Chris Wong Sick Hong RSS FeedMailing ListAbout

Slipstream Sci-Fi/Fantasy Author


Stories Thoughts News Craft

Narrative Distance

Return to Craft Monographs

Narrative distance is one of the trickier aspects of story control. After wrestling with the idea for a while, I've found some basic aspects that determine how distant the narrative voice is from the POV character:

implicit vs. explicit cognition and perception
Some words bring attention to the processes of perception and cognition: "saw," "heard," "thought," "believed," etc.
The more of these you have, the more distant the narrative voice
connotative vs. denotative description
The less connotative (more literal) the quality of the descriptions, the more distance the narrative voice
"He was six feet, six inches tall" vs. "He was tall enough to make people uncomfortable"
inclusion of non-character knowledge
With third person POVs, you have many chances to slip in info that the character you're following wouldn't know. The more of that kind of information you have in the narrative, the more distant the voice.
inclusion of character motivations and interiority
The more interiority there is, the closer the narrative voice.
If only the characters' actions are shown, and the reader has to infer any and all emotions and motivations, the narrative is very distant.
relevant emotional and personal history
The less of this that is presented, the more distant the narrative voice.
"Confronted with the edge of the cliff, Jacob flinched" vs. "Confronted with the edge of the cliff, Jacob flinched as he remembered his last trip down."

Honestly, that's about it. So, a nice GIF and examples?

More Distant

Ugh, Lawrence thought to himself.

Though Billiard Hill was, according to local reputation, a nearly impossible climb, his unbounded self-confidence had nevertheless led him to the attempt. Two hours into what he had called his little adventure for the weekend, he was already considering giving up and he wasn’t even past the tree line yet. The pines, boughs still dusted by snow from an unseasonably late storm, parted imperceptibly as he walked the badly-marked path. Frustration mounting, Lawrence paused for a moment and, remembering the words of his father, took several calming breaths.

Less Distant

Ugh, Lawrence thought.

Though the inaptly-named Billiard Hill was, according to local reputation, a nearly impossible climb, his ego had nevertheless led him to attempt it. Two hours into what he had boasted of as his little adventure for the weekend and not to the tree line yet, he was already considering giving up. The pines, boughs still dusted by snow from an unseasonably late storm, parted grudgingly along the badly-marked path. Frustration mounting, Lawrence paused for a moment, remembering his father's words. "Impatience never did any good for anyone."

Close

Ugh, Lawrence thought.

Billiard Hill was anything but a hill. Everyone had said it was a nearly impossible climb, but he'd known he could do it. Now, two hours into the trek and not even to the tree line, he was already beginning to regret calling it his little adventure for the weekend. The pines, boughs dusty with snow, grudgingly yielded as he hiked the badly-marked path. But rather than strike out at a sapling within arms’ reach, he paused, taking a few cleansing breaths. As his father often said, "Impatience never did any good for anyone."

Closer

Ugh. As Lawrence was now painfully aware, Billiard Hill was anything but a hill. Everyone said it was a nearly impossible climb, especially for an afternoon, but he'd laughed them aside and called it his little adventure for the weekend. Two hours into the trek he wasn’t even to the tree line, but he wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of his defeat. The pines, dusty with snow, stood silent—guardians of a gauntlet so intense they could force him to his knees without striking a single blow. He paused to collect himself. As his father often said, "Impatience never did any good for anyone."

Working Notes

  • Satires seem to work best (as satires) with more distance.
  • Gradually closing narrative distance seems to subtly increase intensity and tension.
  • Sympathy and irony shaping could possibly be done by having some characters more distant than others.