Narrative Distance

One of the many things a writer of fiction needs to control is the width of the space between the reader and the narrative. Rather than “control,” we might say this is one of the tools on the writer’s workbench.

There are various ways to manipulate the narrative distance. First person narration, for example, is closer to the reader than third person. A close third person with a strictly limited point of view is closer than head-hopping or omniscient third. Using taut Anglo-Saxon nouns and verbs brings the reader closer than polysyllabic Latin-derived vocabulary. A stream of consciousness in which the rules of grammar dissolve is closer than using convoluted sentences with carefully embedded subordinate clauses.

Generally speaking, closer is good. This is why editors and pundits say, “Show, don’t tell.” Dramatizing events brings the reader closer than summarizing them. But varying the narrative distance is good too. A constant in-your-face close narrative runs the risk of wearying the reader. One wants to zoom in close from time to time, and then pull back.

Right now I’m reading the Rampart science fiction trilogy by M. R. Carey. The story is told entirely in first person. It’s not all dramatized scenes; the narrator does a bit of editorializing here and there. But when the narrator’s commentary creates a bit of distance between the reader and events, you always feel that the narrator is addressing you directly. In this particular novel, that strategy works perfectly.

For my next book, I’m considering working with a we’re not-a-vanity-publisher called Atmosphere Press. They’re author-funded (vanity), but they have a real staff, including developmental editors (not vanity). Clearly, they don’t just shovel their authors’ unedited books out the door.

In the course of my email exchange with one of the Atmosphere people, he listed some of his publication credits, so I used Amazon’s Look Inside to peek at the opening of his recent novel. I can’t say how the novel unfolds, as I haven’t bought it. It opens in the form of a script from an imaginary TV documentary. We have talking heads. We have paragraphs about camera angles and visual content. The talking heads are talking about a Jonestown-like mass suicide. There is apparently a mystery about whether one particular person who is on trial is a victim of the cult or a perpetrator. His lawyer is one of the talking heads.

This is a very distant narrative strategy. I pointed this out to the Atmosphere person, and contrasted it with Carey’s narration. I said I was pretty sure the Atmosphere person intended to keep the reader at arm’s length. We’re going to have further conversation about this next week, but in his follow-up email, he said, “Nope!” I’m pretty sure he meant no, he didn’t feel that was a distancing strategy. I would guess he was relying on the horror of the mass suicide itself to pull the reader directly into the story.

Granted, his readers have probably watched many TV documentaries. Granted, a mass suicide is gut-wrenching. Even so, I’m going to say I think he’s wrong about his own novel.

He has a Ph.D. This is a good example of why I’m not impressed by college degrees in creative writing.

My first rule in writing fiction is, put the reader in the scene. Show us the light and shadow in the room. Let us hear the tone of voice and see how the character’s face and hands move. Keep the reader anchored. Yes, you can pull back and give us a summary of offstage events. Not a problem. You can tell us about a character rather than showing the character: “Grandma was always cantankerous.” That’s telling, it’s not showing, and it’s perfectly fine — provided you go on to show Grandma being cantankerous so as to anchor it.

But when an author opens a novel about horrifying events using a TV documentary script as a model, and then claims (if I’m reading that “Nope!” correctly) that he’s not distancing the reader, I can’t help feeling that his college classes haven’t quite given him a full set of tools with which to develop a narrative strategy. I’m a dropout. I’m sure he knows stuff I don’t know, and has read stacks of elevated literary fiction that I’ve never even heard of. But I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.

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2 Responses to Narrative Distance

  1. George Oliver says:

    I think one could make the argument that techniques like a screenplay (or letters, diary entries, etc.) in a novel bring the reader closer to the narrative because they’re a diegetic (if you’ll forgive the five dollar word)) technique, compared to, say, a typical 3rd person viewpoint where it’s not clear how the narrative is ‘being told’ to the reader. Some writers take great pains to frame their narrative in a way that you can understand it as being told, and some don’t and just throw some news reports and letters in there — i don’t know if it really matters in the end if the story is good.

    • midiguru says:

      I can see that news reports are in the same category as this particular opening passage. Letters, not really — a letter is always from one person to one other person, so it’s a form of first-person narrative that the reader is “overhearing.” But a news report in a novel is, I would say, a good example of extreme distancing. It’s a telling rather than a showing. The reader is being offered a summary, not a moment-by-moment description of the action. What’s more, a news report is a telling from a supposedly objective, uninvolved point of view, often penned by a reporter whose name may not be known and who is not usually one of the characters in the story. If the news report is unreliable (because its author is a character in the story, or has a partisan ax to grind), the author then has the burden of explaining that fact to the reader in some other passage — and that puts the news report at an even _greater_ narrative distance, because the reader can’t trust it but has to disentangle it using clues. None of which involves the reader in the actual sweep of the moment-to-moment action of the story.

      I had to look up “diegetic”; I had never heard the word. I would say a news report in a novel only qualifies as diegetic if the reader immediately encounters an on-stage character who is _reacting_ to the news report. In that case, what matters is what the actor says and does. In such a case, sure, that would work as a technique. But it doesn’t alter the fact that the news report itself is distanced from the reader.

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