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Deep POV and Narrative Distance—Part 1

July 19, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 21, 2016

I’ve addressed deep POV beforeDeep POV, What’s So Deep About It—but it’s been almost five years since then, so I figured now was a good time to revisit the topic. This is a two-part series.

Deep POV (sometimes called close POV) isn’t a point of view different from those you already know, read, and perhaps write. It’s a way of lessening the narrative distance for the reader in stories told from a third-person point of view.

 

Narrative Distance

Narrative distance is the perceived distance between readers and characters and between readers and story events. If readers are watching events from afar, at a great distance from those events and characters, the narrative distance is wide. If readers are up close with characters, feeling as if they’re experiencing the events themselves or are watching from inside the same room or inside the character, the narrative distance is a short one.

Some define narrative distance as the distance between the narrator and the story’s characters and events, but saying it’s the distance perceived by the reader is probably a more helpful way of looking at the concept. Readers are sometimes not even aware of a narrator behind a story, but they do know when they’re inside the adventure, living the events and experiencing the emotions caused by those events. Still, either is a valid definition.

With a story told with a wide narrative distance, readers may notice the omniscient narrator who relates much of a story world’s background and many story events but little of the inner life of the characters. Details of the story world may be presented through narration in a way that characters don’t often use to share their thoughts. So the omniscient narrator may reveal details about the mountain perched above the town or about the political history of a country. Stories told using a wide narrative distance typically don’t usher the reader inside the characters’ heads or help readers feel the emotional impact of events as registered by the characters.

On the other hand, with a short narrative distance, a reader may feel that he’s in a character’s shoes—or at least in his head. Readers feel what characters feel at the same time the character is feeling the emotions. Readers hear a character’s thoughts as though listening from inside the character’s mind, with no delay or interference.

Wide narrative distances rely on telling and reporting. The writing can be engaging, but the feel for the reader is typically cool and distancing.

Narrative distance is created through word choice; through the choice of what to notice, what to focus on and what to ignore; and through the emphasis given to or withheld from character thoughts and emotions.

At the extremes, narrative distance is the difference between watching a movie of events and living out those events. The watcher of a movie doesn’t take on the sense of danger that the person going through dangerous events experiences. The watcher of a movie doesn’t enjoy an assault on the senses that a person going through events in real life may endure. The watcher of a movie can see much more of what’s happening in the story world than a single individual going through the workings of his day can see of his world.

Even more extreme, the widest narrative distance could be described as that of the bird’s-eye view. Think wide angle and big picture. There may be a lot of general details, but much less is included in terms of personal or intimate details regarding specific characters.

At a great distance, the emotions and thoughts of individuals are sacrificed in order to present the big picture and allow access to a great amount of knowledge.

At a close distance, information is sacrificed in order to present character emotions and thoughts, to focus on a few individual characters.

But narrative distance isn’t only about two levels, the very near and the very far; narrative distance for a story or a scene can fall along any point on a continuum or range between the two extremes.

Let’s consider a few possible points along the continuum, from the greatest narrative distance to the shortest.

•  A scene can be shown from a great distance, with the omniscient narrator telling what happened, no commentary involved. This is the big picture told as a report. The narrator could dispassionately relate what any character did, said, thought, or felt. This is very much a telling style.

•  A scene could be shown from the same great distance, but include a narrator’s comments or the narrator’s slant on story events.

•  The narrator could move in closer to show or highlight objects, events, and characters that interest, influence, or intersect with a particular character. That character isn’t interested in the big picture—or can’t see the whole picture—and focuses on only certain characters, objects, or events. The narrator might share only what the character does and sees while ignoring his thoughts and emotions.

•  The narrator could share the emotions or thoughts of that one character, presenting those emotions and thoughts like any other scene event—as fact. The boy was sad when his father took his toy away. Jenna thought she’d better pack up and leave before her roommate returned.

•  The narrator may move closer still in order to share the emotions or thoughts of one character as they’re experienced by the character. This becomes less a report and more an experience as it’s happening. Word choices show the character feeling pain or tasting an orange or thinking that his brother is a jerk. Think experiential rather than report.

•  Deep POV. (More on this one in a moment.)

•  The narrator, a character in the story, tells what’s happening (or what happened) to him. This is the first-person narrator.

You’re not limited to only one narrative distance per story, so you could open with a wide narrative distance to set up your story before moving closer to focus on the events involving one character. You may then choose to draw back again to present information about the story world, information known only to the omniscient narrator, before moving closer to the events surrounding a second major character.

Yet switching narrative distance takes a deft hand and practice. And we usually don’t jump from one end of the spectrum to the other without helping the reader adjust. Sometimes we don’t do it at all. Imagine switching from a first-person narrator to an omniscient one. Readers would wonder what happened to your first-person character and be pulled straight out of the story.

