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NARRATION #3: Distance
Engaging your readers is probably the hardest thing to do when writing. But there are a few tricks to keep them invested: Just don't be too distant.
Posted on 6 March 2021 0 Comments
NARRATION #4: Focalisation Previous NARRATION #2: Pacing Next

Understanding “Show, Don’t Tell!”

(Disclaimer: Everything I present here has been influenced by essays, articles and books I read as a student. I don’t want to claim anything as my original thought. Still, going back to find out who said what seems too much to tackle at the moment. Don’t think of this as me teaching my original wisdom. Think of it as sharing what I’ve learned.)

If you have spent any time at all on writing forums or sought advice from any established author, you’ll probably heard this a thousand times: Show, don’t tell. Or maybe you heard something like: Dramatization over narration. – They’re all talking about the same thing, and I wouldn’t disagree with them. But I think we need to ask another question: Why should you show and not tell?

The Art of Immediacy

What do people actually mean by “Show, don’ tell”? – If I had to rephrase it, I’d probably put it like this: “Let your reader experience your story first-hand. Don’t filter it for them.” The less distance you put between them and the story, the easier they will have it to enter its world – and more importantly stay in it.

Of course, “Show, don’t tell” is not a simple binary. There’s a subtle spectrum from simple narration to scenic representation that you can play with. Just be aware what you are doing and why you are doing it.

When done correctly, increasing and decreasing the distance between story and reader can become a dance: Sometimes this is a wild tango, sometimes a romantic waltz. Only when you step on your reader’s feet, you’ll have a problem.

How to (not) Keep Your Distance:

It’s easy to say “Show, don’t tell.” It’s harder to actually explain what that actually entails. There are many ways to show and tell. Here, I’ve tried to list most of them. Still, I’m sure that this list is far from complete. Comment down below if you have something to add.

Speech & Thought

Maybe dialogue wasn’t the first thing you were thinking about right now. But since it makes up a large part of your novel, you’d do well to consider it a bit. If you’d like, we can get really technical: On the spectrum, there are recorded speech, indirect speech and narrated speech.

“The sun is shining.”

(Recorded Speech)

She said the sun was shining.

(Indirect Speech)

She talked about the sunshine.

(Narrated Speech)

Generally speaking, you should go for the most immediate form of dialogue, which is recorded speech. However, there are reasons to try out the other ones: If you want to hide an important piece of information, narrated speech can offer a good hiding spot. If you want to tighten your pacing, indirect speech can help you summarise otherwise lengthy conversations.

Just be aware that readers will become increasingly suspicious (and worse increasingly bored) if you use indirect and narrated speech in abundance. Like any good spice, more distanced versions of dialogue are best when used subtly and rarely.

What goes for dialogue, also goes for thought: Especially when writing first person, we can experience the protagonist’s inner workings immediately or through a series of filters. Treat them as you would their spoken out words.

Why would a man like that ever date me?

(Recorded Thought)

I wondered why a man like that would ever date me.

(Indirect Thought)

I wondered about him and me and dates and so on.

(Narrated Thought)

Grammar

There are some really dry and boring subjects in storywriting. Grammar is not one of them. A well-structured sentence can draw your readers in or push them away – depending on what you aim for.

In this post, I’ll only talk about two subcategories of grammar: passive voice and sentence structure. They should be enough to guide you through the mine field of language in use. And if you have more questions, I’m available to you in the comments below.

Passive Voice

Compare these sentences:

  • “D’Angelo was hit by a car.”
  • “A car hit D’Angelo.”
  • “Marcus drove into D’Angelo.”

When we tell you to avoid passive voice, we don’t mean to say that passive voice is bad in itself. It’s only used wrong 95% of the time. And admittedly, it’s a tricky subject: The reasons you shouldn’t use passive voice are exactly the reasons you might need it.

Passive voice puts focus on the victim, not on the perpetrator. In the first example, D’Angelo is the centre of attention, and the car is hidden behind the guise of the (grammatical) object. The other two make it more clear as to who has actually done the crime (or the action in general).

Also, because of this subject-object-mixup, passive voice is harder to understand. It might just be a fraction of a second, but that’s enough to trip your reader up and yank him out of the experience. Especially in action sequences, this can ruin the mood real quick.

So, in short: Use passive voice if you want to hide something or slow your reader down. If not, don’t.

Sentence Structure

There are people going about telling you to only write short sentences. The definition may vary: under 10 words, under 17 words, under 23 words, etc. What they actually want to say is this: Don’t use subclauses, unless necessary.

Take these two examples:

  • “After she walked through the door, Sandra put down her suitcase, wondering whether there was any cheese left in the fridge, because she wanted to invite her friends over for a few glasses of wine.”
  • “Sandra walked through the door and put down her suitcase. Was there any cheese left in the fridge? She wanted to invite her friends over and have a few glasses of wine.”

