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The Dilemma of Narrative Distance

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The most difficult aspect of craft for participants at the workshops that I teach to master is immersive POV.  (Sometimes referred to as deep POV.)  It’s puzzling, since that narrative perspective is so much like how our human consciousness really is.

Briefly, immersive POV is an enhancement of close third-person POV, that durable perspective on the page which strictly reports only what a POV character would see and hear.  Immersive POV takes that idea a step further.  It reports on the page not only what the camera’s eye and microphone’s ear would get, but a character’s whole experience of what is happening.

The simplest way to understand the difference is that immersive POV adds to any story moment what a character is feeling or thinking about anything in the story environment.  The advantage of immersive POV is that it can capture in words non-material things, such as the mood of a crowd or the effect of a painting on a viewer.

What hangs writers up, I think, is that the content generated using immersive POV at first feels “extra” to the story.  I notice that in the way workshop participants talk about it.  They call immersive passages they write to prompts set by me “going inside”.  They split manuscript content into two categories, “outer” and “inner”.  A common workshop question is, how much “inner” is the right amount? 

That’s like asking how much chocolate is right in making a mug of hot chocolate?  The drink has a milk or water base, true, but why think of the chocolate as something that’s tasted separately?  It’s not.  Hot chocolate is an indivisible consumption experience.  Whether the ratio of chocolate is “right” or not is irrelevant.  There’s only hot chocolate.  (Okay, maybe with marshmallows floating on top but let’s not make this analogy overly complicated.)

The fear that’s felt by writers adopting immersive POV is that “inner” content will slow the story down.  It’s the stuff that critique partners say should be cut.  When inner is handled clumsily, that advice can be on the button.  Handled skillfully, though, and that scissoring advice is forgotten.  Inner stuff can be the best stuff on the page.  However, I suspect that there’s a deeper anxiety at work, one that I think of as the dilemma of narrative distance.

There are two ways to convey the substance of a story: to float apart from it or to dive into the deep end.  There are pluses and minuses to each approach.  Each gives readers a different reading experience.  Standing apart from the story means showing what’s happening to readers, letting readers see the story in their mind’s eyes and feel the story’s effect for themselves.

Conveying characters’ emotional and cognitive involvement in what’s happening, on the other hand, is intimate.  It brings readers right inside the mind and heart of someone else, bringing alive another person’s authentic self and enriching a story with meanings that readers might not have found on their own.

It’s a dilemma, then: Do you trust your readers to “get” the story or do you want them to lift them from themselves and immerse them in another’s consciousness?  In one approach, readers are sure to see the story vividly.  In the other approach, readers are certain to understand what characters in the story are going through.

It feels like you can’t have both, you write one way or the other, but that’s a false dichotomy.  Great novels use both ends of the spectrum of narrative distance, but to do that effectively requires understanding the means and purpose of each and the chemistry of their interaction.  Both modes have strengths and pitfalls.  Mishandled, one approach can feel cold and uninvolving while the other can feel messy and unnecessary.

What Inner and Outer are For—and When

It’s not accurate, ask me, to think of “outer” mode as coolly objective, standing apart from the story simply to report the action, record the dialogue, and maybe to enhance the tale with a bit of atmosphere.  Word choice, syntax, style, imagery and more heavily shade how readers undergo a story.  The languages of horror and romance novels are quite different, for example, and therefore so are the moods and expectations of such readers.

It’s also not accurate, either, to think that if characters’ thoughts and feelings are conveyed in nuanced detail that readers will be left with nothing of their own to feel.  Readers are not puppets.  They do not check their hearts and minds at the door but rather bring them along on the journey.  Whatever the find on the page, they react to.  They anticipate, weigh, judge, ponder and come up with responses to what they’re reading in ways as abundant as flakes of snow.  No two reader responses are identical.

When and why, then, do you want to stand apart or to dive deep?  You might think that it depends on what a given sentence, paragraph or passage is intended to do.  Convey movement?  Show something happening?  Evoke a mental picture of someone or something?  In such cases you might suppose that a more factual or strictly visual approach would be better.

By the same token, if the purpose is to process, reflect, review, decide or in any other way use a character’s feelings or thinking to move the story forward, then it would seem that an immersive mode is called for.  Actually, both presumptions are misleading.  They may even get it backwards.

Action and movement are by themselves cold.  Characters’ thoughts and feelings aren’t always warmly involving, either.  “Inner” passages can read as flat as descriptions of stone.  Suspense in high action comes not from guns, bullets and careening cars but from the surprising things that POV characters are feeling as those things fly.  Likewise, intimate connection to a POV’s character’s feelings does not occur when those feelings are exactly as expected.  When characters think thoughts that readers have already thought for themselves, by the same token, readers tune out.

