Monday, May 23

How Far is Too Far? Far Narrative Distance vs Telling

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There can be a fine line between a far narrative distance and telling. Maybe we pull away for style, or because we want to show more than just what the POV knows, but then we slip up and start telling instead of showing.

Narrative distance puts space between the POV character and the reader, same as telling. It can go from experiencing what they experience (close) to watching them experiencing it (far). Both a far narrative distance and telling might explain things, but the way it’s done is subtly different. This can be frustrating if you're struggling with the concept, so let's examine this further.

Let’s start with a far distance sample:
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. The word choice, the rhythm, the voice, aren’t Bob’s, but another person’s--an omniscient narrator. But the focus is still on Bob. 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. Take a closer look at the phrases:
  • 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 fit the voice of the paragraph, and suggest whoever is describing this feels this way about it. “He was around thirty but looked older.” 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.” But “Bob was no exception.” is another bit of known personal information like his age.

(Here's more on narrative distance basics)

But what if you get a little closer? Make Bob the POV and look at this same scene through his eyes.
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.
We see out of Bob’s eyes, hear his thoughts some, but it’s not him relaying this information. It’s someone else who knows Bob well enough to know how he feels about what’s around him and what’s important to him. See the differences? Certain phrases are now in Bob’s perspective.
  • but felt older
  • old duffel bags
  • his even older pickup truck
  • and wishing
  • Sally had begged
  • Everyone knew
He “felt older” is how Bob feels. He doesn’t feel thirty. “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 POV. 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. “Everyone knew” is now something Bob knows, not just random information. The narrator is showing all the things Bob knows and how he’d see them, but you’re not deep inside his head. There’s still distance between Bob and the reader.

Not for the hard part. Taking this same paragraph and making it told. 
Bob was around thirty, 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.
Still distant, but from Bob’s POV. Doesn’t it feel told? It’s the explanations that do 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:
  • 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
“from constantly running from zombies” tells us why Bob feels older than thirty. It’s not that different than “from the constant running, the constant fear” but the second example suggests reasons, while the zombie example states it outright. “he and his wife Sally had been staying at” explains why they’re at the hotel. “an old pickup truck” pulls the POV 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 POV’s head) “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 POV. “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.

So much of showing is letting the reader observe the scene (through action, dialog, or internalization) and letting them figure out the whys by how the characters act. No matter where your narrator is or how distant you keep your reader, you want to choose words that let that reader fill in the blanks. If it’s clear characters were 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.

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

14 comments:

  1. Janice, this is an outstanding article. You broke this down so well, thanks so much.

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

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  3. Great post, Janice! Love the examples.

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  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.

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  5. I needed to see the differences. Thanks Janice

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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

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  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.

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  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.

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

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