Posted On October 12, 2016 by Print This Post

How Your Narrative Distance Affects Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy

Janice_HardyFor the past three years, author and blogger Janice Hardy’s columns are among RU’s top trending posts. Today, Janice returns with a discussion on narrative distance. 

One of the reason show, don’t tell is so annoying, is that several factor can influence what feels told versus shown. The biggest, is the narrative distance you’re using. Change the narrative distance of the story, and a line that feels told in one book can feel shown in another.

Narrative distance is how far the reader feels from the point-of-view character. It ranges from experiencing what the character experiences (close, such as first person) to watching the character experience it (far, such as third person omniscient). The narrative distance of a story is your yardstick for show, don’t tell, and can help you determine how detached you can be without falling into told prose.

For example:

Close Narrative Distance: The zombie lunged through the open window. Oh, crap! Bob grabbed the shotgun and pulled the trigger.

Far Narrative Distance: As the zombie came through the window, Bob reached for the shotgun. Oh, crap! he thought before pulling the trigger.

In the close narrative distance example, you see the action as it unfolds—the zombie lunges through the window. Next, you hear the point-of-view character’s thought (his response to the action)—“Oh, crap!” Finally, the point-of-view character processes what’s happening and decides to act—he grabs the shotgun and shoots the zombie.

In the far narrative distance example, you see less of what’s happening, even though it feels like you saw more. You don’t see the zombie lunge through the window; the narrator explains that it came through the window. Bob reaches for the shotgun, but now it feels like more of a passive reaction to the zombie than an active response. “As the zombie did this, Bob did that.” You’re told his thought (the “he thought” is a giveaway here), and there’s a mention that he pulled the trigger. “He thought this before he did that.” Again, it’s description of action, not actual action, so it feels less immediate. It’s the equivalent of, “He said angrily,” versus, “He yelled and slammed the door.” Both get the information across, but one feels more in the moment and shown.

There’s a fine line between a far narrative distance and telling, so let’s have some fun and see what this same paragraph looks like as told prose:

  • As the zombie came through the window, Bob reached for the shotgun so he could blow its head off. He thought, Oh, crap! right before he pulled the trigger.

Hear the difference? This sounds like someone describing the scene, not someone in the scene. You’re told the zombie came through the window, but you don’t see the action. You’re told Bob reached for shotgun and why, but you never see the shotgun go off. You’re told he thinks, “Oh, crap,” and that he pulls the trigger, but it’s all described in relation to what else is going on.

Depending on point-of-view style and personal preference, either narrative distance is acceptable. But if you’re writing a tight first-person story and you use a far narrative distance, the risk of it feeling told is high. Since most writers have more trouble distinguishing between a far narrative distance and telling, let’s dig deeper.

Here’s a typical told paragraph:

  • Bob was around thirty, but he felt older from constantly running from zombies. He left the rundown hotel room he and his wife Sally had been staying in and lofted a pair of worn duffel bags into the back of an old pickup truck. He sighed and stared at what was left of their supplies. I wish I had a few more boxes of ammunition, he thought. They were headed to Amarillo, which he knew was overrun with the undead, and he didn’t want to be caught unprepared. Sally had begged him take another route since it was so dangerous, but the distress call they’d picked up last week had come from an Amarillo radio station. Bob also knew you didn’t ignore other survivors.

This isn’t a horrible paragraph, but it’s not very compelling to read. It’s the explanations that kill it—the flat reasons why things are as they are, the telling of motives. You can see the author butting in and explaining why the characters are having those thoughts and actions.

Look at the phrases that make it feel told:

Bob was around thirty, but he felt older from constantly running from zombies” tells you why Bob feels older than thirty. You see no details or examples that suggest or show how he feels about his age.

he and his wife Sally had been staying in” explains why they’re at the hotel. On its own it’s not bad, but it only adds to the told feel when combined with the other text.

an old pickup truck” pulls the point of view away and suggests he doesn’t own the pickup. Minor to be sure, but what’s known and what’s not known are key to being in a point-of-view character’s head.

what was left of their supplies” explains they don’t have much left.

