Narrative Distance

In my last post on writing in omniscient, I didn’t want to get into talking about POV transitions, since I thought the topic deserved its own post. There are plenty of articles out there on how to avoid head hopping, so I won’t get into that. Instead I’ll focus on ‘zooming in’ from your omniscient narrator to a ‘close’ third—a third person POV that feels like first. (Take a story written in first person, cross out I, replace with he/she, essentially.)

If you want more control over your transitions, it’s important to understand narrative distance, or how deeply the narrator penetrates the minds of the characters. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction gives us the classic example of it in a sliding scale:

1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.

2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms. 

3. Henry hated snowstorms. 

4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.

5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

#1. There’s a great deal of distance between the narrator and the large man stepping out of a doorway. We have no idea what the large man is thinking or feeling. Without a name, we don’t even know whether he’s a central character.

#2. “Henry J. Warburton” sounds formal, like a name on a business card. At least now we know he’s the main character. We get some sense of what he’s thinking; he doesn’t “care for” snowstorms. A bit vague, but at least we know his opinion of the weather, for what it’s worth.

#3. Now it’s just informal ‘Henry’. Henry “hates” snowstorms—stronger language, more opinionated. From this sentence alone, we can’t tell whose POV this is. Is the omni narrator reporting Henry’s feelings about snowstorms or are we in Henry’s thoughts? It’s ambiguous.

#4. Now it’s clear we’re in Henry’s mind. Technically when you’re writing in omniscient, the omniscient narrator (O.N.) never really exits the story, but it’s as if the O.N. is an actor playing the role of the POV character.

#5. Closer still. I would change this to “Snow under his collar…” This could be second person POV, which I find a bit confusing in this example.

Also, if it were up to me, I’d collapse sentences 1 & 2, and 4 & 5 to make only three levels. But the levels are a bit arbitrary, and anyway, I think you get the idea. As we bring the character into sharper focus, the syntax changes and the tone feels livelier and more conversational…but also less trustworthy.

Now let’s see how John Williams uses narrative distance in his novel, Stoner. You can follow along with the sample on Amazon (but only if you want to). 

Omniscient Set up

The opening consists of two paragraphs followed by a space which sets it off from the rest of the story:

“William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree…where he taught until his death in 1956.”

The first line sounds a lot like level #1 in Gardner’s example. Full name. University’s name. Year of matriculation. Age. It reads like non-fiction, maybe an obituary written by someone who didn’t know Stoner that well.

“He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his course.”

Definitely not non-fiction, and hopefully not an obituary. But the narration is still fairly distant, perhaps at a level between 1 and 2. 

“An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

These paragraphs never go beyond the 1-2 level or dip into Stoner’s POV. It’s a distancing effect, but one that sets things up efficiently. First of all, we learn that the story spans Stoner’s entire life because here we are looking back on it after his death. Which means Stoner can’t be narrating the story—this is a clue that the narration could be omniscient. What seals the deal is the narrator’s access to the occasional idly-wondering student and to Stoner’s colleagues. We never get a glimpse in any of their minds, nor do we see them externally from a particular character’s point of view, but we nevertheless get a clear sense of even the smallest of characters. Here Williams is harnessing the full power of omniscience; if anything deserves to be called god-like, this is it.

There’s also a clever hook in this opening: Stoner isn’t just un-spectacular, he’s conspicuously un-spectacular. We wonder why we’re reading about this forgettable man, what it is about his ordinary life that makes him worth reading about. There must be something…and maybe when we find out, we’ll learn what’s meaningful about our ordinary lives.

 Intermediate Territory

Going back to Gardner’s example, imagine moving from a narrative distance of #1 directly to #3: “It was the winter of 1833. A large man stepped out of a doorway. Henry hated snowstorms.” This feels awkward, amateurish. That’s because it’s a leap in narrative distance. The effect is like head hopping, but instead of hopping from character to character, it’s the O.N. suddenly deep diving into the character’s mind. There might be a time when just such a plunge is called for—just know it’ll make a loud splash.

By contrast, the effect in Stoner is quiet and steady, like a camera zooming in so slowly you don’t notice it’s zooming. That’s because Williams uses an intermediate level (or levels) of narrative distance, which he sustains for several pages:

“Though his parents were young at the time of his birth…Stoner thought of them, even when he was a boy, as old.”

