The Sliding Scale of Narrative Distance
Short Story Incubator instructor, Ron MacLean, shares his thoughts on use of narrative distance in fiction. Ready to take your short fiction to the next level? Join us on Wednesday, May 29th, 6:00-7:30pm for an informal Q&A session on our Short Story Incubator program. Instructor Ron MacLean will be there to answer any questions you have about the Short Story Incubator program. We'll give you all the information you need to know about the application process, what the program entails, the schedule, the philosophy behind our approach, and anything else on your mind.
One of the fallacies I was taught as part of my early education as a writer: that narrative distance – the relative proximity of a story’s narrator to the characters, setting, and events – should be fixed and immutable for a given piece of writing.
It took me some years to learn that this advice/command/rule was a load of crap.
Nearly every story changes narrative distance, at least at certain key moments, and for effect. What you want is to be in control of the changes. Know when and why you’re doing it, and manage the effect.
All fictional and nonfictional narrators exist somewhere on a continuum, between virtually zero narrative distance and significant narrative distance. A narrator who reports the conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings of a character, often in that character’s vernacular, creates the smallest possible distance between herself and the character, while a narrator who reports virtually no thoughts or feelings of a character, but only his actions in objective language, creates the largest possible distance between himself and the character.
Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is often used as an example of fixed and immutable narrative distance: proudly proffered as a pure instance of objective point of view. But it isn’t. In two key moments of the story, Hemingway breaks that point of view to give us insight into his characters, their desires and judgments. Small moments, but essential elements in how the story clues us in to what matters.
After the “girl” asks the man to please please please please please please please stop talking, and he continues to talk (not) about the abortion he wants her to have, the woman working the bar comes to the table and delivers both their drinks, and the news that the train will arrive in five minutes. The girl’s response to this shows us that she sees it as a reprieve:
“The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.”
Objective point of view could not report this. And the story would be less – much less – without it.
Two paragraphs later, the man carries their suitcases (heavy baggage) to the tracks and comes back to have a drink at the bar. He looks around at the other people – the ones not giving him grief. “They were all waiting reasonably for the train.”
Again, that one word. Reasonably. The difference between the girl and all the others who don’t have a claim on him, who don’t remind him by their mere presence, of duties and obligations he’d rather not face.
Narrative distance changes for effect at key moments of “Hills Like White Elephants,” as it does of necessity in nearly every successful story.
So how much, or how little, of the spectrum of narrative distance do you use in a story? Two key considerations:
- How much (how intensely) do you want readers to feel the character’s experience of events? (High degree suggests less narrative distance.)
- How much perspective and context do you want us to have for the character’s experience? (High degree suggests greater narrative distance.)
These considerations should help you establish your baseline narrative distance. Then, you move in or out in key moments to provide either greater perspective or a more intense experience of the character’s situation.
The more you play with this, the more you’ll understand the possibilities of the different distances to influence the reader’s experience, the more you’ll train your instinct for when to close in and when to pull back, and the easier time you’ve have spotting and addressing problems when the distance you’ve established is not serving your story.
Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.See other articles by Ron MacLean