This is the second last writing challenge of this short series. I hope you’ve enjoyed them. I have!
The overall idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for several days.
As always, post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at daniel wallace at gmail).
Day Nine: Distance
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking…
She stiffened a little on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall’s van to pass. A charming woman, Scrope Purvis thought her (knowing her as one does know people who live next door to one in Westminster); a touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue-green, light, vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness. There she perched, never seeing him, waiting to cross, very upright.
— Virginia Woolf, the first page of Mrs. Dalloway.
Narrative distance is a great tool for fiction writers, one that helps (amongst other things) to speed up moments of action and violence, heighten the emotional immediacy of a moment, ease the introduction of exposition and setting, and signal the irony of what the narrator knows that the character does not.
To be clear: by this term, “narrative distance,” I simply mean the apparent closeness, of the narrative voice, to the events depicted in the story.
Of course, it’s all an illusion: the entire manuscript is made up of words, and every word is equally as “distant” from every other word on the page: there is no actual space for a narrator to retreat or ascend into, and no real people, feelings, or events for that same voice to zoom towards.
However, the human mind has very powerful capacities to imagine other people’s lives, and we have been trained from childhood, through all of recorded time, to understand the premise of a tale and a teller. We get the idea that sometimes the storyteller is focusing on her story, and sometimes on herself, her thoughts about the story.
We readers have also learned to distinguish specific versions of this premise: one novel will be told in first person as though the events of the story were happening at the very moment of their being told (“I ran up the stairs. I opened the door. I saw a horrible sight on the floor–“), and, even though this is impossible, because there is no way the character is actually speaking this event in real time, the reader will adjust to this convention; another novel will switch from one character’s thoughts to another’s, and the reader will happily accept that convention, too.
The skilled fiction writer can not only settle on one specific narrative premise, and deploy that point of view so thoroughly that the reader will accept its authority, but also shift point of view when needed, pulling in close when the character’s immediate reactions are of key importance, and drawing away when a grander, broader view is needed.
In the Victorian novel, the shift was often very noticeable between the narrator’s “own voice” and the voice that same narrator used to present the action, dialogue, the movements and words of the characters.
Here is Anthony Trollope, king of the intrusive, bossy narrators, in The Eustace Diamonds. Frederic, Lord Fawn, has just informed his mother of his intention to marry the widow Lady Eustace. Trollope gives us a summary, at the start of the scene, of why Lord Fawn needs the young and beautiful widow’s money so badly.
Then we get a long sequence of dialogue, with the mother expressing her doubts, and which builds to her saying, reluctantly:
“I hope she’ll be a good wife to you, Frederic.”
“I don’t see why she shouldn’t. Good-bye, mother. Tell the girls I will see them next Saturday.” He didn’t see why this woman he was about to marry should not be a good wife to him! And yet he knew nothing about her, and had not taken the slightest trouble to make inquiry. That she was pretty he could see; that she was clever he could understand; that she lived in Mount Street was a fact; her parentage was known to him;—that she was the undoubted mistress of a large income was beyond dispute. But, for aught he knew, she might be afflicted by every vice to which a woman can be subject. In truth, she was afflicted by so many, that the addition of all the others could hardly have made her worse than she was.
From the dialogue to the narrator’s commentary, the ascent is steep. Sentence by sentence, we move away from Lord Fawn’s mind and into the narrator’s. Perhaps the first sentence after the dialogue (“He didn’t see…”) is still in Lord Fawn’s mind, or voice. But the parallelism that comes soon after signals that we have left a normal person’s thoughts behind, and are listening to a written voice, an omniscient observer. And, by the final sentence I’ve quoted (“In truth…”), the narrator even fills in information about Lady Eustace that his character does not know.
In contrast, the modernists were much more nimble in their movements. It’s hard to do better than the narrative shifts that Virginia Woolf uses in the opening of Mrs. Dalloway, quoted above, moving from the character’s mind (“How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course,”) her voice (“What a lark!”), then out into the narrator’s close reportage of her actions (“She stiffened a little on the kerb,”), and then, even more outrageously, announcing the shift into a stranger’s point of view.
Here, less wild but more subtle, is James Joyce narrating “The Dead”. His protagonist, Gabriel, is attending a party in winter, and he is just about to make a speech. As he pauses, nervous, he wonders about the world outside, the snow on the land, and the language of the story shifts to give us that outside landscape.
Gabriel leaned his ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth and smiled nervously at the company. Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier. The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door. People, perhaps, were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music. The air was pure there. In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres.
“Ladies and Gentlemen…”
From the third sentence to the moment when Gabriel actually begins his speech, the narrative distance is increasing, or at least I think it is. It is unclear what is happening: we know what we are being told, but not whether this is a fantasy of Gabriel’s mind, or whether, like a camera mounted to a flying drone, the narrator is actually lifting us away from the party and showing us the outside world. The crucial sign post word is “perhaps”: after this word, the language of the paragraph loses its reference to Gabriel.
We have left him behind, it seems, and are dependent on the narrator’s choices to show us what we see. Then we jump back to him and the story continues.
PS Many creative writing books advise aspiring authors to limit narrative distance. Rather than signalling the presence of a narrator through language such as “It seemed to him that she was sad, and he did not know why,” it is better, the wisdom goes, to write instead, “She was sad. Why?”
Phrases like “he felt that,” or “he thought” can often be removed for a gain in the reader’s emotional immediacy. And it is certainly worth searching a long manscript for tics and cliche-like crutches which sound too much like written language, and then removing them.
I did a long search, editing my latest manuscript, for the word “making,” because I discovered that I kept writing versions of “making – the character – verb” (… making Elizabeth flinch,”) and I replaced most of those instances with more the immediate: “the character – verbed.”
But it can be just as useful to consciously play with point of view, moving in and pulling back when needed.
The exercise is this: write a four or five sentence paragraph in which we begin in the character’s own voice, but we move farther and farther away with each following sentence.
“Fire! He could smell it, hear it. It seemed impossible to him that the upstairs of the house was burning, but… He raced upstairs, not aware that the roof was already…”
Ouch, this is bad writing! You can do better, I’m sure.
If you need inspiration, continue one of the exercises from the earlier challenges.
Give it a try! I’m looking forward to seeing what you produce.