In my post on psychic distance, I made a sweeping generalisation – that most modern-day writers want to create a close perspective, in which the reader has insight into the inner workings of the main character.
It is a generalisation, but it’s one I stand by – when it comes to novel length fiction, at least. Short story writers tend to experiment more with form, as it’s there’s less risk of losing the reader’s attention. Even if a reader finds a particular perspective or structure challenging, there’s a good chance they’ll stay with it long enough to finish a short story, where they might not invest the time required for a full novel. As a writer, only you can decide how you want to tell your story. But, if you are writing for publication, you need to be aware of reader expectations. Most readers will expect access to the thoughts and feelings of any character with whom they are going to be spending a significant amount of time.
There’s a lot that goes into creating and maintaining close connection between the reader and the character. Many of the things that jolt a reader out of the story are down to a writer trying to work in a close perspective, and not getting it quite right.
The starting point is to be sure that you understand psychic distance. If you’ve read my post on that topic, you’ll remember our old friend, Henry J Warburton. If you’re writing in a close perspective, you’ll be working somewhere between level 3 and 5 on the Henry scale for the majority of the text. It’s important to remember that these levels are just examples. There’s a whole spectrum of distance available to the writer, and, in order to create narrative texture you need movement and variation.
Shifts of psychic distance are also vital to the basic functioning of the narrative. The bottom line is that you cannot recreate a character’s experience as it would actually happen if they were a real person in a real situation. If writers actually tried to do that, books would be thousands of pages long, and almost entirely unreadable. Even novels written in close focus, stream-of-consciousness style aren’t an accurate reflection of real life – and they can still be hard going for the reader, even so. As a writer, you want to engage the reader, to make them care about the character. You have to let them close. But you also want them to finish the story. You can’t keep them so close that everything plays out in real time.
Variations of psychic distance allow you to keep the story moving forward, while still spending enough time on the most important elements, but you need to manage them properly in order to avoid the kind of wobbles of perspective that so often knock a reader out of the story. In order to do that, you need to fully understand the purpose and function of the narrator.
Narrator vs Character
At this point, I should clarify something relating to the narrator and point of view, and that is that is that here is always a narrator. With first person narratives, it’s easy to think that there’s only the character., but that’s not the case. The viewpoint character in a first person story is performing both roles. Imagine yourself experiencing something sudden and unexpected – tripping over a paving stone and falling full length. Now, imagine yourself telling someone else about it later. The version of you who tripped and fell was aware of nothing beyond the events as they unfolded – the sudden lurch, the impact, the person who picked you up and dusted you down. The version who is telling the story is aware of the need to present it in a coherent form. The way they recount events won’t necessarily be exactly how that earlier version experienced those events.
That’s as much the case in present tense as in past tense. A present tense story is still about things that have already happened. They’re just being related in a style intended to create a sense of immediacy. Think about how people sometimes lapse into the present tense when recounting something that happened to them in the past.
So there I am in the middle of the street, wearing nothing but a bikini…
In fiction, there is always a narrator and a character. The main character is the focus of the story. Everything is about them and their experiences. The narrator is only there because they have a job to do. That job is to tell the reader the story. At the more zoomed-out levels, the narrator has a lot of involvement. They’re constantly at work, describing, explaining, perhaps even breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader, to express an opinion or provide context. As you move closer through the levels, the narrator grows quieter and quieter, until the reader is barely aware of their presence.
So what does the narrator actually do?
I like to think of the narrator as being in charge of the scaffolding of a story. By scaffolding, I mean the elements that are structural in nature, rather than the substance of the story. Dialogue tags, verbs like saw, thought, looked, wondered, qualifiers like briefly, slightly – these are all things that could be changed or removed without losing any fundamental part of the character’s experience. Descriptions of the things the character sees, things that happen to them, the emotions they feel – these are core story.
Scaffolding is, in a sense, a shortcut. It gives the reader a clear, easy route over the tangle and clutter of character experience and emotion. There are places where you want the reader right there in that clutter, experiencing things as the character experiences them. In these places, the narrative will generally move at a slower pace, and involve more detail, as the character finds their way through whatever it is that they are experiencing, drawing the reader along with them. In places where there’s less emotional investment, or where less detail is needed, the narrator can use more scaffolding, giving the reader a quicker, clearer route through that part of the story.
Think about someone standing in the middle of a square, looking for a particular building. They’re going to turn slowly in a circle, looking at each building in turn. They might have some information – they’re looking for a red door. The first building has a blue door. That’s not it. The second one has a red door, but when they take a step towards it, they can see a plaque with a different name to the one they’re looking for. That building is boarded up. The next two don’t have a red door. There it is. Red door, brass knocker. The person who gave directions mentioned the knocker.
