In Which I Wax Philosophical on Narrative Distance, POV, and Voice

Note: Congratulations to Hektor for winning the signed copy of Bamboo People. I will be contacting you for your information.

A while back, Douglas Morrison was kind enough to interview me on his blog . An excerpt is below, and you can see the entire interview here.

Talk about how the mind interprets Point of View and narrative distance.

We are social animals, so our brains are wired to interact with other people. We are equipped with many tools to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. Some of these tools include facial expressions, body language, our understanding of the situation, etc. As writers then, our job is to replicate these cues so the reader knows what the characters are thinking and feeling. It's an interesting way to look at the “show don't tell” rule -- you could frame it instead as saying that a writer should use natural emotion cues rather than just telling the reader that little Johnny is sad.

One particularly challenging social task is figuring out what someone else is thinking when it's different from what you are thinking. For example, if someone stole your friend’s lunch while he wasn't looking, you know that the lunch is no longer in his lunch box, but your friend doesn't. Somehow, your brain has to keep those two ideas separate. It seems very easy now, but actually, children have a hard time with this type of task. And as a writer, I sometimes have trouble with more subtle variations on this. For example, if I'm not careful, my main character will start reacting to situations in ways that are more characteristic of my personality than hers.

In a number of my literary agent interviews, each has pointed to an increasing importance of a strong narrative voice. Any thoughts on narrative voice as it pertains to your field of expertise?

Livia: I took an introductory linguistics class during my early years as a grad student, and one interesting thing we learned was how everyone has their own unique dialect. We usually think about dialects as something shared by people of a certain region, but each individual person also has his own way of speaking, his preferred phrases and grammatical structures. On top of that, add a worldview, a past, and how that affects the way you see the world. Put it all together, and you have a strong narrative voice. Piece of cake, right?


  1. Ha! I'm pretty sure I've been following you on Twitter for a while, but it's the first time I've made the leap to blog, and I love the scientific brain on these things. I'm trained in psychology and have always felt it helped in motivation and realistic personalities, but in characters, i still have a little trouble keeping them distinct as my own responses TRY to jump in if I'm not quite in my zone.

    As for narrative voice--I think this is the VERY BEST benefit of blogging. I recognize ME now, distinct from the story voice or character voice, and I think you nailed it. I've read 'oh it's a book voice, not an author voice' but I call BS on that... I write a range from Cozy Mystery to edgy YA, and the books are VERY different, but there is a 'me-ness' to all of it.

  2. I. LOVE. THIS. INTERVIEW. Absolutely great on the dialect (I hear it in my own siblings) AND interpretive POV & distance!

  3. His is a pretty cool post. I'm thinking about how to use cues to that dont initially fit what the reader would expect as a way to grab attention or encourage the reader to read on. Shreve does this REALLY well in her first Ch of Rescue. Thanks for getting me thinking.

  4. Hart -- Thanks for dropping by! I definitely think there's both a book voice and a character voice. Check out Cathy Yardley's guest post "Does your voice change" -- you can search in the search bar--, for another thoughtful post on the subject

    PI -- Thank you :-) And I think families can have their dialects as well

    Rebecca -- That's a great idea, and you can vary how strongly you frame it to control how obvious you want the clue to be.

  5. I put much more of the subtle communication that goes on aside from actually talking, in my latest manuscript, and I think it is better than my previous efforts in large part for this reason!

  6. What a great blog! Thank-you for sharing.

    And I thought *I* was analytical, with my excel spreadsheet chart of narrative distance. (fyi, the example for the outside point on my chart is Morgan Freeman's voice-over in a movie)

    I'm going to slowly work my way back through all your posts over the next few weeks.