Explain it in text? Without emphatic arm gestures or wine? Oh god. Okay. I’ll try.
All right, so narrative distance is all about the proximity between you the reader and the POV character in a story you’re reading. You might sometimes also hear it called “psychic distance.” It puts you right up close to that character or pulls you away, and the narrative distance an author chooses greatly affects how their story turns out, because it can drastically change the focus.
Here’s an illustration of narrative distance from far to close, from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (a book I yelled at a lot, because Gardner is a pretentious bastard, but he does say very smart things about craft):
- 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.
- Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul
It feels a bit like zooming in with a camera, doesn’t it?
I always hate making decisions about narrative distance, because I usually get it wrong on the first try and have to fix it in revision. When I was writing Lost Causes, the first thing I had to do in revision was go through and zoom in a little on the narrative distance, because it felt like it was sitting right on top of Bruce’s prickly skin and it needed to be underneath where the little biting comments and intrusive thoughts lived.
Narrative distance is probably the simplest form of distance in POV, and there is where if I had two glasses of wine in me you would hit a vein of pure yelling. There are SO MANY forms of distance in POV. There’s the distance between the intended reader and the POV character, the distance between the POV character and the narrator (even if it’s 1st person!), the distance between the narrator and the author. There’s emotional distance, intellectual distance, psychological distance, experiential distance. If you look closely at a 3rd person POV story, you can tell things about the narrator as a person (and the narrator is an entity independent of the author) - like, for starters, you can tell if they’re sympathetic to the POV character by how they talk about their actions. Word choice and sentence structure can tell you a narrator’s level of education and where they’re from; you can sometimes even tell a narrator’s gender, class, and other less obvious identifying factors if you look closely enough. To find these details, ask: What does the narrator (or POV character, or author) understand?
I can’t put a name on the narrator of the Harry Potter books, but I can tell you he understands British culture intimately, what it’s like to be a teen boy with a crush, to not have money, to be lonely and abused, and to find and connect with people. There’s a lot he doesn’t understand (he doesn’t pick out little flags of queerness like I do, so he’s probably straight, for example), but he sympathizes with Harry and supports him. I like that narrator. I’m supposed to sympathize with him, and I do.
POV is made up of these little distances - countless small questions of proximity that, when stacked together, decide whether we’re going to root for or against a character, or whether we’ll put down a book 20 pages in, or whether a story will punch you in just the right place at just the right amount to make you bawl your eyes out.
There are so many different possible configurations of distance in this arena that there are literally infinite POVs. Fiction is magical and also intimidating as fuck.
LET’S TALK ABOUT NARRATIVE CONVENTIONS AND THEIR CONSEQUENCES FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER AND EVER