I’m tempted to start singing my POV song (“Let’s talk about POV. Let’s talk about you and me.”) but I’ll restrain myself.
Today I want to talk about narrative distance, and some ways to bring a reader closer, to really get them inside the head of a character.
Regardless of whether you’re writing in 1st, 3rd or 2nd (um, good luck?) one of the easiest ways to bring a reader closer is to cut the filter words. Filter words are words like felt, noticed, realized, saw, heard, etc. They usually aren’t necessary and they put distance between the reader and the story.
Katerina saw the old oak tree outside her window. She knew it had been there since before her mother was born.
An old oak tree stood outside Katerina’s window. It had been there since before her mother was born.
Cutting out “saw” and “knew” brings the reader a closer because the writer isn’t reminding them of the fact that Katerina is the one looking at the tree, not them. Readers will understand that she is the one seeing and knowing. After all, it’s Katerina’s story, right? Trust your reader.
Many writers get feedback that their story feels too distant, so they think, Well, 1st person must feel closer than 3rd, so I’ll just rewrite in 1st and voila, problem solved! They spend weeks rewriting everything, only to get frustrated when the problem hasn’t been fixed. And that’s because it isn’t as simple as who is telling the story. It’s about how the story is told. As many of you know from previous posts, I wrote my first two manuscripts in 1st/present, then rewrote the second in 3rd/past. You might think that this would make the story feel more distant, but the opposite is actually true. As I developed as a writer, I learned about cutting out filter words, adding more vivid description and I developed voice, which made my character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations feel more vivid. The book didn’t need to be in 1st to accomplish that goal.
Here is an EXCELLENT twitter thread from Kate Brauning, an editor with Entangled Publication, about the difference between Point of View and Narrative Distance (hint: follow her):
Ready for a few New Year's #subtips?
— Kate Brauning (@KateBrauning) January 1, 2017
Want some examples? Ok. Let’s take it slow. We’ll start in 1st person:
Take 1: I walked down the quiet hallway and reached for the doorknob. It felt cold. I opened the door and saw a ghost. I felt scared and I ran away as fast as I could.
Okay, now setting aside how horrifically bad those sentences are, you can (hopefully) see what I’m getting at here. The passage is told in first person, but it doesn’t make the reader feel close to the action at all. Instead, it reads like a dry narration. Being told “I felt scared” is basically worthless for the reader. It doesn’t do anything to immerse them in the story. Also, there are very few descriptions and it’s boring. Let’s try again.
Take 2. I walked down the hallway, my footsteps echoing in the silence. At the end, I turned the cold doorknob to open the door. There, hovering above the ground, was a ghost. Terrified, I turned and ran.
I cut some filter words (felt, saw) and added some description. A tiny bit better, a smidge closer. One more time.
Take 3: I walked down the hall, my footsteps echoing off the walls. At the end, I reached for the doorknob, my sweaty hand slippery on the cool metal. The door creaked open. On the other side, a ghost hovered above the ground. I stifled a scream and turned to run, my heart pounding.
Here we have more descriptions (the sound of footsteps, the feel of the doorknob) plus physical cues about how the character is feeling (clammy hands, pounding heart.) I didn’t have to say “I’m scared” for you, the reader, to know that the character is scared. It’s still not awesome, but hopefully you see what I mean.
Now let’s try it in 3rd.
Take 1: Bobby got on his bike and began to ride home from school. It was a hot day. Halfway home, he saw a small green turtle trundling across the road. Bobby stopped and propped his bike against a tree trunk. He could tell the turtle was in trouble because he saw it stop in the middle of the the hot asphalt. He felt bad for the little turtle, so he picked it up and moved it to the grass on the side of the road.
Okay, so we’re being told what Bobby is seeing, noticing, feeling. All of this puts us at a distance. We aren’t with Bobby. We’re being told about him. Let’s try again.
Take 2: After a long day of school, Bobby hopped on his bike and pedaled away. The wind whipped through his hair, drying his sweat despite the scorching heat of the day. Halfway home, Bobby spotted a small green turtle trundling across the road. He could tell the turtle was in trouble. It had stopped halfway across the road, marooned in the middle of the hot asphalt. The sight made him sad. He picked up the turtle and moved it to the side of the road, placing it in the grass.
Some more description, more sensory information (the feel of the wind, the sweat, the heat) but it still feels like we’re hovering a few feet above him, doesn’t it? We can guess at his motivations, and we have been told that he feels sad for the turtle, but as readers, we aren’t feeling much of it ourselves. So what do we do? We inject more voice, give the reader more of what Bobby is thinking and feeling without directly telling them.
Take 3: The day had dragged on forever. Bobby hopped on his bike, barely stopping to grab his helmet, and pedaled away, breaking into a sweat before he made it out of the parking lot. The entire town was an oven. He flew down the streets, careening around corners, faster and faster, just to feel the wind whip through his hair. Halfway home, Bobby spotted a small green turtle trundling across the road. He veered and rolled to a stop near a tree, which he leaned his bike against. The turtle stood still in the middle of the road, stranded in a sea of scorching asphalt. Poor little thing didn’t stand a chance. After looking both ways, Bobby ran over and bent to grab the turtle. Tiny clawed feet scrabbled at his hand, but he held tight. Safe in the grass on the far side of the road, the turtle continued its trek. Bobby waved goodbye and headed back towards his bike.
In this version, we know more about how Bobby is feeling. His day was long and he’s totally over it (The day had dragged on… The entire town was an oven, etc.) It’s so hot that his only solution is to pedal fast to get a bit of a breeze. Despite that, he stops to help a poor unfortunate soul. We know he feels bad for the turtle (Poor little thing didn’t stand a chance.) He gets clawed for his efforts, but he still holds on tight, determined to get the little dude to safety. By cutting some filter words, adding sensory descriptions, and injecting some voice, the passage is more interesting and it brings the reader in closer.
Hopefully these examples were helpful. Like all skills, it takes practice. I still find myself using filter words a lot in early drafts, and have to go back and delete and rearrange passages. Plus, I’ve really found Aurelia’s voice (my No Man’s Land main character) but every time I start a new book with a different MC, I have to start over. I need to get to know the character– how they think, and feel, and react to situations– before I can weave their voice into the story. So if you’re struggling, don’t get frustrated. Keep on keeping on. And choose a page to try and write a few different ways. Try on different POVs, different tenses. Play with it. See what happens.