Thus, the choice has less to do with what’s going on at any given moment on the page and more to do with what will catch readers off guard.  Readers may see more vividly when they feel something they don’t expect.  They may feel more profoundly when they are directed away from feelings themselves and are instead cued by things that they visualize, or hear, or should but that are missing.

Showing is better then telling?  Sometimes.  Telling is as effective as showing?  Sometimes.  The choice of how to handle anything on the page doesn’t depend on the purpose of what’s going on the page but rather on what will best work on readers.

The Chemistry Between Inner and Outer

Removed or intimate, narrative distance is like hot chocolate: to have the yummy experience you need both the base and the flavoring.  They are inseparably mixed together.  One without the other is only half of the thrill.  So how do you blend the two effectively?  Again, I think that’s a misleading question.  The better question is what makes the application of either ingredient effective?

The tendency in manuscripts is to first off get us to “see” where we are and who we’re with.  Hey, unless we have a picture of the story heads we’re adrift on an empty ocean, right?  Actually, what we need more, at the outset, is a commanding narrative voice.  Next, we need reasons to care, most especially about protagonists but also about what they are tasked, by you, with doing.

To illustrate solutions to the dilemma of narrative distance, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some examples of contemporary noir stories: gritty, down-in-the-dirt tales that we would expect to be either two-fisted, violent action all the way and/or saturated with over-the-top, hackneyed and mawkish emotional content.  A close look, though, yields some surprises.

RazorbladeTears-002.jpg?resize=198%2C300S.A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears (2021) follows his highly lauded debut Blacktop Wasteland (2020).  It’s the story of an ex-con, Ike Randolph, who’s kept out of trouble for fifteen years but knows that a Black man is never safe from the cops.  When he learns that his son, Isiah, and his son’s husband Derek have been murdered, he’s devastated.  Derek’s father—never comfortable with his son’s sexuality—wants to know who killed their boys.  The two ex-cons work together and of course will be changed by each other.

Cosby knows however, that we will not be on board for this grim tale of revenge unless we have reasons to care.  Yes, the novel begins with cops at Ike’s door, but the emotional hook comes at conclusion of the funeral in Chapter 2 when Ike’s grief has nowhere else to go:

Ike Randolph let go of his wife’s hand.  She slumped against him. Ike stared down at his hands.  His empty hands.  Hands that had held his boy when he was barely ten minutes old.  The hands that had shown him how to tie his shoes.  The hands that had rubbed salve on his chest when he had the flu.  That had waved goodbye to him in court with shackles tight around his wrists.  Rough callused hands that he hid in his pockets when Isiah’s husband had offered to shake them.

Ike dropped his chin to his chest.

The passage is about grief, but how does it evoke that?  Not by using obvious feelings—grief washed over him like a powerful tide—by with visual imagery, a history of raising his son told through Ike’s hands…his now-empty hands.  Showing?  Yes, and it tells us everything we need to see that Ike is an ex-con with a heart.  He loved his son as much as any man, maybe more.  Now, everything he will do later will be understandable.

Chapter 3 of Cosby’s novel switches POV to that of Derek’s grieving father Buddy Lee.  It’s after the funeral but that doesn’t keep the rent collector from coming to the trailer door.  The narrative job at this point is to show not one father’s grief but another father’s helplessness.  The “action” will be Buddy Lee unable to do anything, a negative action as it were, that must nevertheless become active in the sense of sinking Buddy Lee deeper into the feelings that will motivate him to go forward.  Buddy Lee takes a picture of himself holding Derek at age one from his wallet:

Buddy Lee wondered what the young fella in the picture would think of the old man he’d become. That fella was full of gunpowder and gasoline.  If he looked really close, he could see a small mouse under his right eye. A souvenir he’d acquired collecting a debt for Chuly Pettigrew.  The man in that picture was wild and dangerous.  Always down for a fight and up to no good.  If Artie [the rent collector] had spoken ill of Derek in front of that man, he would have waited until dark and then cut his throat for him.  Watched him bleed out all over the gravel before taking him somewhere dark and desolate.  Knocked out his teeth and cut off his hands and buried him in a shallow grave covered in about fifty pounds of pulverized lime.  The man in the picture would have gone home, made love to his woman, and not lost a minute’s sleep. 

Derek was different.  Whatever rot that lived in the roots of the Jenkins family free had bypassed Derek.  His son was so full of positive potential that it made him glow like a shooting star from the day he was born.  He had accomplished more in his twenty-seven years than most of the entire Jenkins bloodline had in a generation.  Buddy’s Lee’s hands began to shake.

Telling?  Yes, but how many of have visualized justice or revenge in such graphic detail?  Or maybe we have, and that’s what makes this “inner” passage compelling?  Regret?  Sorrow?  Disappointment in himself?  Love for his son?  It’s all there but expressed by remembering himself when he was the opposite of now.

