narrative distance

Two decades ago, when I wrote the opening chapter of my memoir and took it to a writing group, the response I got was that the readers felt at a distance from the story. They even named that distance: it was like they were standing twelve feet away from the action. As a new writer, I puzzled over their comments. I had no idea what I had done—or not done—that created this impression. But I got clear that I, too, was holding back. My story is hard, and I was avoiding truly digging in and learning what I needed to know about that time in my life.

I gradually learned storytelling techniques—used in fiction, but equally beneficial, and needed, in memoir—such as the difference between scene and sequel, or showing and telling. I discovered that I had been “telling” the story—not putting my characters on stage and creating scenes with dialogue that pull the reader right into the action. This “showing” allows the reader to be inside my character, experiencing their anxiety, rage, or confusion, rather than looking at my character through a camera lens.

No particular narrative distance is either right or wrong. The writer needs to learn to control that distance to fit what is going on, and to manipulate it seamlessly without the reader noticing on a conscious level. If a scene is very, very intense and heavy, such as a rape, more distance may be helpful. We don’t want to trigger our readers so badly that they put down the book. When we provide facts for the reader—what neighborhood the character is in, for example, we are adding some distance. If we were intimately inside the character, they wouldn’t be thinking about the neighborhood by name. They would simply BE there, experiencing where they were walking.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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Filed under fiction, memoir, writing, writing craft

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