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March 18th, 2007, 01:23 AM
Hi, this is my first post on the forum after lurking for about a week or two. BTW, I really enjoy reading your comments KatG, I find them very interesting and helpful to read.

Anyway, I'm writing a comical fantasy novel right now, and since I'm also taking a creative writing course at school called Narrative Technique, I decided to workshop my stuff there. My professor, Lex Williford (in case anyone knows of him) suggested I lessen the "narrative distance" in my story. For a while I had difficulty understanding exactly what he meant, but just a few days ago I think it finally clicked. I just wanted to see if anyone knows if I'm correct in my understanding.

For instance, in my original, more "distant" draft, I would write things like (and these are just made-up examples off the top of my head): "The sorcerer saw the...", "The sorcerer noticed how dark it was...", "The sorcerer watched as...", etc.

Now I write more directly, as if I'm speaking in the first person view, except that I'm not: "It was dark.", "It smelled like cheese.", etc.

These are probably horrible examples, and I can provide better ones if you ask. But basically what I'm getting at is: "narrative distance" is somewhat related to POV, and that beginnings like "He noticed how..." and "He watched as..." only add to the distance; and that more declarative language (e.g., "It was dark.", "The place stunk.") decreases the distance and brings the reader closer to the view-point character. Is this the case? Goodness I hope it is, because it felt exhilarating to finally grasp the concept of narrative distance. Thanks a lot for your time. :)

James Carmack
March 18th, 2007, 10:49 AM
You've hit the nail on the head as far as I interpret the concept. Imagine it as a film. Instead of a wide-angle shot, you're stickin' the camera right on your lead's shoulder, maybe even inside his head. Making his observations and sensations immediate is what it's all about.

Also, keeping your narrative voice more naturalistic (as opposed to formal and bookish) is a step in the right direction. In other words, don't be afraid to use contractions and slang in your prose. The narrative doesn't have to be entirely conversational or anything, but making it sound like a story you're tellin' your buddies will help close that distance.

March 18th, 2007, 04:59 PM
Anyone care to add more examples? I really want to know more about this.

James Carmack
March 18th, 2007, 09:04 PM
I'll take a stab at it. If it turns out I have no idea what I'm talking about, I'll disavow any knowledge of this post. ^_^

Okay, let's start with the most distant, a lofty perspective and a bookish narrative:

"Their first encounter is hardly worthy of note. They simply passed each other in the hallway, but she left a deep impression on him. At first glance, she was not particularly remarkable. She was a diminutive creature who walked with a quiet shuffle-step, her downward gaze permanently fixed on the floor. Her black hair had a faint trace of waviness, carelessly falling over her shoulder. Her conservative dress made it difficult to discern her figure, but the mystery was what intrigued him most."

Now let's bring it in a little closer, make it more personal:

"It's funny how something gets stuck your head. He wouldn't have thought much of her, but there was something about her. She was pretty short, even for a woman. The way she shuffled around with her eyes glued to the floor, it was a wonder she didn't bump into him. She had black hair with a bit of a wave to it. He usually doesn't remember details like that, but maybe it's because he was used to their hair being straight as a ruler. She dressed like some old-school librarian. That was probably why he remembered her. He'd always had a thing for those mousy librarian types."

And now for the closest you can get, a nice and relaxed first-person narration:

"Yeah, so I was walkin' to my room when I pass this chick. I mean, I pass all sorts of chicks, but this one was different. Well, I say she was different, but there's nothing all that special about her. She's all lookin' at the floor, shufflin' along like she's tryin' to sand down the floorboards. She had black hair. Big surprise, I know. Well, most of the chicks her got real straight hair, but hers was kinda wavy. I dunno. I remember things like that. I couldn't tell what kinda body she had on her. I mean, she's probably younger than me, but she was dressed like my mom. That's kinda hot, though. I mean, when they cover it up like that, it just makes you want to see what they're hidin' that much more, right?"

There you have it. Like I said before, taking a more conversational tone is an important step to closing the distance, as is making the narration more immediate. Write like you're talking to your buddy if you want to do some close-quarter storytelling.

March 18th, 2007, 10:45 PM
Hi, this is my first post on the forum after lurking for about a week or two. BTW, I really enjoy reading your comments KatG, I find them very interesting and helpful to read.

Thank you JJ, though I suspect that’s just because you’ve only been around a couple of weeks. Try a few months of giant posts and I’ll have you running for the hills with the rest. :)

The deal with writing terms is that they tend to have multiple definitions. Which is why you probably should have asked your professor what he specifically meant by narrative distance. (And you still can, of course.) One definition for narrative distance is the difference between what a character feels/thinks and what the character experiences (action.) That’s sort of in line with what you are doing – focusing tighter on character pov, so that it’s all intermingled.

