Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Point of View 301: Narrative Distance

Rebecca Rode, Guest Blogger
“I can’t relate to this character. Can you get me into his head more?”

“It feels like you’re telling me the story rather than showing it.”

“Your protagonist seems so bland—she needs a unique voice.”

Ouch. We've all heard feedback like this at one time or another. I would guess, though I can’t say from experience, that even New York Times Bestselling Authors don’t get it perfect on the first try. All three of these comments reveal glaring issues, aspects that will require hours of rewriting and polishing at the very least. Get into his head. Show, don’t tell. Don’t forget voice.

May I suggest something that may sound strange? I bet that these three problems can be solved—or at least minimized—by taking a second look at your point of view.

Point of view? Wait a second. Every high school graduate knows the difference between first and third person. Why on earth does POV matter? You just choose one and run with it. Right?

Yes, but here’s the thing. POV is basically the lens through which we watch the story. Some stories are easy to follow, while others seem so distant they require binoculars. Sometimes, the most glaring problems can be solved by reducing the distance between the reader and our story. I call it narrative distance, although I've heard it referred to as other things.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that Susie tiptoes down the stairs to meet her prom date, who is talking to her father in the kitchen. Susie hears her dad make a joke at her expense, and her date gives a nervous courtesy laugh. Then we read:

“Susie decided to talk to her dad about that later.”

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with this. Many books are written this way, and for a good percentage, it’s necessary for the genre. (But it’s important for a writer to do it on purpose, knowing the benefits and the risks first.)

Now take a look at my lovely scale-o-fun:

1                     2                      3                        4                      5                       6                    7

Where would you place “Susie decided to talk to her dad about that later” on the line?

Personally, I would put it around 2-3. It feels like a narrator telling us what she is thinking rather than us hearing her thoughts. One reason for this is the word “decided.” Her decision is a point reached after a train of thought that we didn't get to see. Second, we read the phrase, “her dad.” It’s not Dad, it’s her dad. Susie would have never called him my dad, at least not to herself. To her, he’s just Dad. Sometimes it’s the little things that add distance.

Now, like I said before, distance isn't necessarily a bad thing. Thrillers, for example, often use distance with their characters, even protagonists. Distance has many purposes. It can make a villain seem cold and calculating, a main character seem aloof or above others, and it’s a great way to keep secrets in a mystery novel.

If that’s not what you’re going for, though, you may want to slide a bit higher on the scale.

How do you do that? Back to Susie’s story. Something like, “She sighed, suddenly determined to discuss it with Dad,” puts us closer to the middle. It involves an action we can follow. It calls her father “Dad” just as she would, and we feel much more in her head. Many novels live in the middle range. The authors who place their stories here often use what some call “third person close” POV, which allows distance when needed and yet closeness during emotional scenes. 

If you’re writing a Young Adult novel and your narrator needs more voice, you may want to consider getting as close to the narrator’s head as possible. Slide the narration closer to the high end of the scale with something like, “Ugh. Not again! She’d have to chat with him about that.” Notice that it’s possible to show thoughts without italics. Yes, we’re being told what she thinks, but since it’s in her voice, we’re not just watching her think something—we actually think it with her. We are her. This is one reason first person POV is so often used in YA lit.

Remember, there is no right or wrong in an author’s decision to add or subtract distance from a work. Think of this scale as a tool. Moving a manuscript from one end to the other can result in a completely different tone and feel to a book. But if you’re having issues like the ones described above, this method may help.

Here are a few examples from the book list on my Kindle. Do you agree with where I placed these selections? Can you think of other examples you've read recently?

Check out my website for more writerly fun at http://www.authorrebeccarode.com/.


“The road has some patches of snow, but mostly it’s just wet. But this is Oregon. The roads are always wet. Mom used to joke that it was when the road was dry that people ran into trouble.” (If I Stay by Gayle Forman)

“I’m a reporter for the Deseret Morning News, Utah’s second largest paper. Sound glamorous? Try writing six hundred words on the umpteenth charity fund-raiser you've attended that month while Chad Nettle, my editor, breathes fire down your neck at one in the morning.” (House of Secrets by Jeff Savage)

“The engine was getting close. And I thought I heard a second—or were there three?” (Variant by Robison Wells)

“My theory was, as I turned the handle of the sharp stick, it would turn the potato, and as it rubbed against the knife, the knife would cut the potato skin off. The thing about theories, though, is that real life doesn't always follow them. Sometimes you lose your perfect potato on the way to school.” (Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman)


“Raven felt stunned. Not from losing the game, of course. No one could beat Maddie at a Wonderland game. But Raven had never allowed that question to enter her before: If I didn't have to be the Evil Queen . . . (Ever After High by Shannon Hale)

“The pounding took up again, louder. It echoed to the marrow of her bones. Her younger brother, asleep in the next bed, stirred. ‘Police! Open up!’ What time was it? She peered through the curtains. It was still dark outside.” (Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay)

“It surprised me that he would ask such a personal question after our morning of impersonal conversation. I sighed. My feelings were too complex to delve into, so I picked the simplest one as an answer. ‘I missed my home.’” (Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson)

“For some reason, I had to suppress a shiver. I didn't like Iker. He was a narrow man—everything about him was angular and sharp: his beaked nose, his chin, the point of his head, which was ill concealed by his greasy black hair. I did not wish to go into his room, yet we had no choice but to try and find him.” (Defy by Sara Larsen)


“The next day opened a new scene at Longbourn. Mr. Collins made his declaration in form. Having resolved to do it without loss of time, as his leave of absence extended only to the following Saturday, and having no feelings of diffidence to make it distressing to himself even at the moment, he set about it in a very orderly manner.” (Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen)

“It appears incredible to me that any kind of trick, however subtly conceived and however adroitly done, could have been played upon us under these conditions.” (The Time Machine by H.G. Wells)

“The old lady whirled round, and snatched her skirts out of danger. The lad fled on the instant, scrambled up the high board-fence, and disappeared over it.” (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain)


Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Good post. I'm finishing up an early draft of a novel, and I've toyed with changing the point of view to first person to bring the protagonist closer. But I like how some of these 3rd-person examples accomplished the same thing. I'll probably experiment for a few chapters on the rewrite to see what happens. Thanks for all the good examples above.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Great post, and I love your examples. I'm a huge fan of close POV. But I still catch myself writing like I'm a narrator.

Jen Greyson said...

Fantastic stuff! I like close, but sometimes I almost spend TOO much time up close and personal.

Canda said...

Thanks, Rebecca! I love the scale of fun. That gives me an easy way to think about how to apply this.