tighter perspective—that’s a problem.

Consider where you want your readers to be when choosing a narrative distance for your novel.

Narrative distance puts space between the point of view character and the reader, same as telling does. It can go from experiencing what they experience (a close narrative distance) to watching them experiencing it (a far narrative distance). A far narrative distance can sound a lot like telling, but the way it’s written is subtly different—which is why some novels read fine, even though they seem “told.”

(Here’s more with Keeping Your Distance: How Narrative Distance Works in Your Novel)

This can be frustrating if you're struggling with the concept, so let's examine this further.

Let’s start with a far narrative distance example:
The man was around thirty, but looked older, worn out from the constant running, the constant fear. He left the rundown hotel room and lofted a pair of equally worn duffel bags into the back of an old pickup truck. He sighed, staring at the meager supplies as if he wished he had a few more boxes of ammunition. Amarillo was overrun with the undead, and no place to be caught unprepared. His wife had begged him take another route, but the distress call they’d picked up last week had come from an Amarillo radio station. Every survivor knew you didn’t ignore other survivors. Bob was no exception.
Clearly Bob isn’t our narrator here. Someone else is watching this scene unfold and describing it to readers. The word choice, the rhythm, the voice, aren’t Bob’s, but an omniscient narrator. Yet the focus is still on Bob, so even though Bob isn’t telling the story, it’s following his story. The narrator might be distant, but there’s judgment in the words used.

Let’s take a closer look at the phrases I used to achieve this effect:
  • The man was around thirty, but looked older
  • equally worn duffel bags
  • meager supplies
  • as if he wished
  • no place to be caught unprepared
  • His wife had begged
  • Every survivor knew
  • Bob was no exception.
All these phrases suggest whoever is describing this scene feels a particular way about it.

“The man was around thirty but looked older.” It’s not Bob, but a man, but the narrator knows Bob’s age but judges him to look older than that.

“Worn duffel bags,” is something the narrator can see, but equates them to how Bob looks.

“Meager supplies” suggest the narrator doesn’t think they have that much left but doesn’t come right out and say “they don’t have many supplies left.” Meager lets the reader assume how much is there.

“as if” is a judgment call on the narrator’s part. The narrator doesn’t know how Bob is feeling right then, but is guessing it’s this reason based on the previous observation of meager supplies.

“No place to be caught” implies the narrator has knowledge Bob doesn’t and has an opinion about it. Same with “every survivor knew.”

“Bob was no exception.” is another bit of known personal information like his age.

If we were in Bob’s head, he wouldn’t think about this information the same way. The narrator is outside of Bob’s head, looking down from afar, and the narrative distance shows that.

(Here's more with Whose Head is it Anyway? Understanding Omniscient Point of View)

Now let’s get a step closer and make Bob the point of view character, but not the narrator, and look at this same scene.
Bob was around thirty, but felt older, worn out from the constant running, the constant fear. He left the rundown hotel room and lofted a pair of old duffel bags into the back of his even older pickup truck. He sighed, staring at the meager supplies and wishing he had a few more boxes of ammunition. Amarillo was overrun with the undead, and no place to be caught unprepared. Sally had begged him take another route, but the distress call they’d picked up last week had come from an Amarillo radio station. Everyone knew you didn’t ignore other survivors.
This is a medium narrative distance—closer to Bob’s head, but still not in his head. We see out of his eyes, hear some of his thoughts, but it’s not him relaying this information. It’s an outside narrator who knows Bob well enough to know how he feels about what’s around him and what’s important to him, and can see inside his head as well out outside of it.

See the difference between a medium and a far narrative distance? Certain phrases now show Bob’s perspective and judgement, and read more like internal thoughts than outside narratives.
  • was around thirty but felt older
  • old duffel bags
  • his even older pickup truck
  • and wishing
  • Sally had begged
  • Everyone knew
“was around thirty but felt older” is how Bob feels, but the narrator doesn’t know his exact age.

“old duffel bags” implies Bob knows the age of the bags, vs. “equally worn” of a more distant narrator who only guesses what they can see.

“his even older pickup truck” implies Bob owns the truck and has had it longer than the bags. Note the use of “an older truck” in the omniscient narrator vs. “his older truck” in Bob’s point of view. Bob knows it’s his truck, not a truck.

“And wishing” shows Bob is indeed wishing for something.

“Sally had begged” is again personal and known information to Bob instead of the distant “his wife” of the first example. Bob knows his wife’s name is Sally, and has no need to call her his wife. The distant narrator had to explain that to readers.

“Everyone knew” is now something Bob knows, not just random information, and it sounds like his thought.

The narrator is showing all the things Bob knows and how he’d see them, but there’s still distance between Bob and the reader. This is the type of perspective you might see in a limited third person, medium narrative distance. It’s a single point of view, but it’s not grounded inside the head of that point of view.

(Here's more with How a Limited vs. a Tight Point of View Can Confuse Writers)

Now for the hard part—taking this same paragraph and making it feel told.
Bob was thirty-two, but he felt older from constantly running from zombies. He left the rundown hotel room he and his wife Sally had been staying at and lofted a pair of worn duffel bags into the back of an old pickup truck. He sighed and stared at what was left of their supplies. “I wish I had a few more boxes of ammunition,” he thought. They were headed to Amarillo, which he knew was overrun with the undead, and he didn’t want to be caught unprepared. Sally had begged him take another route since it was so dangerous, but the distress call they’d picked up last week had come from an Amarillo radio station. Bob also knew you didn’t ignore other survivors.
Odds are this sounds flat and detached, as if the author was butting into explain things. It’s not an outside narrator describing the story like in example one (omniscient).

