The concept of narrative distance

Narrative distance is about how close the reader gets to a character's internal experience.

The author John Gardner gave a classic description in his book The Art of Fiction, in which he broke narrative distance into five levels.

Here's an example of each:

Level 1 (Bird's eye)

It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.

Level 2 (Wide)

Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.

Level 3 (Mid)

Henry hated snowstorms.

Level 4 (Close)

God how he hated these damn snowstorms.

Level 5 (Internal)

Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul…

Can you see how we start way outside the character, so far that they don't even have a name or personality—they are just a figure?

And then how we progressively get closer, so that by the end we are 'inside' their head, listening to them talk to themselves?

When we talk about narrative distance we mean the distance between the reader and a character's thoughts and feelings more than the physical distance that we mean when we talk about film shot sizes, however the two ideas are naturally blurred. (Gardner actually used the term psychic distance.)

Also, there are not really 5 discrete levels; rather there is a smooth continuum of distance, and shifts in distance can blend together.

In this lesson, we're going to practice writing at each of these levels, so you can get a feel for the difference.

But first, let's get some inspiration.