Later on, Cosby’s novel will turn highly graphic and extremely ugly, with action so bluntly reported that you feel the cold trip of a revolver barrel pressed against you.  At that point, narrative distance works because we have first been immersed in the grief, helplessness and more of Ike and Buddy Lee.  Is the action the milk and the feelings the chocolate sauce in this brew, or is it the other way around?  Like I said, that’s the wrong way to look at it.  To make the drink, two modes of narrative distance have to blend inseparably.

TheDevilTakesYouHome-002.jpg?resize=199%Gabino Iglesias’s The Devil Takes You Home (2022) follows his Zero Saints  (2015) and Coyote Songs (2018).  It’s the story of an immigrant, Mario, whose little daughter is dying of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.  Mario and his wife need money.  Iglesias knows that before we get to the means by which Mario will get the money, we need to understand his desperation:

Within weeks of the diagnosis, your Anita went from a ball of unstoppable energy to a thin bird with broken wings.  I’d hold her tiny body against mine and feel everything inside me break at once.  An invisible monster was devouring her, feasting on her innocence, and there was nothing I could do about it.

So we prayed.  Melisa and I prayed and clasped hands and gritted teeth.  We prayed with a rosary clutched so tightly in our hands palms would sport tiny half-moons for hours.  We prayed with spittle flying out of our mouths and tears in our eyes.  We prayed and made deals, made promises, made threats.  We prayed with every ounce of energy in our bodies.  We asked La Virgencity to save our baby.  We asked God to intercede.  We asked the angels to lend a hand.  We asked the saints to help us win this battle.  They all stayed quiet, and death lived in that silence.

What would you call that passage, telling or showing?  It shows us two parents of a dying daughter praying but tells us all we need to know.  Now, when Mario accepts a job as a hit man, we believe it and not just because he’ll get six thousand dollars.  Soon—this is only sixteen pages into the novel—Mario is walking up behind a man as the man’s unlocking the door of his house.  Mario has a 9mm Luger in his hand:

Suddenly, I wanted to tear those keys out of the man’s hands and use the serrated edges to run through his shadowy eye sockets.  I wanted to kill him, to inflict as much pain on him as possible, and I couldn’t explain why.  He was a bad man, but I didn’t know how bad.  I didn’t know if he deserved to die, but that wasn’t as much of a deterrent as I knew it should have been.  Maybe the man had stolen from rich assholes just like him.  Maybe he liked blow on the weekends and had snorted more than he could pay for.  I didn’t know his crimes, but the desire to punish him was there, as strong as anything I’d ever felt.  The feeling scared me, but I kind of liked it too.

I stepped from behind the van as the man finally jammed the key into the door and turned the knob.  I took four quick steps forward, placed the gun against the back of his head, and pulled the trigger.

The night exploded in my ears.

Notice how the two modes of narrative distance work in that passage.   Mario’s seething fury and need to kill is cleverly conveyed by negative contrast—I didn’t know if he deserved to die—set against the cold and objective reporting of the act itself: I stepped from behind the van…took four quick steps forward… 

Holy crap!  Will he really do it?  He does.  The writing here is pulp in the best sense, cold and horrifying, but does Iglesias’s dish out his narrative distance at a great remove, reporting just the facts, ma’am?  Not a chance.  Inner and outer work together and the effect is more effective than the sum of its two components.

 The Cold Facts and the Deep Dive

So where does this leave you and the dilemma?  Half the fear of the deep dive, I sometimes think, is the writer’s own fear of getting messy and personal.  We’re not conditioned to bleed our feelings in front of others.  Safer is stay aloof, sending characters crossing a room with maybe only a snappy adverb to spark up the stroll.  Why risk delving into that walk, how it feels and what it means?  After all, it’s only a walk across a room.  Choreography.

Other writers, though, overdo it: gushing about everything, turning over every nuance, exploring every implication, delving into every ounce of feeling as if it weighs like gold.  Needless to say, that’s not so.  In cases like that, I sometimes suspect that the writer is trying to compensate for an insecurity over a thin plot.  Saturation bombing with feelings might by itself elevate a story with only fairly ordinary human drama to offer.

My point here is that what feels like a dilemma, a set of opposing and mutually contradictory narrative modes, actually only exists in a writer’s mind.  When narrative distance is neither always aloof nor relentlessly intimate but rather blends together, it allows us to experience the story both for ourselves and as the characters also do.  There’s room for both.  Even more, I would say that there’s a need for both.  The dilemma has a solution and it’s to recognize that there’s really no dilemma in the first place.

Which comes more naturally to you, inner or outer mode?  Why?  And how and when might the other mode serve your story better?


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) founded the Donald Maass Literary Agency. in New York in 1980. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004), The Fire in Fiction (2009), The Breakout Novelist (2011), Writing 21st Century Fiction (2012) and The Emotional Craft of Fiction (2019). He has presented hundreds of workshops around the world and is a past president of the American Association of Literary Agents (formerly AAR).

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