Tag Archives: narrative distance

Thoughts on narrative perspective part 2: closeup on the antagonist #amwriting

For scriptwriters, the closeup is an essential aspect of pacing. It focuses on one character and shows us details about them and their role that they (the characters) might not be aware of. This importance transfers over to how we show scenes in our written narratives. To get the most out of our words, we who write stories must frame our scenes the way scriptwriters do theirs.

We vary the narrative distance, which is our best tool to show humanity in our characters. The wide view shows the protagonist and their companions as they move through their environment.

Then we narrow the focus, perhaps take it down to a conversation between two people. One person drops out of the conversation, and we are left with the closeup view of our protagonist.

At our closest to them, we are in their heads. We hear their mental ruminations in real-time. By listening to this voice, the reader sees what the characters believe is at stake and how weak or strong they consider their position.

When we are drawn into a character’s head, we view them through the mirror in which they see themselves.

What we, as authors, have to consider is how that mirror is distorted. Never forget that all self-reflections are skewed, often to the positive, but usually toward the negative. We see flaws in ourselves that no one else does, so we don’t usually see ourselves as heroes.

This is because we subconsciously compare ourselves to others. We observe their abilities and are acutely aware of our own vulnerabilities in comparison. So, we strive to better ourselves.

Through manipulating the narrative distance, the author shows how the protagonist regards their companions, and what kind of people they are.

Sometimes, it raises the stakes if the author writes a chapter focusing on the antagonist. Take this opportunity to show us who the antagonist sees when they gaze into the mirror of self-reflection. Since nothing happens without a root cause, we can learn why they oppose the protagonist, and what their strengths are.

Now here is where we can make things interesting. What if the antagonist isn’t trying to be wicked? What if they are fighting for what they believe is the right thing? What if, in their view, they are the heroes who have the moral high ground?

Think of how much evil has come out of civil wars in humanity’s history. Then consider how firmly the opposite sides believed in their moral superiority, and what was lost or gained in the end. All interpersonal disputes are wars, just on a lesser scale.

How will you choose to show this on a smaller, personal level? The closeup shows us who the antagonist believes they are and why they have the right to oppose the protagonist.

Sometimes, if the writer shows little sympathy for the devil, it raises the emotional stakes.

Readers want to understand why the action is happening. Both sides need an opportunity to explore what they perceive as the conflict’s fundamental cause.

Authors show this through internal dialogue, moving out to a broader view with conversations, and expanding again to an external narrative.

As a reader, having hints of what is at stake for the opposition makes me care about the outcome. With the relationship established, we can widen the picture and show what is at stake for both sides. I want to feel a little compassion, or if not that, I want to understand how failing will change the losers’ lives.

Good pacing of narrative distance—moving in close, then widening out, and then moving back in—adds emotional power to the story. This tempo allows the reader to process the information and action at the same time as the characters.

Keep the stakes high and the emotions intense, and I will stay immersed in that book.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Before the Mirror.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Before_the_Mirror.jpg&oldid=462235289 (accessed October 6, 2020).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Mirror of the souls.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Mirror_of_the_souls.jpg&oldid=478982509 (accessed October 6, 2020).

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Thoughts on Narrative Perspective #amwriting

I regularly say this, but I’ll repeat myself: every author should be an avid reader. Years ago, I began writing out of desperation. I read exceedingly fast, and in those days, the library couldn’t stock new books in my favorite genres fast enough to keep up with my habit.

Even though I haunted the secondhand bookstores, I couldn’t afford to buy even used books in that quantity. Besides going to the library, I was limited to one new paperback book and two used ones a payday in those days. Every book I bought was money taken from the food budget to spend on something we couldn’t eat.

Nowadays, I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position to be able to read as much as I want, whenever I want.

It is the deep yearning for a good tale that fires my imagination and drives me write novels.

Every now and then, I can’t find the right book to read. When that happens, I consider what kind of story I’m craving. Books are food for the mind, and we all have different tastes. Sometimes we want a specific type of flavor, like when we crave chocolate or something spicy.

Usually, I feel that desire because a seed is growing, an idea for either a short story or a novel.

Because I gravitate to character-driven stories for my reading, I want to write about people striving to overcome forces greater than themselves. It might be fantasy, or it might not be. Several stories I’ve had accepted into anthologies recently were fantasy only in that they take place in the 1950s. I was a very young child then, so I have little memory of those days.

I love reading about characters who aren’t always the most well-behaved people. This means they are approachable, possessed of a flaw that resonates with me. It wouldn’t be a story if there weren’t a hero lurking deep within, waiting for some catastrophe to bring out that courageous side of them.

When I open the book, I want the first paragraphs to hook me. Those opening sentences establish three vital things:

  1. They set the tone of what is to follow, so if you want to snare the reader, don’t waste those precious sentences on “throat clearing” and backstory.
  2. They tell us who the story is about and how they see themselves.
  3. They establish the general narrative perspective.

I say ‘general’ because the authors whose work I like best tend to vary the narrative perspective/distance as the story progresses. I enjoy work where the pacing of a scene is shaped by the perspective of the characters and the narrative distance.

Imagine a scene where a woman empties the wastebaskets in the house, tidying up before she leaves for work. A crumpled note falls from the one beside her husband’s computer. She picks it up and automatically looks at it, not intending to pry, but just as a matter of habit.

They might bring us into the protagonist’s head, with free indirect discourse, taking us inside the character’s thoughts. What does Jake need a lawyer for?

Then we see what the author wants you to know about the character’s circumstances. His odd behavior suddenly made sense. Anger blinded her as Jake’s plan revealed itself.

And then they might move out to the external view. Sarah held the note, thinking, then pulled out her cell phone.

Good stories told from the protagonist’s point of view bring you in close, letting you feel the emotional intensity. Then the narrative perspective steps back a bit so you can process it at the same time as the protagonist does before you are brought in close again.

Perspective and pacing are the two areas I am looking closely at in my own work as I make revisions. I keep hoping that reading critically will improve the way I write prose.

So, all those books I plowed through last week weren’t just me avoiding housework. They were for research.

Honest.

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