“When he finished high school in the spring of 1910, he expected to take over more of the work in the fields; it seemed to him that his father grew slower and more weary with the passing months.”

Stoner thought…he expected…it seemed to him. These phrases, along with he wondered, he realized, and the like, are often referred to as thought tags. Some instructors will tell you to abolish thought tags from your writing, advice which goes hand-in-hand with “Show, Don’t Tell”. And yes, if your thought tags are doing nothing but cluttering up the page, obviously you should get rid of them (this is more likely to happen when you’re writing strictly in third person limited). But as Stoner demonstrates, thought tags aren’t always useless labels. In some cases they help readers differentiate between the thoughts of the narrator and those of the character. The distinction is made even clearer when the character is mistaken about something. “He expected to take over more of the work…” is a signal from the narrator that Stoner will not, in fact, be taking over the work. Perhaps more importantly, though, thought tags can also provide readers with an intermediate territory to inhabit, a stepping stone between distant omniscient and close third. (I suppose what I’m calling “intermediate territory” might sound more technical if I called it “indirect style,” in contrast to free indirect style, but I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of confusing terminology.)

Zooming in

The closer Stoner gets to the university, the closer we get to him, to his thoughts and feelings. Also, the thought tags “learned” and “aware” appear again and again. Most readers won’t notice the repetition, but they’ll feel the cumulative effect of those key words and sense that a momentous change in the main character is about to take place:

pg. 6: “He was aware that he had learned things he had not known before…(but) It was not until he returned for his second year that William Stoner learned why he had come to college.”

pg. 8: “Stoner was often aware that the image of this man had risen up before the eye of his mind…always on the threshold of his awareness waited the figure of Archer Sloane.”

There’s still a degree of distance from Stoner’s POV here; it’s still the omni narrator relating Stoner’s state of mind. This changes at the BIG moment of Stoner’s literary-spiritual awakening on page 10:

“William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs. He looked away from Sloane about the room. Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; a student blinked, and a thin shadow fell upon a cheek whose down had caught the sunlight. Stoner became aware that his fingers were unclenching their hard grip on his desk-top. He turned his hands about under his gaze, marveling at their brownness, at the intricate way the nails fit into his blunt finger-ends; he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly through the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body [my emphases].

Sloane was speaking again. “What does he [Shakespeare] say to you, Stoner? What does his sonnet mean?”

The shift to level 4 happens at “light slanted”—we see the world as Stoner sees it, through his eyes. It’s not, “Stoner saw the light slanting…” The thought tags briefly disappear, then come back at: “Stoner became aware…he thought he could feel…” 

But wait, are those really thought tags? It’s hard to say. They certainly aren’t mere labels. “He thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly…” clarifies meaning, it expresses some doubt from Stoner’s perspective (does he really feel blood flowing, or is he imagining he feels it?). It’s a lucid description of Stoner becoming aware of his own perceptions and sensations, his own peculiar being, for the first time. Only distance can bring him this penetrating insight; it’s as if he’s suddenly become omniscient and is viewing himself through the stolid eyes of history, even while feeling the precariousness of his existence more keenly. These close-ups return throughout the novel, usually during those times when he escapes his daily woes to seek solace in academic tradition, and are leveraged for optimal impact.

Point of View vs. Narrative Distance

You’ve probably heard that omniscient POV is distancing, but a good choice for epic tales with millions of characters. Yet Stoner is far from being an epic tale. On the face of it, omniscience seems peculiar here, especially since the narration is focused almost solely on Stoner and rarely dips into anyone else’s POV. The novel might as well be in first person, one would think. Except here’s the thing—if it had been written in first person, or even in third person limited, it wouldn’t be the same story. In a limited POV, Stoner couldn’t transcend his ordinariness because he wouldn’t seem ordinary to begin with. It’s the difference between a novel about ordinary man and a novel starring a boring man. Omniscience is what’s needed to achieve a symbiosis of form and content. It might be possible to achieve a high level of narrative distance in first person, but here it wouldn’t have the same scope or feel.


Ideas on how first person POV might affect narrative distance? Do you have any insights or experiences to share on POV transitioning (of any sort)? Thoughts on any of it?

18 thoughts on “Narrative Distance

  1. I haven’t read Stoner, but I wonder if one of the reasons for choosing omniscient wouldn’t be the need to provide information about what’s happening independent of Stoner’s perceptions and knowledge. (Assuming it’s not just the author going with what he was comfortable with.)