Hardly any of that is relevant. It’s character experience, but it doesn’t need to be part of the narrative. It could perfectly well be summed up in brief terms.
He looked around the square until he found the house with the red door.
This sort of summary is a core part of the narrator’s job. They can cut through the clutter, to move the reader past things that don’t matter. If your narrative doesn’t have enough scaffolding, the reader is going to have a slow, cluttered journey through the story. If there’s too much scaffolding, they’ll be able to race over the top of the story, but they’ll have little real engagement with the character.
You need the narrator to be using the appropriate amount of scaffolding for the level of psychic distance at which you want the reader at any given time. In particular, you want to avoid them lurching in where they’re not needed, lugging scaffolding boards and poles, when the reader’s attention should be fully on the character. This kind of narrator intrusion breaks the immersion of the story, reminding the reader that it is a story. There are some aspects of writing that show the interplay between narrator and character particularly well. That relationship is at the heart of every narrative – these are just a few examples, but I think they are among the more useful ones.
As we’ve already established, the character isn’t aware they’re in a story. They’re entirely focused on what is happening to them, and how they feel about it. When it comes to the world around them, they’re looking directly at that world. They’re not watching themselves as they interact with that world. The narrator, on the other hand, is looking at the character.
A quick way to assess how active the narrator is at any given point in the text is to look at how many sentences begin with pronouns – he, she, they, I, or with the main character’s name. Pronouns are part of the scaffolding. They’re how someone else would refer to the character, not how the character would think about themselves.
Let’s look at that red door again.
He looked around and noticed a red door with a brass knocker.
This is the narrator talking about the character noticing something.
There. A red door, its brass knocker a bright gleam against the paintwork.
This is the character noticing something.
This distinction is really important when writing in first person. It’s easy to assume that a first person point of view must be a close perspective. You’re right there, in the character’s head, aren’t you? Well, no. Think about that cracked paving stone. When you’re tripping over it, you’re not thinking I am falling. I am going to hit the ground. The pronoun I is still scaffolding. It’s the remit of the narrator version who later tells someone I fell over a paving stone and hurt my knee.
Pronoun sentences are a necessary part of the narrative structure. You can’t make much progress through the story without them. But be aware of how much of that sort of sentence structure you use. Too much Bob went… or He saw… can feel like summary, not experience. You want your story to be a story, not a synopsis of a story.
Writers often find perspective tricky when it comes to writing emotion. This is because the focus is on the character, not on the outside world. And who is usually looking at the character? That would be the narrator. When describing how a character feels internally, you’re looking inwards, not outwards. This means that it’s really easy to slip into the narrator view, but emotion is entirely about character. It’s a core aspect of the story. You don’t want the narrator scaffolding the reader a quick route over the top of it. They might need to throw in the odd handhold to avoid things getting too messy, but for the most part, the reader needs to be left alone, to follow the character through whatever it is they’re experiencing.
The key is to think about what the character is aware of when it comes to their own emotions. How do they actually feel? How are the emotions affecting them physically? Are they conscious of the world around them, and how other people are perceiving them? Where strong feelings are concerned, it’s rarely enough to simply name the emotions. At moments of really heightened emotional tension, the character isn’t going to be thinking I am angry. I am upset. That’s narrator summary, not character experience. They’re going to be conscious of how it’s making them feel. Focus on what the emotion does, not what’s it called. Is their chest tight? Is their heart beating fast? Are they feeling cold and shaky?
Not ever emotion is overwhelming, requiring a close perspective. People feel things all the time, but they’re not aware of every tiny shift of mood – or at least not to any significant extent. Some emotions are very fleeting. Some are less powerful. Some just aren’t the most important or interesting thing that’s happening at the time. These feelings lend themselves perfectly well to some quiet narrator scaffolding.
She felt a quick brush of shame.
He could feel the first stirrings of anger, and he took a steadying breath, trying for calm.
You should take particular care when describing the physical effects of emotions, as it’s all too easy to involve the narrator by describing something that the character wouldn’t be aware of – something requiring an external view. Make sure that anything emotional reaction that is visible externally is described in a way that is consistent with the character’s awareness.
A bright red flush spread up into her cheeks.
This is an external observation. Another character would be able to see this, but the viewpoint character wouldn’t. The narrator would see it, but it’s not the narrator’s job to get actively involved in things like description. The narrator is functional. They’re not an actual character in the story. (Unless they are, but that’s a very specific type of narrator, and arguably not actually a narrator at all. A discussion for another time.) This sort of perspective shift is likely to jar the reader or confuse them. They’re either going to notice the narrator suddenly doing more than they’ve been doing up till now, or they’re going to be left flailing, wondering who is noticing the flush.