If you do plan to make fairly large switches in narrative distance—perhaps at chapter breaks—do so early in the story to accustom readers to the practice.

Discussing sliding narrative distances is beyond the scope of this article, but do understand that moving from one level to the next in a step-by-step progression (in either direction) would be much easier on the reader than jumping from one end of the scale to the other.

 

Looking at Deep POV

Deep POV is as close to first-person narration as you can get without using first person. It allows readers to hear and feel and experience at the same time the character does. In some ways it’s a more realistic experience for the reader because in first-person narration, if the character is strong and opinionated and very different from the reader, the reader may still feel that someone “other” is telling the story, may feel that he can’t slip into the story alongside the viewpoint character because the character is too big. Too overwhelming. Too distinctive and different.

Some first-person narrators are so unique that readers can’t identify with them. And there’s nothing wrong with that—letting an exceptional character take center stage is one of the advantages of using first-person narration. Still, not all first-person characters draw readers as close as do other first-person characters.

Sometimes readers can step easily into a character’s life, into his body and heart and mind. Other times the character is too overwhelming and the reader feels and hears the character narrating the story. Sometimes the stress on I, I, I, me, me, me, and my, my, my holds the reader at a distance from the first-person narrator. (This problem is easily fixed by having the character focus on people, objects, places, and action outside himself and the writer reducing the number of uses of I, me, my, and mine.)

First-person narration doesn’t always cause problems, of course. And a first-person narrator does allow readers character insights that most other POVs don’t allow. Yet third-person deep POV takes the reader exceedingly close to the intimacy of first person and is an option you should consider.

 

Manipulate Narrative Distance and Deepen POV

To write deep POV, imagine you’re looking out from inside the character’s body. Include words and experiences derived from that viewpoint only. Any time you step outside the character’s body, head, or heart to share an image or information that the character couldn’t know or see, you’re breaking the boundaries of the POV and offering the opinion or experience of someone else, whether that someone else is another character, an omniscient narrator, or you, the author.

As I mentioned, in almost all POVs you can introduce a scene from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. This is often done at a story’s opening or when the setting undergoes a big change. Yet you can’t use the omniscient narrator to introduce scenes in first-person narration and if you stay in a deep third POV, you probably won’t want to switch to an omniscient narrator. The whole point of using first or deep third is to tell the story—the whole story or at least the viewpoint scenes of certain characters—through the eyes and experiences of the viewpoint character. If you want to move in and out of a third-person narration and slip into an omniscient narrator’s viewpoint fairly often, you likely won’t write in deep POV. The change from viewpoint character to omniscient narrator is simply too jarring. Readers will be much too aware of the switch and will be wondering what’s happening with story mechanics rather than with story events.

Still, could you ease into a deep-third scene by way of an omniscient narrator? You could certainly try it. But you’ll want to know what you lose at the cost of what you gain for being able to share information that only an omniscient narrator would know. If you’re a beginning writer, don’t add the burden of trying to mix viewpoints whose very designs and purposes separate them. You’ve got enough to work through without piling on tricky obstacles that would give an experienced novelist headaches.

Choose first-person POV knowing that you can’t share every bit of knowledge with readers, as you could do with an omniscient narrator. Choose deep third knowing the same thing—that there’s give and take between the POV options and no single option will allow you to do everything. When you go close with POV, you give up the ability to share all knowledge. When you go with an omniscient narrator, you give up telling the story from the intimate viewpoint of a single character.

The strengths of one point of view or a particular narrative distance work against the strengths of another. What makes each unique precludes them being effective when used together.

Choose the depth of your narrative distance knowing what effect that choice will have and what you give up by forgoing a different option.

Use deep POV when you want to immerse readers in the full fictional experience, helping them to get lost in your adventure and the emotions that accompany that adventure.

***

This is just part of our discussion on deep POV and narrative distance. Read Part 2: Tips and Techniques for Creating, Using, and Adjusting Deep POV

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5 Responses to “Deep POV and Narrative Distance—Part 1”

  1. Beth, I wrote a article for my blog on this topic a a couple of years ago. As usual, you’re so brilliant that you covered points I missed. Thanks for this! Here’s my blog post from 2013. http://penultimateword.com/editing-blogs/how-to-write-deep-pov-its-all-in-your-perspective/.

    You say things so much better than I do!

    • Arlene, thanks for the compliments, but we both covered a lot of pertinent details. And you did so with fewer words. (I had to split this into two parts because it got so long.)

      I like how you mentioned the writer’s POV—we do need to shift from the writer’s knowledge and viewpoint to the character’s knowledge and viewpoint. Definitely a great way to look at point of view.

      POV is a topic that could be discussed forever. (To infinity and beyond?)

  2. Intrusive omniscient narration, as already practised by Henry Fielding in Tom Jones, is still my one true way to go.

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