Sunday, February 28, 2016

Narrative Distance: A Place To Start

Narrative Distance...

While some think less about this key piece in the writing puzzle, it's where the tipping point exists between great works, and the rest. In an e-mail to a young writer, I tossed him a basic starting point for grappling with Narrative Distance. Right or wrong in my direction, I think it's a good enough reminder for any writer to occasionally peruse... 

***

Don't confuse "Narrative Distance" with objectivity, or editorial distance. This aspect of writing is usually explained in two parts: Narrative Voice and Narrative Distance. The "Voice" is the easy one. It's the character POV (Point of View), meshed with the innate tenor each writer brings to a piece. "Distance", is something I like to explain as "the fly on the wall" narrator. How far away the "fly" is from the action dictates how much scope the reader is provided. It's tricky, because some writers fall into a "wordy" trap, thinking "Distance-set" means prolonged setting details. While you can use setting (lighting, geography, time of day, ect...) to frame your character's or subject's tenor, too much will draw the reader too far away; minimizing focal points.

In every story or article, there is - without exception - an inherent Narrator. News stories written are offered from close POV, but the "Distance" the writer has to take is dependent on the facts at hand. If the facts in evidence are indisputable - not needing observation to glean what is, or isn't true - the writer can write unequivocally. If the facts aren't absolute, or are vague, a good writer creates distance by stating sourced observations of the subject, or event. In each case, the writer is the narrator.

Opinion based pieces need to have "Opinion Dependent Distance". How much of what the writer says is based on facts - set off against judgement inspired by personal thoughts, passions or morays - will actually set the POV, and even the overall tenor of a piece.

 Let's look at Narrative Distance in a "beginner" way...  Think of a zoom camera lens for a minute. Now, think about Narrative Distance in these three aspects: (1) Close, (2) Near, (3) Far

"Close" - This is either the writer acting as narrator, or one of his characters. The camera lens zooms in close, framing faces, and not the outside world around them. There is no sound, or exterior noise other than the strictly narrated facts or dialogue.

"Near" -  Observed action effected by immediate surroundings is key here. If the writer has two people talking in a crowded room, the people around them, the purpose of the room itself, and even the time of day (among a myriad of other reasons) can set the narrative distance. But let's say the room has a window? What's "outside" this room defined world is sliced out, narrowing the focus of the lens...

"Far" - The key here is to know "far" isn't about "physical" distance. The same two people mentioned earlier in the room are talking, but the thoughts going through their heads as they speak now comes into play. The narrator draws out the "How-s" and Why-s" of what's being said, then adds in observational aspects to set tone, tenor and intent... 

The pieces I write - and you're able to read, since most of what I write you don't have access to - feature a variety of Narrative Distance-s. In the Front Office Fiction pieces, the Distance used is "Close" and "Near". I've written features like my "The NFL and CTE" interview in "Close" and "Far", with zero "Near", which is VERY tricky to do. My novel - Devin Briar - is a character-driven story, so it's written in "Close", Near" and "Far".  

A good writer uses the zoom lens to shift in and out across a broad set of circumstances posed. How you slide between these three aspects of Narrative Distance will determine the flow of what - and how - you write...