Again, think about what the character would be aware of. They wouldn’t see the flush, but they might feel it.
Her face was growing hot, and she knew her embarrassment must be written there for everyone to see.
Another way to describe emotion from the character’s point of view is not to describe it. Don’t have the character look inwards at what they’re feeling. Keep the focus outwards, on the cause of the feeling, or on the way the world appears when in the grip of a particular emotion. Imagine your character leaving the house immediately after someone has said something awful to them. The emotion has been cued up by what’s just happened. The reader knows how the character should be feeling. If you then have them thinking unpleasant things about the people they see as they walk down the street, or reacting furiously to someone bumping into them, leaving the other person bewildered, you’re making their emotional state clear without having them focus on how they’re feeling.
Writing emotion can be daunting, but an understanding of perspective and psychic distance makes it much less challenging.
Descriptions of the fictional word and of the characters that inhabit it are an important part of any story. You don’t want to bog the reader down in details, but you need to give them enough for them to understand where the character is and what they are seeing. That’s the key to effective description – what the character is seeing. Description is substance, not scaffolding. You need it to be consistent with the character’s awareness and focus. Let’s have a look at one particular aspect of description that often crops up in writing advice – adverbs.
When you learn to write at school, you spend a lot of time lovingly inserting adverbs into ‘doing sentences’, so that your teacher – or more to the point, the people who decide whether or not your teacher is teaching you properly – knows that you understand what they are and how to use them. You then grow up, become a writer, and spent a lot of time hearing how adverbs are part of the devil’s own language, and how you should never, ever use them.
This is one of those bits of advice that you hear a lot, but which people rarely explain in any sort of detail. You might be told ‘it’s lazy writing’ or ‘show, don’t tell’ or one of the many other vague approximations of an explanation that writers have wafted past them. Before I started delving deeper into perspective, I knew that a lot of adverbs felt out of place when I tried to use them, or when I read books that used them, but I couldn’t articulate what was actually going wrong.
Now I understand that adverbs are often used in a way that is inconsistent with the character’s awareness, leading to a similar jolt of perspective as in the example I gave in the previous section, of a viewpoint character’s blush being described as though they could see it. A lot of adverbs are visual in nature. This means that, while they can be used fairly safely to describe things that they can see happening in the world around them, they should be deployed with caution when it comes to actions performed by the character.
Think about how much you notice your own actions. Do you really spend much time thinking I am walking slowly or I am speaking animatedly? Probably not, and in a close perspective, we want to keep the substance of the story filtered through the character’s perception. We don’t want to involve the narrator, or leave the description floating around somewhere, not really tethered to any actual viewpoint.
I’m not suggesting that you should never use adverbs to describe viewpoint character action. But, again, you need to think about what aspects of their own actions the character would actually notice. We tend to be most aware of how we are acting when there’s some sort of emotion involved. If we’re self-conscious, we might be hyper-aware of how we’re standing or moving. If we’re frightened, we night notice that our hands are shaking and try to steady them. If we’re angry, we might need to make an effort to talk calmly. I’ve noticed that when I use an adverb to describe the viewpoint character, it’s often the case that they are, not only conscious of how they’re doing something, but actively choosing to do it in a particular way. That deliberate intent might be overtly stated, or it might be made clear from the context.
She smiled brightly.
He spoke loudly and slowly.
On the face of it, these look like examples of the narrator describing the character from outside. But if the reader has just been told that the character is upset and trying not to show it, or that they’re frustrated with someone’s perceived stupidity, there’s a clear implication that the brightness of the smile is a deliberate pretence, the slow pace of the speech intended to convey irritation.
Adverbs aren’t the only example of potential perspective wobbles in descriptive sections of a story – they’re just one that often comes up. When you’re describing something to do with your viewpoint character, make sure you’re doing so in a way that is consistent with your character’s awareness.
Another aspect of writing that poses challenges for writers is dialogue. How do you structure a conversation without it turning into the literary equivalent of a tennis match, with the reader turning their head back and forwards between the speakers, as they take careful turns, each marked by a he said or a she said? How do you keep the dialogue tagging in the background, when you need to be clear about who is speaking?
Again, I think the answer lies in character awareness. When a conversation takes place, particularly when it’s about something important or emotionally charged, the participants are aware of more than the words that are being exchanged. They’re aware of body language, tone of voice. They react to what’s being said. They shape their own responses to the situation. They’re conscious of the context and implications of the conversation. When you write dialogue, think about what’s not being said. Think about the subtext, and use that to create the structure. In that way, the scaffolding becomes part of the substance, the narrator a quieter presence.