    A first person POV, or tight limited third person, binds the reader closely with the character and their viewpoint. But it often distances us from broader information about the world. One author I’ve sometimes read (C.J. Cherryh) specializes in very tight third person limited, to the extent that it’s a straight stream of consciousness. The result is we only get information about what the character notices or thinks about. As a reader, I actually feel like I’m seeing everything through a very small peephole.

    Another book I read a few years ago (The Stars Are Legion) actually used first person present tense, which put us on very intimate terms with the POV. The book alternated between POVs with chapters named after the POV character. It worked, but also effectively kept information from the reader, but not in a way that was noticeable until the reveals.

    Gradual transitioning between narrative distances seems like a skill that’s in decline, a consequence of the decline of general omniscient. A lot of people today do it with just the same blank line typically used to signal a POV shift, which is clunky but well accepted. Doing it inline seems like it would be useful when there’s a need to do it without necessarily calling attention to it.

    In truth, those types of transitions seem necessary even in third person limited, unless you’re sticking to the narrow stream of consciousness version, which seems tough. Sometimes it’s just very handy to provide the broader thoughts of the POV, or information about their background. But similar to omniscient, the transitions still need to be smooth, unless you want that splash.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good points, Mike.

      “I wonder if one of the reasons for choosing omniscient wouldn’t be the need to provide information about what’s happening independent of Stoner’s perceptions and knowledge.”

      Oh, totally. That’s the big one. The novel really operates mostly outside of Stoner’s perspective…it’s more about him than through him, if that makes sense.

      On first person and close third, I know what you mean about looking through a peephole. I’m in awe of writers who can access broader information about the world through these rotating POVs…it’s super tricky, and not always efficient (as I learned the hard way). I guess there’s always a trade off. As you point out in your ‘Stars’ example, sometimes the peephole effect in limited POVs can be used deliberately to withhold information and create tension.

      “Gradual transitioning between narrative distances seems like a skill that’s in decline, a consequence of the decline of general omniscient.”

      Yes! I think you’re right! It’s so sad because I think it’s a brilliant technique. And now that you bring up the blank line in this context, I’m beginning to wonder whether I avoided using it for so long because I was resisting this trend away from gradual transitions. For way too long the blank line felt like cheating to me…I think you’ve just clarified why I felt that way.

      I like the blank line for third limited too, especially if there’s a leap in time or some such thing. It’s a way to avoid using a somewhat antiquated “Back at the ranch…” (Which I actually have no problem with.)

      BTW, I don’t know if I told you this already, but that book you recommended to me a while back on plotting (K.M. Weiland) proved very useful as I was reorganizing my novel into omni POV. I condensed a lot of the information for my own purposes and ignored some things too, but I found it especially helpful in dealing with the sagging middle. So thank you for that!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I actually don’t mind the blank line thing, but I’m with you on bemoaning the atrophy of the skills involved with omniscient. One of the nice things about reading older stories (at least in the sci-fi tradition) is that they move far faster than modern stories. At least part of that depends on the authors having the ability to quickly reveal things in a way that someone strictly adhering to only POV narratives can’t avail themselves of.

        Glad you found Weiland’s book useful. I read several books on structure, and she seemed to handle it far more comprehensively than anything else I found. I totally understand only making select use of everything she covers. I’m not sure it’s even possible to use all that in one book. And the sagging middle is exactly where structure helps. It almost helps to think of it as four stories, act 1, act 2a, act 2b, and act 3, each with its own needs and developments.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I like reading older stories too, though I’m not sure they move faster in literary fiction, though I can certainly see it in sci-fi. I think it would be very hard in that genre not to use Omni. For me I think it’s the kind of information omni can reveal. It’s harder to judge characters without sometimes exiting their POVs, and when there’s a strong omniscient narrator, that play between the external and internal can be so much richer. Also—and this would include sci-fi—I like that the reader gets to be privy to information that the characters aren’t. In literary fiction that information is more often something the character doesn’t realize about himself but which is revealed subtly through the Omni narrator’s tone and stance, and the whole story turns on that character realizing (or failing to realize) what readers are already somewhat aware of. In other stories it can be information that drives the plot, and readers keep reading to find out how the character will react when this information comes to light.