I wish I had a few more boxes of ammunition, he thought” tells you what he’s thinking. Again, on its own it’s a perfectly acceptable way to show a thought, but mixed in with all the other explanations, it adds to the told feeling.

They were headed to Amarillo, which he knew” is a double whammy. It’s telling you where they’re going, and that he knows something, which would be obvious if this were written in his point of view.

didn’t want to be caught” tells motives again. It explains what the problem is and how Bob feels about it.

since it was so dangerous” also tells why Sally feels the way she does, as well as tells readers where they’re going is dangerous.

Bob also knew” tells you again what Bob knows instead of relaying the information in a way he’d think it.

For many of these, the sentences themselves aren’t bad and would likely work fine in a story. It’s only when the entire paragraph uses the same language that it starts to feel told. When everything becomes an explanation, nothing feels in the character’s voice or point of view.

One pitfall of narrative distance, is that it’s easy to tell instead of show and claim you’re “just using a far narrative distance,” when you really just don’t want to do the work to fix it (be honest!). It’s your novel, so do what you want, but if you know deep down you’re telling—and you could be showing if you put in a little effort—then do your writing a favor and dive on in there. Once you learn what to avoid and get into the habit of showing in your first drafts, it won’t be a problem anymore.

No matter what narrative distance you’re using, don’t explain what the reader can figure out from the hints in the text.

Which narrative distance do you prefer to write with? What about read?

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show-dont-tell-cover-72Check out my new book, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting it), and learn what show, don’t tell means, how to spot told prose in your writing, and why common advice on how to fix it doesn’t always work.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

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Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy

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It’s easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.

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*Excerpted from Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It)

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Discussion

36 Responses to “How Your Narrative Distance Affects Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy”

  1. Your examples are helpful. I’ve found this issue one that I keep addressing, moving from draft to draft. Looking forward to reading your book!

    Posted by EmilyR | October 12, 2016, 1:09 pm
  2. Janice, your helpful explanations are simple, concise and I love them.
    Show, don’t tell is a subject we have to keep working on as authors.
    Thanks,
    Elva Cobb Martin
    Pres. ACFW-SC

    Posted by Elva Cobb Martin | October 12, 2016, 2:08 pm
  3. Perfect examples. Switching up from telling to showing was an ‘Ah-Ha!’ moment for me.

    Posted by Sara Zalesky | October 12, 2016, 2:09 pm
  4. Really great examples! I try to write close POV, even when it’s in 3rd, but I still worry I’m telling. It’s good to see some examples of what to look for!

    Posted by Ginny Q | October 12, 2016, 4:36 pm
  5. These are excellent reminders of how to keep the reader more engaged. Thanks!

    Posted by Melissa Menten | October 13, 2016, 7:22 am
  6. Very helpful examples. I’m always looking for ways to make my writing deeper. Thanks for posting.

    Posted by Mercy | October 13, 2016, 8:40 am
  7. Great examples and solid advice. This is a definite struggle among most writers, me included.

    Posted by Jennifer Perkins | October 13, 2016, 11:26 am
  8. I loved this and love your book about brainstorming.

    I notice sometimes I have problems telling instead of showing. I have a lot to learn!

    Thanks for the article!

    Posted by Janice Hampton | October 13, 2016, 11:40 am
  9. I often see this problem in manuscripts (and even published books!), but had never thought of linking the two ideas together to explain it.

    I’m definitely bookmarking and sharing this!

    Posted by Iola | October 13, 2016, 5:48 pm
    • Telling is all about the separation between reader and scene. That’s why first person can feel shown and immediate, and third omniscient can feel told and detached, when in reality, the omniscient might be showing and the first person might be telling. It’s a weird aspect of writing.