One caveat about scaffolding – don’t be afraid to use said. Writers are sometimes advised to find alternatives, but following this advice can result in contorted, artificial prose, with major issues of perspective. Leaving aside the fact that more descriptive verbs such as shrieked, cried, scoffed, scolded, raged are often wildly inaccurate – you can’t smirk a sentence or laugh a remark, and people rarely scream things – they also convey information that the character wouldn’t necessarily be aware of. As dialogue tags, they’re structural in nature, part of the scaffolding, but they’re also conveying descriptive information that isn’t the remit of the narrator. Said is a very neutral word. It doesn’t come loaded with information about volume, tone or emotion. Too much said can be jarring – just like too much repetition of anything can be jarring – but don’t shy away from using it here and there.
If you’re not going to use said, you have various options when it comes to dialogue tagging. For short exchanges you may be able to avoid tagging altogether, but in longer conversations, you’re likely to need some markers. You can use action, observation, emotion, internal thought.
‘I want you to leave.’ She wrapped her arms across her body.
‘I want you to leave.’ She kept her voice level.
‘I want you to leave.’ There was an ache in her chest.
‘I want you to leave.’ She didn’t want him to leave, but she knew she couldn’t let him stay.
‘I want you to leave.’ Please don’t leave. Stay. Fight for our marriage. Fight for our family.
Dialogue is an extremely useful tool for writers. Don’t throw away the non-verbal aspects of a conversation by treating them as scaffolding. Make your dialogue work harder. Make the tagging part of the substance, rather than part of the structure. But make sure you do it in a way that is consistent with the character’s awareness.
Time and place
Stories don’t unfold in real time, which means that writers have to deal with issues relating to the passing of time, and the physical movement of characters around the fictional world. I’ve often tied myself up in knots, trying to find clever, character-focused ways of saying Three days passed, before finally settling on Three days passed.
When writing in a close perspective, it’s tempting to try to keep that closeness through a gradual transition, as opposed to a clean jump. You might try to describe the character’s feelings about the passing of time, or use some sort of external marker. In films, you sometimes see a garden changing through the seasons while the character watches wistfully from their window, or the pages of a calendar turning. These sort of devices are easy enough to do on screen – if clichéd – but can be laborious on the page, and may actually draw more attention to the structure. In the majority of situations, it’s probably better to reference the passing of time in as straightforward a way as possible.
A week went by.
It had been several days.
The hours dragged out.
You cannot have time pass at its actual speed, which means that the narrator is always going to have to summarise. Let them get on with it, and don’t make a song and dance about it. Chapter breaks are useful, as they are natural exit and entry points in the story. Most readers will take a break from the story at the end of a chapter, rather than halfway through, so it makes sense to put any necessary structure there. I would probably try to avoid putting significant time jumps mid-chapter, although scene breaks can work for smaller hops of a few moments or hours. The same goes for any movement that has to happen. Get the three-hour walk or the two-day train journey done in a chapter or scene break, and get back to what’s important.
It’s not just deliberate time jumps that need to be handled carefully. You also need to make sure that you don’t inadvertently knock the reader out of the now of the story. If your narrator references events from a later point in the story, this can pull the reader out.
Of course, she didn’t know then how her life was about to change.
Later, he would wonder how he hadn’t realised what was happening.
These are obvious examples, but it’s often more subtle. It can be easy to let the narrator slip in and summarise something in advance of the character experiencing it.
It was as she was leaving that he dropped the bombshell.
‘I’m sorry, Clare,’ he said. ‘It’s over.’
It’s a tiny glimpse into the future, but it’s a reminder that it’s a story that’s being narrated by someone who already knows how it ends.
The narrator is the one who manages the passing of time, but make sure they’re not doing it in a way that draws the reader’s attention.
I could talk about perception and psychic distance for hours, but I’m conscious that I’ve rambled on for 4000 words already. I’m also conscious that I’ve been talking about the narrator as though they are an over-enthusiastic employee that keeps trying to get involved other people’s jobs. I think that’s actually quite a useful way of looking at the narrator role. They are a fantastic resource – always paying attention, always ready to work, never trying to slope off for a cup of tea in the middle of the busiest part of the day – but they have to be managed properly, or you’ll have all sorts of complaints from everyone else involved in the project. You, as the writer, are the manager. You need to focus the narrator’s efforts in the places where they are most useful, and rein them in when they try to take on things that aren’t part of their role. If you do that, your narrator and character will function smoothly together, and your reader will be happy.