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Third Person Narration: Using the Zoom Lens

This past February and March were Seattle’s mossiest, moldiest and mushroomiest Februarys and Marches in 120 years. In other words, it was really rainy. Usually the gray makes me cozy and able to focus on work, but this year, it has made me angry and frizzy. Crabby too. So when a few weeks back I sat down to write at a coffee shop and I specifically chose to sit next to a guy who was clearly working on his computer and would therefore not be chatting with anyone, and but so then a female friend sat down and they proceeded to talk and talk and talk, breaking talking records for the months of February and March, I got irritated.

The woman (tall, thin in that pinched way, sensible jeans, no makeup, and mid-forties, self-absorbed and epically dull) was the problem. She yakked boastfully about her “mindfulness around food and eating.” She yakked whinily about sitting in the middle seat of the center aisle of her flight home from India. (To summarize: the middle seat of the center aisle isn’t great. Who knew?) She yakked nasally about the henna paintings on her arm. About how she had missed fresh veggies whilst in India. How, in India, she was the only person in the whole group who didn’t fall off her paddle board.

In sunnier seasons, I love to eavesdrop, to play detective and figure out the players and their dynamics and the subtexts of their conversations. I hunger for narrative closeness. Not with this lady. I wanted to be nowhere near her narrative.

We writers often talk about point of view, focusing only on first person or third, or limited third or omniscient second, or shifting close third, or a grande extra hot split-shot caramel macchiato.

But in addition to first vs. third vs. omniscient, we also need to consider narrative distance—a tool writers use to manipulate the distance between the reader and a narrator.Here’s an example: when we watch a film from the 1940s, it feels like we are participating as distant viewers. The camera does not zoom in or out, nor does the camera angle change. We watch all of the characters (protags and minor characters alike) from the same distance. But with today’s technology, a camera’s ability to zoom in and out, to “see” a scene from various perspectives, rounds out and humanizes the characters, providing the opportunity for a closer relationship between the viewer and particular players. In film, the director determines and controls the distance.

Likewise, in fiction with third person narration, we have control over the distance between the narrator and the reader. Sometimes we want to snuggle the reader inside the head of a character. Other times, like when I am trying to work in a coffee shop, a more distant narration is preferred.

A few general guidelines about narrative stance:

First: While a narrator rarely cements herself in a single, unchanging stance for the entire story, usually, a narrator is either generally close to the story or generally distant. But there is movement. Here’s example of panning in and out from Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being:

The rain was starting to fall in earnest, so she went downstairs to throw some wood on the fire and found that the stack was getting low. She put on her raincoat and gum boots, grabbed a headlamp and the firewood sling, and headed out to the woodpile. The wind had really picked up and the cedar limbs were thrashing. Where was he? It wasn’t safe to be out in the woods in high winds like this.

The narrator is primarily a reporter in the first two sentences, after which she zooms in with the words, “The wind had really picked up” and brings the reader even closer: “Where was he? it wasn’t safe to be out in the woods in high winds like this.” We move from the stormy setting right into her mind and her thoughts.

Second: There is no right or wrong narrative distance; it is only technique a writer employs based on close  she wants the reader from her characters and their story, emotions and yearnings.  That said, while there will be a bit of zooming in and pulling away, it must not shift so wildly or inconsistently that the reader needs to pop a Dramamine. We mustn’t be head-hoppers.

Third: Learning how a writer controls the amount of distance between the narrator and the story takes time and practice. Be patient. Experiment. Practice. And then practice. Practice again and again and again. Don’t forget to practice.

The Effect of a Distant Narrative Stance

C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe offers us a distant third person narrator, about as distant as a narrator can get. Check it out:

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office. He had no wife and he lived in a very large house with a housekeeper called Mrs. Macready and three servants.

From the first sentences of the novel, we sense we will not be lolling about in the characters’ heads. This narrator feels like an authority, a not-so-biased journalist ready to tell the story (rather than show the story through a subjective, biased lens).

In distant third person narration, the writer can naturally establish the time when the story took place versus when the narrator is telling the story. The narrator begins the entire book with the phrase “Once there was …” Immediately the reader feels this is something of a fairy tale, a story that happened when the characters were younger than they are now.

Pulling the narrator far away from the heads of the characters also allows more opportunity for the narrator to offer the details and explanation that would feel stiff and unnatural if shared through a closer third person stance.

Later, the narrator creeps a bit closer to the characters and the conflict:

It was an unpleasant evening. Lucy was miserable and Edmund was beginning to feel that his plan wasn’t working as well as he had expected. The two older ones were really beginning to think that Lucy was out of her mind. They stood in the passage talking about it in whispers long after she had gone to bed.

We are told that Lucy is miserable. We are told that the others think Lucy is out of her mind. While the narration feels closer that it did in the first paragraph of the novel, there is little detail about the interior world or the voice of the characters. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it allows breathing space for the reader. It offers the reader the chance to interpret a character’s motives, actions and emotions.

Effects of Close Narrative Stance

Let’s take a look at Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Here the reader is much more in the mind of Olive.

Through her closed eyelids Olive sees a red light slanting through the windows; she can feel sunlight warming her calves and ankles on the bed, can feel beneath her hand how it warms the soft fabric of her dress, which really did come out nicely. It pleases her to think of the piece of blueberry cake she managed to slip into her big leather handbag—how she can go home soon and eat it in peace, take off this panty girdle, get things back to normal.

I love crabby, girdle-pantied Olive. I love that she has burgled cake in her handbag. How she’s pleased about her dress and is someone who seeks peace. In this single paragraph, the reader knows Olive more intimately than she would ever know C.S. Lewis’ characters.

Close third person narration also provides opportunity to develop the character’s voice. Here’s an example from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street:

Rosa Vargas’ kids are too many and too much. It’s not her fault, you know, except she is their mother and only one against so many.

They are bad those Vargases, and how can they help it with only one mother who is tired all the time from buttoning and bottling and babying, and who cries every day for the man who left without even leaving a dollar for bologna or a note explaining how come.

The child narrator, Esperanza, speaks with a wisdom that surpasses her age, but we also see her youthful observation about bologna and her syntax and diction in phrases like “or a note explaining how come.” With a close narrative stance, we are able to hear the voice of the character.

I find Esperanza’s head is a warm, surprising, colorful place to be, but another reader can feel so confined in the head of that narrator that she feels suffocated. That might not be a great thing unless that’s the author’s intention: to trap the reader inside the head of a character.

OK. I have hurled enough words at you. In your WIP, how have you chosen to control the narrative distance and why?

Have you ever fallen in love with a character (or stopped reading a novel) because of the narrative distance? 

Photo compliments of Flickr’s Trekking Rinjani [1].

About Sarah Callender [2]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.