If you’re like most people, the second paragraph will feel more fresh and exciting. That’s because in main clauses, all information is at surface level. You don’t need to rearrange anything in your mind or draw connections between a subclause and a main clause. This way, you digest everything more quickly and the narration becomes more fast paced.

If you use subclauses, on the other hand, your readers will need to do some work of their own. This will slow them down and make them feel more distanced from your story. When used rarely, this is add variation to your writing. (Also, using only main clauses may be a good pacing choice. Statistically speaking, though, this is a guarantee of failure.)

Emotions & Senses

Another heavily warned against phenomenon in writing are filter words. These are the little words that (surprise, surprise!) filter the experience of characters through another prism: think, feel, wonder, etc. If you want an in-depth look at them, check out this video by Alexa Donne, who explains it better than I ever could.

Filter words aren’t necessarily your enemy. At times, they can sound natural and strengthen your text. However, they mean extra work for your reader. Instead of experiencing a situation as close-up as possible, they have to wade through a layer of extra vocabulary. As with the issues before, they increase the distance to the story and lengthen the process of understanding.

Take these two sentences for example:

“He felt the heat rise to his head and realised he had blushed out of shame.”

(Filtered Version)

“The heat rose to his head. He had blushed.”

(Unfiltered Version)

As always, you need to ask yourself: Do you want to hit your reader with the whole experience? Or do you want to soften the blow? – In the end, it’s a matter of pacing.

Descriptors

“Don’t use (too many) adverbs, adjectives or other details!” – There’s a good chance you’re sick of hearing that already. Especially, because the explanation for this “golden rule of writing” is oftentimes confusing or unfulfilling.

In the case of adverbs, there is a reason for our general aversion. This reason, who would have guessed it, is distance. A “verb + adverb” construction is more distant than a strong verb anytime. Look at this example.

He walked quickly to his car and hid nervously behind its trunk.

(With adverbs)

He rushed to his car and ducked behind its trunk.

(Without adverbs)

In the first case, your reader has to jump through extra hoops: They imagine the act of walking, then get the new information “quickly” and have to readjust to reimagine a “quick walk”. In the second case, they only have to imagine one thing, i.e. rushing. This may seem insignificant to you, but when done too often, adverbs lead to constant reimagination that will exhaust, slow down and irritate your readers.

In a similar way, too many adjectives and other details will become tiresome. Trust your readers that they will use their imagination. If you overload them with extra information, they won’t get more of a inner picture out of it. They’ll just have to readjust the one they already have.

Time & POV

Before you choose a POV (point of view) and a tense to narrate in, there’s a lot of questions to ask yourself: What perspective do I want to show? How much suspense do I want to add? How immediate do I want the experience to be?

Generally speaking, the most immediate option is first person, present tense. That’s because it is closest to the actual experience: It’s as if you’re in the protagonist’s skin, experiencing whatever they’re experiencing.

A third person, past tense narration will be more distant, but is also a stylistic choice. In any way, it won’t put too much distance between you and your reader – because they’re used to this type of storytelling. Only if your story hinges on them being drawn in should you stay away from third person, past tense.

Comprehension

Independent from these little issues, you also have to think about general comprehension: Do you tell your story straightforward or do you make your readers do some work? Like with all of these, there is a spectrum from spelling it out to leaving some room for interpretation to leaving them guessing.

Once more, there is no right or wrong. James Joyce wanted Finnegans Wake to be hard to read, Stephanie Meyer probably didn’t. You just have to be clear in your intentions and the rest will fall into place.

The Art of Natural Perception

As I said earlier, this list isn’t necessarily exhaustive. So, maybe we need to ask ourselves: What is the common denominator between these things? – I’d say it’s natural perception.

The closer you are in your writing to the way we see things in regular life, the less distance your reader will feel to your story. And the less destince, the less mediacy and the more lived experience.

In the end, you’ll simply have to decide what effect you want to achieve when – and then adjust the level of mediacy until you are happy with it.

What Can We Learn from this?

Long post, short summary. Here it is:

  1. Distance itself isn’t bad. But use it sparely to add some variety and challenge your reader. Don’t slow him up a hundred percent of the time.
  2. There’s a spectrum of mediacy to immediacy that you can toy with. Just go for a dance with your readers.
  3. Vary your dialogue with recorded, indirect and narrated speech. You can use this to pull focus away or put focus on important information.
  4. Understand grammar and use it to your advantage. If you choose to use passive and subclauses, make sure there’s a good reason for it.
  5. Filter words, adjectives and adverbs slow down the experience. Sometimes you want that. Most of the time, they’ll just trip up your reader.
  6. Try to get as close to our natural perception as you can if you want to have an immediate experience. If not, try out some of the techniques in this post.
  7. As long as you are sure something is working for your story, it doesn’t matter if any writing guru tells you that you should never do that. If you weren’t allowed to write something, it wouldn’t exist in our language.

Happy writing,
F.G.

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