It’s the explanations that does it—the reasons why things are as they are, the telling of motives. Instead of watching from a distance, the author butts in and explains the reasons behind the thoughts and actions.

Look at the phrases used:
  • Bob was thirty-two, but felt older
  • from constantly running from zombies
  • he and his wife Sally had been staying at
  • an old pickup truck
  • what was left of their supplies
  • “I wish I had a few more boxes of ammunition,” he thought
  • They were headed to Amarillo, which he knew
  • didn’t want to be caught
  • since it was so dangerous
  • Bob also knew
“Bob was thirty-two, but felt older” tells us his age and how he feels about that. Bob probably wouldn’t state his age in this manner if this were his perspective.

“from constantly running from zombies” tells us why Bob feels older than thirty-two. It’s not that different than “from the constant running, the constant fear” but the second example suggests reasons and could be his internal thought, while the told example states it outright—he’s running from zombies.

“he and his wife Sally had been staying at” explains they’re at a hotel.

“an old pickup truck” pulls the point of view character away again to suggest he doesn’t own the pickup; minor to be sure, but what’s known and what’s not known is key to being in a point-of-view-character’s head. It’s a truck, not his truck.

“what was left of their supplies” explains they don’t have much left.

“I wish I had a few more boxes of ammunition, he thought” tells us what’s he’s thinking. On its own it’s a perfectly acceptable way to show a thought, but mixed in with all the other explanations only adds to the told feeling.

“They were headed to Amarillo, which he knew” is a double whammy. Telling us where they’re going, and telling us he knows something, which would be obvious if this were his point of view.

“didn’t want to be caught” tells motives again. It explains what the problem is and how Bob feels about it.

“since it was so dangerous” also tells why Sally feels the way she does.

“Bob also knew” tells us again what Bob knows instead of just relaying the information.

Individually, most of these phrases wouldn’t feel told and bother anyone (the “he knew” types are told no matter what), but together they keep pushing readers away from Bob and the story. It’s not Bob living in this scene, it’s someone explaining the scene to readers. And that gives in that told and flat tone.

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

Don’t explain what readers can figure out by observation, no matter how close or far they are from the narrative.

So much of showing is letting readers observe the scene through action, dialogue, and internalization, and letting them figure out what’s going on and why by how the characters act. No matter where your narrator is or how distant you keep your readers, you want to choose words that let readers fill in the blanks.

If it’s clear characters are staying at a hotel (because they just left the room) you don’t have to tell the reader they were staying there. Putting gear into the truck and thinking about Amarillo suggests that’s where they’re going. Wishing for more ammo because someplace wasn’t a place to be caught unprepared implies this is what Bob doesn’t want to have happen.

It’s your choice where you put your “literary camera,” but if you keep getting feedback about telling and not showing, or readers aren’t connecting to your characters or don’t understand their motives, that’s a red flag you might be pushing them away from the story.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and look at one of your scenes. What narrative distance are you using? Are you sliding into telling, or maintaining the narrative distance you want for that novel?

Which narrative distance do you prefer to write with? What about read? Is there a difference?

*Originally published May 2011. Last updated October 2021. 

Find out more about 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 Shifter, Blue 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. Janice, this is an outstanding article. You broke this down so well, thanks so much.

  2. I wish I'd read this a long time ago when I was trying to work out the difference between show vs. tell!

  3. Great post, Janice! Love the examples.

  4. Great advice, as always, Janice. It's cool to see how even providing expositionary information can be made a part of the POV character's perceptions.

  5. I needed to see the differences. Thanks Janice

  6. Sam: Most welcome! Glad it worked as intended.

    Wen: Same here! Would have saved me so many hassles if I'd written this years ago. (grin)

    Juliette: Thanks girl :)

    Paul: I think that's the way to deal with it, actually. As long as you stay in character you can do just about anything.

    Angie: Glad I could help.

  7. The differences between the versions are subtle, at least to me, and I know it's going to take a lot more work for me to understand the concepts. What makes it even more confusing to me is that, based on what I've read on other blogs, some writers would consider all the versions to be telling.

    Please continue to talk about these issues. I like to use distant narrators in my stories, but want to keep from telling. Thanks Janice.

    1. Sasha Anderson9/10/2020 7:07 AM

      Yeah, to me all three paragraphs are tell-show-tell (with the show being where Bob throws the stuff in the truck and sighs), but the first two paragraphs are just much better than the third one.

    2. That's by design. The first is far narrative distance, which often feels (and is) told, because it has an outside narrator. The second one is a closer POV, so it's shown through the eyes of the character. The third is all told, and was intentionally written as a bad example (grin).

  8. Chemist Ken: The discrepancies really are confusing, because you're right, not everyone has the same views on a topic. And it gets harder because sometimes it's appropriate to tell. Showing would bog the story down. Third omniscient is a rough POV to do well for that very reason. It so often feels told. Probably because by definition, omniscient IS told. There's an outside narrator that describes everything and tells what people are thinking and why they act.

  9. Great and very educational post - thank you! :)

  10. Great post, Janice! I used to think I understood the difference between showing and telling, but I'm finding it's much more nuanced than I thought. The examples are very helpful.

  11. Oh it's so nuanced. I think that's one of the reasons it's so difficult to really get sometimes. A lot of it is contextual and you just go by feel as to what is right.

  12. Beautiful examples. Just what I was searching for this evening!

  13. great articles i find them verry helpful

  14. I've read the original version of this article a couple times over the years, and comparing the paragraphs (the first two in particular) has really helped me understand narrative distance. For me it was an 'aha!' moment when I started to understand close POV. It's something I'm still working on, so thanks Janice for posting this article again.

  15. Excellent post. I learned a lot. Thanks for sharing it.