Focusing on story structure will help you write a better story. In this episode, Leslie welcomes Shawn Coyne to discuss the Five Commandments of Storytelling.
In this episode, fiction editors Leslie and Clark critique the beginning of Osweyth, an epic fantasy novel inspired by Cornish folklore by JM Hudson. They discuss narrative distance, omniscient point of view, and moving smoothly between vantage points. They also talk about the weather as a character in the story, lush prose, sentence and paragraph length, and commas. The editorial mission asks you to check your narrative distance, that is how close your reader is to the character or narrator.
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Wise words on narrative distance
The useful article about narrative distance we mentioned can be found on Emma Darwin’s site, This Itch of Writing.
The comic book writer Clark mentioned is Joshua Crowther.
Don't forget to check out Clark’s new course, Advanced Novel Writing with Harry Potter!
Editorial mission—check your narrative distance
Narrative distance (also known as psychic distance) is a term to describe how far away the reader is from the character or narrator who’s revealing the story. Even within a single point of view, you can be far away from the character and her experience (the equivalent of watching a scene from the back row of a theater) or actually within the character’s experience and feeling what they feel or knowing their thoughts in their own words.
This element is also related to showing and telling because the greater the distance between the reader and the character, the more the narrator or character tell us about what’s happening rather than showing us or allowing us to experience it. The distance you need to tell your story effectively will vary across the entire book and within individual scenes.
The examples from John Gardner and Emma Darwin in her post we mentioned in the episode will help you get a better feel for the extremes and the levels in between.
Once you have a sense of these levels, check a scene of your own. Consider the narrative distance as written then what you think would be ideal for what you need to accomplish and what you want to show the reader. Use the following elements to assess then adjust the narrative distance within the scene.
- Word choice and sentence structure. Is the prose in the character’s own voice and using words she would use, or in the voice of an objective, story-telling narrator?
- Which details about the setting and characters are revealed? Things only the character would know and notice? Is the reader told about feelings or opinions regarding the details, or are these conveyed through the character’s actions or words?
- Are there details the POV character wouldn't normally think about?
- Do you hear the character’s direct thoughts or about what she’s thinking?
- Including thought verbs (e.g., think, know, believe, understand, realize, want, hate, remember) or tags for observations increases the narrative distance.
- Explanations about the location and what’s happening do the same.
- The character’s own facial expressions unless she’s gazing in a mirror or reflective surface increase the distance as well.
Editing advice to our author
Dear J M,
Thank you so much for your submission! You’ve provided us with the perfect opportunity to talk about narrative distance (aka psychic distance) and how it affects point of view in stories.
You’ve used third person omniscient POV so the reader can observe the action from many vantage points, which is helpful in an epic story like this. The way you employ narrative distance helps us ease into the location and becoming familiar with the characters.
We have a lovely progression from a tiny figure, to a small girl, to feeling what she feels and realizing she is only four years old. Then we hear her speak and see her interact with Jowan. (By the way, she is a captivating character, and I feel a strong urge to read on to find out who will win the battle of wills between her and her father.)
There is a similar progression with Jowan from soldiers noticing that something is amiss to eventually learning that he has a pet name and no small affection for the feisty four-year-old, who also happens to be of royal blood.
The movement from Byhan to Jowan is smooth, not jarring. You’re training the reader how to read your book. And, I suspect we are seeing very characteristic moments for both these characters: Byhan lying in the mud during a squall and feeling the vibration of the waves crashing against the stone beneath and Jowan fearing for her safety, scolding her (though not harshly), and remembering that the odd things about her in a commoner’s child would probably mean death.
There’s not a lot going on in this scene in terms of action: A young noble girl rushes outside in a violent rain storm and falls in the mud. Soldiers notice her, and one in particular rushes to see that she’s all right. While he scolds, her father arrives and then another person (possibly her mother). But in execution you’ve added so much. This is a great opening scene that reveals way more than simply what happens.
As Clark mentioned in the episode, you’ve avoided presenting a laundry list to describe the characters, and instead, helped us get to know them by showing us who they are in their environment with their actions.
The way you’ve employed the weather as a character in this opening supports the story well. Your lush and poetic prose and word choice are a great fit for an epic fantasy inspired by Cornish folktales.
Our suggestions for you relate to items you’ll want to consider in the later stages of revision. You have a lot of long, complex, and compound sentences, and there’s a lot of information to hold in the mind before the reader reaches the end. In part, the description is forceful (not forced), like the storm. This is great, but we were wondering about sustaining this throughout the 100,000 or more words of the story. (You may have already considered this.) When you start editing at the level of paragraphs and sentences, consider the reader’s experience and make sure the level of detail and the complexity of the sentences are manageable. It’s not that there are no short sentences, it’s that the long and complex ones stand out.
Beta readers, especially those who are close to your ideal reader, should give you some great feedback on this point. Some readers enjoy a challenging read, so it’s more about a good fit than a particular word count per sentence. (Does that make sense? I have a book I’m reading for fun that has long, complex paragraphs with very little white space on the page. I love it, but not everyone will want to read The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World.)
Watch for comma usage (again, this is something you shouldn’t wrestle with until later stages of editing). I’ve marked some instances in the submission below. With complex prose, you’ll want to make sure the punctuation aids clear understanding rather than following the rules. Still, readers are used to seeing punctuation show up in a certain way, so I recommend keeping as close to "normal" as possible. Clear as mud?
The last thing I want to mention is that you handled the Cornish words well in this opening (even though my pronunciation was terrible!). The meaning, or enough of the meaning, was clear from the context in each case.
Thanks again for your submission!
All the best,
Leslie and Clark