          I agree about the comprehensiveness of the book. That was exactly what I needed. So many books are too vague on the plot points and it’s hard to see what exactly each one does or how it’s different from other plot points. The biggest task for me was to translate that information into literary fiction. Why is it that so many books on plot are geared toward genre fiction? It’s the so-called literary folks who need it most, if you ask me.

          I’m so glad to hear you think of story structure in four parts too! I was wondering about that just the other day. Why three? Four makes so much more sense! In fact, I decided to break my novel into four parts in just the way you describe.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I should note that, from a literary quality perspective, old science fiction, with its roots in pulp magazines, is often pretty cheesy by modern standards. So it had an immediacy to it I miss, but its character development was often pretty abysmal. And the authors often had nutty ideas they let bleed through into the story. I notice the lower writing quality a lot more today than I did as a teenager.

            It’s kind of funny that the standard plot is still called the three act structure, when every book on structure identifies the mid-point as an important milestone. I’m sure it’s tradition.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I can appreciate POV, but have a tough time consciously applying them for the proper effect. I love Terry Pratchett’s style of using them though, he uses omniscience and narrative distance so beautifully. Anyway, thanks for this comprehensive post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Tina,

    Your post made me think of a couple things.

    First, I thought I was the only one who read Gardener! He’s great isn’t he? The Art of Fiction was a huge, huge influence on my own writing and so much more practically useful than a lot of the other “writing guides” I’ve come across.

    Second, my favorite living author is Mohsin Hamid and he has written several times about his view that POV is the most important single thing to decide on and control in a story. For him, this has resulted in a lot of really creative storytelling approaches. Moth Smoke, his first novel, is from the POV of people testifying at a trial and almost forces the reader to adopt a simplistic, judgmental approach. Hamid then uses this judgmental mind frame to trap the reader when it becomes clear that simple, moral judgments simply won’t work to resolve or understand the story. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is written as a dramatic dialogue and has the effect of making “you,” the reader, into a character in the book. Since Hamid is once again preying on his readers’ prejudices and fears, this “dragging you in” effect is breathtaking. Have you had similar experiences in your own fiction?

    Finally, I wonder if you’ve had the same experience of “POV complexity” as I have. The Blackguard is the oldest of my novels and I wrote it in simple first person because that allowed me to stay in just one character’s head and simplify the fictional world. The Book of Joshua (currently with the editor and finalizing cover art), was the book I wrote after Blackguard and in it I used 3rd person omniscient with quite a bit of narrative distance since I wanted a Bible-ish feel to the book. (I also wanted the reader to pick up on the horror aspects by themselves without a character forcing them to understand.) This was harder because I had to keep a dozen or so POV characters in my head but allowed me greater scope. The Potency!, which I wrote third but published second, I went with first-person omniscient (the narrator is a diety) because I wanted the intimacy of first person and the scope of third. The fourth novel I’m working on now goes even further and is all in second person, addressed to “you” the queen of The Cedar Forest as you do all sorts of mostly horrible things to impose your moral values on the public.

    I don’t think I’d have been capable of first person-omniscient or second person when I started. How about you?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gardner’s great. I think his book, The Art of Fiction, is considered a classic writing manual. You’re right though, nowadays there’s a million how-to writing guides out there and a lot of them stink.

    You know, for me omniscient was the big one. I haven’t tried second person, but I can’t imagine sustaining it for a whole novel. Maybe a short story. I think that would be incredibly hard. The only strange POV trick I’ve used so far is doing a sort of ‘group think’ third person limited, and that’s only for one part of a chapter in my novel. I guess it’s technically still omniscient, or framed within omniscient, but it’s sustained for long enough to be its own weird POV thing. In that section a group of students and professors has just landed in Athens and they’re heading to their apartment rental. As they leave the more touristy areas and head for the Psirri district, their surroundings start to look pretty shady—graffiti everywhere, garbage all over the streets, homeless people sleeping on stoops, etc.—and their excitement fades. They’re visiting Greece in 2013 and for the first time they start thinking about the headlines they’ve been reading about—NeoNazis, bombings in Athens, refugees from Syria, economic collapse—all things they’ve been mostly insulated from. In their collective mind they’re thinking, “Who’s idea was it to come to a place like this at a time like this?” They’re all terrified, but no one wants to admit they’re terrified, so they pretend everything’s okay until they open the door to their rental and find a dank lobby filled with dead bugs and junk. That’s when the POV switches to a close third of the main character, who finally voices his, and everyone’s, fears.

