Narrative distance definition (with examples for fiction writers)
What is narrative distance or psychic distance in fiction? Emma Darwin shares what it is and why it counts.
Emma’s debut novel was nominated for both Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Book and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year awards, she is a regular at the Festival of Writing and her blog gets used for writing courses and by editors around the world.
Are you ever boggled by how many decisions you have to make, and keep making, as you write your story?
When you’re imagining a scene, which aspects of it do you put on the page? And how much of them? What about showing and telling?
And then there’s voice, the thing which all editors and agents say they look for – but what does that mean for how you write this sentence?
It’s all very confusing.
Which is why, when I first came across the concept of Narrative Distance or Psychic Distance in John Gardner’s classic The Art of Fiction, I whooped with joy.
Not only does it integrate all those different questions into one simple one, it gives you a sure way to make sure that readers feel involved with your characters, while you also keep the story cracking on.
As well as evoking external events, a novel’s narrative takes the reader inside one or more characters, to evoke thoughts, feelings, perceptions and moment-by-moment physical experience.
Crucially, this isn’t a binar inside/outside decision, it’s a spectrum, with the writer controlling how deep we feel we are inside that subjective, individual, close-up of a character’s consciousness.
And the writer also controls how far out the narrative takes us, towards an objective, wideangle telling of those events that is beyond any one character’s experience.
It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
Henry hated snowstorms.
God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.
These are just points on a spectrum, of course, but look at they changes the reader’s experience of this moment in the scene:
Level 1: Remote and objective. The narrator – the storyteller – conveys lots of information about what’s happening (Telling, if you like) but no evocation of that man’s direct experience. It’s a camera long-shot, which is also wideangle.
Level 2: We get a bit closer, because we’re given individual information about him. His name and his emotions. But it is information, conveyed by the storyteller in the storyteller’s voice.
Level 3: Henry is starting to feel like someone we know, while “hated” evokes his emotion a bit, rather than just informing us of it.
Level 4: Shifts into free indirect style. The narrator’s voice being coloured by Henry’s own voice, so we feel much closer inside Henry’s personality. But because we’re still in the narrative’s past tense and third person, we haven’t broken with the flow of it. There’s lots of showing, but not much information; it’s like a close-up of Henry’s face.
Level 5: Henry’s direct experience has taken over. The writer is evoking a brain-download – a stream of his consciousness in this – and the storyteller has faded out. This access deep inside a character is unique to fiction, a place that a movie camera can’t go.
Notice how what aspects of the scene get evoked depends on which character’s viewpoint we’re in. Maybe Henry’s wife Jane likes snowstorms. Her Level 4 might be Oh, how she loved feeling snowflakes on her nose, her Level 5 a download of happy snowballing-memories.
On the other hand, the storyteller’s “Jane S. Warburton had always enjoyed snowstorms” is no different in voice or perspective from Henry’s equivalent.
How to know levels of narrative distance at any moment
If you’re writing in first person, your narrator or storyteller happens to be narrating events that they were part of, so to get your head round this, keep thinking of them as two different entities.
Here, Old Hal is telling a story about his childhood:
In the far-off days of Uther Pendragon, witches stalked the earth.
Every village had its witch, and we feared or consulted her according to how desperate we were.
When I was a child Mistress Margit frightened me, and when she walked down the street the big ones would shout “Here comes Old Margit!”, while I hid and crossed myself.
And here came Old Margit, with her ragged clothes and her big black cat, and I shivered and prayed because St Mary would save me, wouldn’t she?
Margit’s coming and her cloak like little demons dancing and what’ll I do – mustn’t catch her eye – hide in the ditch cold and wet but Black Peter will see me – Mother Mary save me, he’ll look at you and then Margit can see into your mind and plant demons in there and…
Of course, in real writing, the narrative will not stick at one level for very long at all.
It will move dynamically to and fro, according to what’s right for the storytelling and characters at that moment. More evocation, showing, subjectivity, character’s-voicey-ness? Or more information, telling, objectivity, storyteller-in-charge?
All you have to do is ask yourself, “How close-in or far-out should I be at this moment?” and all those other questions are answered.
Most mainstream fiction will spend much of its time round about the 3-4 areas of the spectrum. Just don’t forget that the far-out distances are brilliant for scene-setting and conveying the big information that we need to know before we close in.
And the deepest-in, stream-of-consciousnessy distances are great when the viewpoint character does lose touch with ordinary life – extreme grief or joy, sex, violence, drugs or drink.
And, finally, on changing point of view, have you noticed how the far-out levels don’t inhabit any character’s individual voice or point-of-view? The storyteller is in charge.
So, to move from Henry’s voice-and-point-of-view into Jane’s, just move outwards from hers, by stages – 4, 3, 2 – into that neutral, storyteller’s space, then go inwards, by stages – 2, 3, 4 – into Jane’s.
And there you have narrative or psychic distance in fiction writing.
(If you’d like to explore this in more detail, click through to more resources on my blog, too!)