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Hold your Readers at a Narrative Distance? Don’t You Dare!

Say you're watching a movie, a slasher following an over-the-shoulder shot of a stalker. You can see how steady their hand is as they clutch their weapon even as the camera bobs up and down with each and every lumbering step. It’s so close and personal that it’s as if you’re the one brandishing the knife. Then the camera cuts into a wide-angle and reveals both the final girl and the killer in hot pursuit.

In this scene, you wouldn't be able to see any of the finer details because the camera is too far away, thus leaving everything silhouetted like shadow puppets--it’s impersonal. These two shots couldn’t be any more different and that’s all thanks to narrative distance.

Now what exactly is narrative distance?

For simplicity's sake, I’ll put it like this: narrative distance is the gap the reader perceives between themselves, the story, and the characters. For movies, the X variable would be where the camera is positioned from scene to scene.

For works of written fiction, the camera equals the narrator. Not necessarily the narrator as a character but as a storytelling device and perspective. Consider stories told through secondary characters like John Watson in the Sherlock Holmes series who was present in-story, compared to Lemony Snicket who only narrates as a chronicler of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Compare this further to first-person narrators or omniscient perspectives and you have a variable case study on how a story changes through verb tense, point of view (POV), and narrative distance.

In fact, it’s the combination of tense and POV that determines narrative distance. Past tense third-person omniscient stories will tend towards simpler and older stories such the “Aesop’s Fables” and other fairy tales of that era. In those stories, the reader is the furthest they can be from the narrative as the narrator is a third party completely separate from the story’s consequences.

Furthermore, with the use of past tense, actions can often feel less urgent, even sluggish. On the other hand, there are present tense first-person stories such as The Hunger Games which offers readers direct insight into the narrator/main character’s head. Present tense can make scenes seem faster, urgent, and even unpredictable. This is the closest the reader can be.

While tense and POV affect the narrative distance immensely, there are other tricks you can use to achieve a perspective that feels further away. You may also want to pay attention to what your narrative is focused on and how information is presented. You can include non-verbal communication or foreshadow personal moments. But make sure you don’t switch up your exposition methods too erratically.

Within the spectrum of narrative distance, there is a tense and POV perfect for your story waiting to be found. Understanding narrative distance is only half the battle, playing around with it is the much more enjoyable second half!


About the Author: Taylor Vu is a writer from Portland Oregon who is in love with all things fiction!


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1 Comment

Great post, I have some clarity about POV and tense that I didn't have before. Thank you so much!

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