      Posted by janice | October 14, 2016, 7:55 am
  10. I love a good ‘Bob and the Zombies’ example! I have a question regarding narrative distance:
    In film we often view the story from different distances (close ups, mid shot, long shot etc) and often ‘switch’ or ‘zoom’ between them. Can a similar effect be achieved in say close third or limited third?
    Thank you again for your enthusiasm and time 🙂

    Posted by Vahlaeity | October 13, 2016, 10:17 pm
    • Aw, thanks! I really have to write that book one day.

      Yes, through an omniscient narrator (that gives you the ability to pull in and zoom out), though it’s a tougher narrative style to do since it’s easy to fall into telling. I wish I knew some specific books to suggest as examples, but you might try some literary novels, or Google some “great examples of cinematic POV/omniscient novels” and see what’s recommended.

      Posted by janice | October 14, 2016, 8:43 am
    • There’s a book “Shoot Your Novel” by C.S. Lakin that takes a look at “Cinematic Techniques to Supercharge Your Writing”.

      Posted by JC | October 15, 2016, 1:22 pm
  11. I really appreciate the several examples of sentences, by themselves, would be fine but combined creates too much distance. I struggle with needing to explain and find comments by critique partners lead to explain even more. Sometimes while reading we have questions that lead us to keep reading. But I find critique partners want the answers explained right away. I end up explaining which adds to my telling. When I’m already telling too much that just compounds the problem.

    Posted by Sienna Bloom | October 14, 2016, 10:12 am
    • Sadly, that is a problem writers run into with critiques. I’ve found that writers tend to be much more critical of that than readers, oddly enough. I suspect we’re trying to help our friends get all the info in and don’t always read like readers do.

      Trust your instincts, and try to think like a reader. The rule of thumb I like to use on the “is it enough info?” question is:

      Can I understand what’s going on from what’s shown, or am I confused by what’s actually happening?

      The example I’ve used in the past has been, if you can tell two gunmen are waiting outside a school, you don’t need to know anything else to understand the problem or anticipate what might happen. But if all you see are two men outside the school arguing, there’s not enough context to understand what’s happening so there’s no sense of anticipation.

      Do your best to convey what provides context, but leave whatever will keep readers reading and curious back until that information becomes important to know.

      Hope that helps!

      Posted by janice | October 14, 2016, 12:54 pm
  12. If the narrator is telling the story years after the fact, should the narrative distance be impacted? They aren’t living in the moment as much as a present or near-past tense narrator would be, after all.

    Posted by Alana | October 14, 2016, 8:31 pm
    • It can be. “Past tense” is a weird thing in fiction, because we can have a book that’s admittedly retrospective, and also have a book that’s supposed to be happening in the moment yet it’s still past tense because that’s what readers are used to.

      It’s up to the writer to decide how to handle it. Do they want a knowledgeable narrator who gives away known information or do they want the story to feel like it’s happening as the reader reads. Then they can pick where they want that narrator to be.

      Posted by janice | October 16, 2016, 7:48 am
  13. I still have a hard time recognizing where I’m telling, but your articles and book are helping me recognize it.

    For practice, I take what seems a good showing-paragraph in a book and think how it might have been done as telling. Or when I find a line that jumps out as telling, I try rewording it to showing. For me, the difference in emotional experience is even more clear when looking at it in full context. (I need all the practice I can get.)

    When it comes to the first step in showing v telling, I think of the last line of the Serenity Prayer: “the wisdom to know the difference”.

    Posted by JC | October 15, 2016, 1:16 pm
  14. Janice, what a great post! I’ve wondered how some authors get away with writing with “telling.” Your distance explanation is great!

    Posted by Jackie Layton | October 16, 2016, 7:20 am
  15. Fabulous article. Quite deep isn’t it! Thank you.

    Posted by Jay Hicks | October 19, 2016, 5:42 pm

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  3. […] next is a great post from Janice Hardy at Romance University on how your use of narrative distance (aka use of Deep POV) affects your ability to show rather than te…. If you only read one post this week, this should be […]

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