Another, more common definition is the distance/difference between the narrator voice (that would be you, the author,) and viewpoint characters’ perspectives. First person, for instance, has no real distance between author and pov character because the whole narrative is in the character’s pov. Third person omniscient, however, with an omniscient author narrator, may have a great deal of distance between the narrator and the viewpoint characters, with their pov’s reduced in comparison to the omniscient voice.

Which brings us to another definition for the term – the distance/difference between an omniscient voice in terms of language used, knowledge, etc. to the internal voices of viewpoint characters. This would basically just be an issue for third person omniscient, and different authors might use substantial or minimal differences between the omniscient voice and the character voices, depending on what they want to do in a story.

You are writing a comic fantasy story and many of those are written in third person omniscient. Quite often this omniscient narrator voice (you,) is contemptuous and/or affectionate in observations about characters in the story. So it is possible that given the goals of your story, you may want quite a lot of narrative distance between that omniscient voice and your pov characters. You might check out any one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels for very good examples of using an omniscient narrator and character pov’s. But a comic novel could also be written in first person, or third person limited format, without use of an omniscient narrator.

Dropping the pronouns in presenting pov does produce different narrative effects and different sentence rhythms, and can be more dynamic at times. But you probably are not going to want to drop the pronouns all the time, and instead may want a mix of sentences like: “He/Joe watched the monster moved” and “The monster moved.” Both of those sentences use character pov. In a third person narrative, there is likely more than one pov character during the course of the story, so pronouns and names may be needed to distinguish which character’s pov is being given.

March 18th, 2007, 11:31 PM
Thanks KatG, that helped a lot. And yes, Discworld is actually one of my biggest inspirations in writing comic fantasy. I used to write more serious stuff, but realized that comedy comes more naturally. But anyway, what you said cleared things up a lot, and thanks to everyone else who replied as well.

Rocket Sheep
March 19th, 2007, 01:14 AM
I think Terry Pratchett's way of writing as an omniscient narrator means he almost becomes a character himself. Like Lemony Snickett but in a less overt way.

I think you're on the write track JJohns, removing the unnecessary "labelling"... especially if there's only one point of view character in the scene. The examples are a bit static but it's definitely an improvement and saves on wordage leaving more room for manipulating movement and details into a scene.

March 19th, 2007, 05:41 AM
In academic contexts, narrative distance usually means the distance between the narrator and the PoV-character(s). It's not true, though, that fist person narration is the "closest" PoV/has the least narrative distance. A first person narrators is still a narrator, a "narrating I" who is different from the "experiencing I" in the story, simply because s/he tells it and doesn't live it. Typologically speaking, the narrative distance in third limited and first person narration can be exactly the same, and often is.


"Behold me in that corridor. Poor naive me, awaiting the committee's decision, thinking they had, get this!, my best interest in mind." (The distance between "telling" and "experiencing" is quite obvious, here.)

"The corridor was rather gloomy, the door closed. In there, the committee was debating his fate. He tried to stop pacing. Of course, the decision could come out unfavourable, but at least the committee were on his side. Well, perhaps not Evans, but the rest of them." (Third-person narration, but much less narrative distance.)

The least narrative distance is found in stream-of-consciousness narration which can be included in both third- or first person stories.

The distance between narrator and reader, though, does decrease with first person narration. It also decreases when the reader is addressed. This is, in my experience, not normally called narrative distance though.

Also, notice how, often, the distance between narrator and PoV-character increases when the distance between narrator and reader decreases (and vice versa). If you address your readers, you get closer to them, but you draw attention to the telling of the story and move away from your characters perspective (see above). The most obvious exception is second person narration, where the reader is cast in the role of a character. If the reader willingly takes that role, then the distance between reader and view-point character decreases, and the narrator can be equally distant to character and reader. (Of course, it still depends on how the story is written; the more the second-person narration reads like role-playing instruction the bigger the narrative distance [narrator vs. PoV character] will be.)

Generally, it's a good idea to vary the narrative distance according to the story's needs (for example, info-dumps may read better with a lively narrator, and action scenes might come a long better with the characters PoVs foregrounded).

March 19th, 2007, 09:17 AM
Thanks Dawn, that was very helpful.

James Carmack
March 19th, 2007, 09:38 PM
You could always use second-person and the present tense if you really wanted to gve the reader nowhere to run. Of course, I've never seen that sort of thing used outside the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Anybody remember those? Ah, those were the days...