Whether your story is plot-driven, character-driven, or a mixture of the two, there will be times when it’s desirable to draw your reader deep inside a character’s consciousness, and others when it’s better to pull back for a broader and more objective view of events. This perceived distance between the reader and the characters and events of your story is called narrative distance. By understanding what it is and how to control it, you can both broaden and deepen the world of your story, along with your reader’s emotional connection to it.
The narrative distance spectrum
When narrative distance is at its greatest, the story is in full narration mode. As readers, we’re watching from afar, surveying characters and events with an objective and impersonal eye – think of it as the equivalent of a wide shot in a movie.
Then, as the distance narrows slightly, a character comes into view. At this stage, all we can know about the character is what we can intuit from external clues (like physical appearance, expressions, dialogue and actions). And as the narrative distance shrinks further, the narrator begins to offer us glimpses into the character’s subjective experience – their thoughts, feelings and perceptions.
When narrative distance is removed altogether, we’re in full character mode. The narrator falls silent and we gain intimate access to a character’s mind. It’s as if we’re inhabiting the character’s consciousness: seeing through their eyes, thinking their thoughts, feeling what they feel, right there in the moment with them.
John Gardner, in his book The Art of Fiction, helpfully plotted out five points on the narrative distance spectrum, beginning at a great narrative distance (or psychic distance, as he refers to it) and gradually closing in:
1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
We’re in full narration mode here; the narrator is providing context in an objective and impersonal way. This works well for setting the scene, but if we were to stay at this level of detachment for the rest of the story, we’d have a hard time connecting with characters and events.
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
The narrator now imparts a couple of details about the character – an objective fact (his name) and an insight into his subjective experience (he never much cared for snowstorms) – which draws us a step closer. It’s here on the spectrum that you would find reported speech (“Henry J. Warburton said he didn’t care for snowstorms”).
3. Henry hated snowstorms
We’re now on first name terms with the character. We have a clearer sense of his subjective experience – not only does he not care for snowstorms, but he hates them. The effect is more personal and informal than the previous example, drawing us closer still. It’s here that you would find direct speech (“‘I hate snowstorms,’ said Henry”).
4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
Hear how the character’s voice and language comes through? This is free indirect style – the narrator is channelling the character’s point of view and mode of speaking, adding even more texture to the character’s subjective experience.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul…
The narrator’s voice disappears altogether; we’re in full character mode now. We’re so deeply immersed in the character’s mind that we’re experiencing his thoughts, feelings and perceptions with him in the moment, in a stream of consciousness. The effect is incredibly intimate and direct. But if the story stays at this level, the reader might be left feeling puzzled over the lack of context.
Controlling narrative distance
The last thing any writer wants is to disorientate their reader and jolt them out of the story. For that reason, shifts in narrative distance need to be carefully controlled. A smooth transition from one level of the spectrum to the next, rather than a clumsy leap from one end to the other, will take your reader seamlessly from narration to character mode.
Take a look at this example from Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper to see a smooth transition in action:
“A clutch of hens appears from nowhere to peck between the bricks of the garden patch, a jay drags his shadow across the garden, a tractor in the nearby meadow putters to life. And high above it all, lying on her back on the floor of a wooden tree house, a girl of sixteen pushes the lemon Spangle she’s been sucking hard against the roof of her mouth and sighs.
It was cruel, she supposed, just to let them keep hunting for her, but with the heatwave and the secret she was nursing, the effort of games – childish games at that – was just too much to muster. Besides, it was all part of the challenge and, as Daddy was always saying, fair was fair and they’d never learn if they didn’t try.”
— Kate Morton, The Secret Keeper, Pan Macmillan, p.4.
In paragraph one, the only details we know about the character are those that can be externally observed – girl of sixteen, lying on the floor of a tree house in a garden, sucking on a sweet and sighing. Then, at the start of paragraph two, the narrative distance narrows and the narrator offers a glimpse into the girl’s thoughts. We can tell that the narrator is still in control here because of the filter word “supposed”. (Other filter words that remind us we’re being told something by a narrator rather than shown through a character’s eyes include felt, knew, noticed, realised, saw, thought and wondered.) By the last sentence, we’re inside the character’s head, accessing her thoughts as they happen.
Here’s another example, this time from Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh. Notice how we begin at level three on the narrative distance spectrum and end up at level five, where the character’s voice and direct thoughts take over:
“Raven wondered if the same individual witnessed Evie’s throes and left it behind in his hurry to escape the aftermath. If so, why didn’t he call for help? Possibly because to some, being found with a sick hoor was no better than being found with a dead one, so why draw attention to yourself? That was Edinburgh for you: public decorum and private sin, city of a thousand secret selves.
Aye. Sometimes they didn’t even need to spill their seed for the vessel to be transformed.”
— Ambrose Parry, The Way of All Flesh, Canongate Books, p.3.
Which narrative distance to choose?
The key is to always keep your reader front of mind and ask yourself: “What effect am I aiming to achieve at this moment in the story?”
If your aim is to set a scene or portray a broad sweep of events in a matter-of-fact way, a wide narrative distance is likely to be best. This end of the spectrum is particularly useful for establishing shifts in space, time and viewpoint, or if you want to want to pull back to give your reader some breathing space to process a key scene.
If, on the other hand, your aim is to create an emotional connection between reader and character, or to make a pivotal scene feel more visceral and vivid, a narrow or non-existent narrative distance is likely to be best.
Today’s fiction typically spends much of its time in the middle of the spectrum, but this can vary from genre to genre. As a writer of historical fiction, your best bet is to notice where on the spectrum other books in your subgenre typically sit and decide from there whether that’s the best baseline for your story, too.
Rachel Smith is The History Quill’s deputy executive editor. She is a graduate of the Open University, where she studied English literature and creative writing. She enjoyed various communications roles before her love of historical fiction finally became too great to ignore. She is a content editor and tutor, and you can find her on Twitter at @Rachel_R_Smith.