Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Writing Wednesday: Narrative Distance

Good Morning Everyone!! :)

Mick Jagger is singing "Sympathy for the Devil" in my earbuds at 7:00 a.m. this morning. Why is this important to this blog? Well, because if we wanted a reader to have sympathy for the devil, we'd need to understand the technique of narrative distance.

What exactly is narrative distance? It's how close or far away our writing is from the character. In first person writing, we have an extreme sense of narrative closeness because the whole narrative is coming directly from the character. In omniscient, we have the opposite extreme because none of the narration comes from within the character.

Seems simple, right? Nope. Not at all. Writing from a close narrative takes a lot of practice, concentration, focus--and acting ability. The author needs to be the character in order to create narrative closeness. This can be especially tricky to maintain when you have a few characters in a scene. Here are some things you can do to create narrative closeness:

1) Borrow vernacular. Study the way people talk from the place or setting your characters are living in and from where they come from. Someone from Wisconsin is going to sound very different than someone from Texas. East coast and West coast sound very different. This isn't about accents, it's about language.

Texas: I carried my mom up to the Circle K to get some coke.
Wisconsin: I drove my mom up the Kwik Trip to buy soda.

If you're unaware of how someone speaks from the area, or want to familiarize yourself with that vernacular, google videos and documentaries on the net where they interview the local people. For instance, when I was writing about the Inuit, I watched many home movies from the area--sometimes right before I started writing so I could correctly channel the sound, texture and pattern of their words.

Of course, this is one of those reasons why new writer's are told to "write what you know" time and again. Anyone who's a fan of Stephen King know how people in Maine speak and your readers should walk away knowing the difference in your character's language.

2) Gender specific language: Men and women think and speak differently than each other. Men have a tendency not to mince their words--which often makes them sound abrupt even when they don't mean to. Women tend to pad their language with extra words meant to set people at ease. Of course there are always exceptions and an author can deliberately switch out the language for the gender in order to convey a more feminine male or masculine female, depending on their needs.

Men are "fixers" by human nature. They listen intently with an ear for how to solve problems. Women are more "healers" and listen intently with an ear for how they can make the person feel better. This does NOT mean that women aren't into problem solving (they are!) and it doesn't mean that men don't want to offer comfort (they do!) It means that their approach to another person's upset is different. Men believe they are offering comfort by helping to solve the problem and women believe they are helping solve the problem by comforting the person.

Read up on the psychology of each gender if you're having difficulty writing from the gender opposite your own.

3) It's in the Details: Or in the case of writing, it's in the descriptions. A soldier might look at a sunset and think it resembles Napalm, a poet housewife will see it as a dying bloom of gold on the horizon. No two characters should see their environment in the exact same way (unless it's sci-fi and they're clones ;)) Character-specific observations are important and they need to come from the emotional place the character is in as well as their personality. An optimist will see the glass half-full, the pessimist, half-empty. Know your character and how they'll respond.

How to test your writing:

Take a random few paragraphs of narrative in third person and switch it to first person.

Does it still sound like the character?
Does it sound like it comes from the correct gender?
Are the details related to the character's experience?
Are word choices ones the character would use?

Here are a few links for further reading:

Decoding Narrative Distance by Dave King
(Exceptionally awesome and understandable information)

Narrative Distance from the blog of Jennifer R. Hubbard
(Excellent example of three narrative distances in this one.)

The Mechanic of the Introspection Fiction-Writing Mode by Mike Klaassen
(Great 4 Part Article at Helium)

Any thoughts or questions? I'll be around all day to help with further explanations or to absorb what you have to offer on the subject :)



Martin Bartloff said...

I'm confused, I didn't think you blogged on blogspot, yet I clearly remember being here before :-)


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


J.R. Turner said...

Hi Martin :) I'm here! :) Yes!


Thank you so very much for the kind thoughts! :) I hope you'll enjoy your time with us here. My new posting schedule will be a ton of fun, I'm hoping.

I look forward to getting to know you! :) I'm sure by now you've seen that you share my heroine's name. It's one of my favorites--so it's totally awesome to have a real-world Kaylee to chat with from time to time :)