Bring Your Reader into the Story

Tighten narrative distance so readers better connect with your story

We writers love to tell stories. But we shouldn’t. Tell that is. We should show. Writers show best by narrowing narrative distance. We should help our readers visualize the setting, people, psychology, the action. We can do this through vividly describing what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt or thought. Instinctively, we know this and attempt to use these kinds of images, but still there can be a problem. What’s the problem with each of these sentences about an avalanche sweeping up a skier and burying her?

  • She saw a huge white cloud rushing down the mountain toward her, but she knew it wasn’t a cloud, but thousands of tons of snow.
  • Jillian heard the thunderous roar of the avalanche and felt fear running like through her bloodstream like a raging river of ice shards.
  • She tasted the cold air sweeping into her face, tasting like a clean knife blade. She looked up at the heavens. God, am I going to die, she thought to herself.

Breaking down the Wall

The writer may have good ideas, but has created a “narrative distance.” The character experiences what’s happening. But there’s a wall between what’s happening and the reader: the wall is the character herself. If the reader experiences things directly, the story better hooks the reader.

  • Jillian swung her head around. A huge white cloud rushed down the mountain. Her eyes opened wide behind the sun goggles. It wasn’t a cloud, but thousands of tons of snow. (We’ve eliminated the “She saw”… Of course she is the one seeing what’s happening. But by removing “she saw,” the reader is drawn into the drama. Jillian no longer stands as a wall.
  • The thunderous roar of the avalanche echoed in the narrow valley. Fear raced through her bloodstream like a raging river of ice shards. (Again, we don’t have to say she heard or felt anything… we know it’s our character. But we want to ‘feel’ (haha!) the direct impact, too!
  • The cold air swept into her face, tasting like a clean knife blade. She looked up to the heaven. God, am I going to die now?

 In modern fiction, particularly our focus on suspense, romance, mystery, we often want an emotional connection between reader and character. Other genres may allow a broader view. But for our genres, we should keep our narrative distance narrow or even non-existent.

Words to avoid

Words that affect distance (and emotional connection) include:

  • Feel (felt, feeling)
  • See (saw, look, looked, glanced, noticed)
  • Hear (heard, listened)
  • Think (thought, wondered, pondered, realized, knew, remembered)

Even in suspense, romance and mystery, there may be times when you choose to have a wider narrative distance. Sometimes you may decide to take a step back, give the reader some breathing space. Study this topic and see how it works with your own fiction. For me, I often go into too much “backstory” when I’m not keeping a tight and close narrative distance. I like backstory too much. I cut out a lot, but often leave in more than I should. Still, I believe you may not want to go full throttle on emotional connections all the time. For all of us, it’s a balance.

Learn More About Narrative Distance

For a long but interesting discussion about narrative distance and “deep” POV, check out this two-part article

For a look at making your characters more likeable using narrative distance, see this great article

For a summary of John Gardner’s (The Art of Fiction) five levels of “physic distances” see  this article.

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Scott Douglas Martell is a writer, teacher and coach. His most recent novel is The Hyena Man, an African romantic suspense. His blogs often focus on Ethiopia and Vietnam, world traveling, and counseling for a more joyful life, with topics such as brain health and spiritual awareness.

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