    So tell me, how did you manage to sustain 2nd person? And I’d love to hear more about how you used first person omni.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s really interesting. Is your collective 3rd person structurally a series of rapid head hops or is it a shift from “he/she” to “they?”

      As for my second person story, it really only works because my fictional universe has different rules than the real world. There are certain people in my fictional universe who are capable of “empathy,” a skill that lets them access the memories of others. It also allows others to access your memories. Basically, “demonic possession” is a relatively normal thing and in no way restricted to demons. “You,” the queen have some very limited “empathy” but there are people around you who are very good at it, though they can be blocked and manipulated as well, often without much effort.

      “You,” therefore, mostly just sit in your palace being immature, self-righteous and bitter while receiving news of the characters in the following formats:
      1. Reports and letters. This is structurally identical to old-school epistolary novels and is simply the process of “you” reading your mail.
      2. Outside people possessing you in order to inform/threaten/lie to you.
      3. You commanding your people to access the memories of others and relay them to you.
      4. Very occasionally, you slipping into someone else’s memories by yourself.

      I did this for a couple of storytelling reasons. First, I wanted to impose a sense of intimacy on the reader. I wanted this story to feel very personal, very intense. The device of other people literally invading “your” mind, the device of “you” experiencing other characters’ emotions up close and personal, for example. Secondly and more importantly, I wanted “you” to get the same stories from multiple sources, all of which are manipulating or lying to “you” in some way. I wanted, in other words, for the story to feel like the real life process of trying to figure out “what happened.”

      First person omniscient was a lot simpler. I read some Oscar Wilde and read some about Oscar Wilde. I decided that I wanted him to be the narrator of my book. I then made him into a god in heaven and allowed him access to all the other characters’ thoughts and feelings. The main narrative advantage is that I allowed Oscar Wilde to say funny/witty/pithy things about everyone’s innermost thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My collective third person chapter begins in omni, then zooms in on a collective ‘they’, then zooms in on one particular character and stays there for the remainder of the chapter. I sustain the ‘they’ only during the section where the Americans from a small liberal arts college are experiencing Athens for the first time.

        Your story sounds fascinating. I wonder if it reads like a mystery?

        There’s a big advantage, I think, in having an actual person/character be the omni narrator. I imagine it would really help you to keep the narrative voice focused and consistent. And I love the idea of Oscar Wilde being the narrator. How cool. You’ve given me lots of ideas on technique/POV to think about. Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s a really cool trick you’re playing and it seems to psychologically mirror the ways people vanish into tribal groups under stress. Is that what you intended?

          The story I’m working on now as a mystery – kind of. It’s sort of a Song of Fire and Ice type epic. There are four main characters striving to do something – probably at “your” expense. “You” are trying to figure out how much of a threat each one is, which is quite the challenge given that literally everyone talking to you has an agenda.

          And yes! Absolutely made it easier to keep the voice consistent. As one of the people in my writers’ group put it – “24/7 prancing dickishness!”

          Liked by 1 person

          • “…it seems to psychologically mirror the ways people vanish into tribal groups under stress. Is that what you intended?”

            Definitely. And then there’s the discomfort the group feels because they sense they’re making this comparison and don’t want to be judgmental, while at the same time they can’t help but be judgmental. I love awkwardness, but only in fiction.

            I applaud you for taking on such a challenging experimental form. Do you plan to reveal the truth (what’s really going on) at the end? Or is it up to the reader to figure out? It sounds damned hard.

            Like

            • “Definitely. And then there’s the discomfort the group feels because they sense they’re making this comparison and don’t want to be judgmental, while at the same time they can’t help but be judgmental. I love awkwardness, but only in fiction.”

              I actually see this all the time in Korea with ex-pats. They think they like diverse cultures but then, when they discover that diverse cultures are different from what they expect, the cognitive dissonance comes in waves.

              “Do you plan to reveal the truth (what’s really going on) at the end? Or is it up to the reader to figure out?”

              Hahaha, kind of. It’s pretty definite who wins and it’s definite what happens to “you” but who’s lying and how they set “you” up, that the reader needs to figure out. Massive spoilers if I tell you more.

              Liked by 1 person

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