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How To Train Your Person (First or Third) to do everything the story needs

I've blogged before about how much more energy your storytelling will have if you coax out as much variety as possible in the way you tell the story - and how flat it will be if you don't. Time, pace (not at all the same thing), characterisation, sentences, voice, settings, events ... all need thinking about. And, yes, you're right: this is This Itch of Writing, so of course I'm going to say Psychic Distance is one of the most crucial kinds of variety of all. But many aspiring writers who grasp the idea of Psychic Distance still struggle to make the most of it, and I've noticed a pattern.

Those working with Third Person often find it really hard to go in deep and evoke the actual, direct experience of their characters. I probably see more manuscripts which suffer from this, than from any other problem: they're well-built, decently written, but they never really get our readerly mirror-neurones (or whatever it is) going, so the characters and their world never really come alive for a reader, let alone make us feel they matter.

But, do remember that Psychic Distance is sometimes called Narrative Distance, and the further-out distances are just as important as the further-in ones. Those working with First Person can find it very hard to pull back and actually narrate: telling the story, rather than just transmitting the experience of the moment. So this pair of problems is what this post is about.

Far-out in First Person

It comes naturally to many writers to get reasonably close in, in first person. What you're working with, technically, is an internal narrator: a character-narrator who is telling the story of something which she or he also experienced directly. But although you're less likely to get criticised if the narrative doesn't move far outwards from that character's mind, it's still a limitation it's worth overcoming. For one thing, it can get very claustrophobic in there, not just psychically (which you may want) but therefore in terms of pace and tone. Besides, being locked into the experience of the moment can make a narrative very dull. (This is specially true if you're working with present tense as well as first person.) 

The solution is to remember that your character is also a narrator: they're telling the story. They're in charge of what gets told, and can take the reader wherever they choose to take us, compress or expand the "real-time" of the story in the telling, and tell us whatever they feel like telling us about. There's no fundamental reason why they can't tell you what's happening on the other side of town, for example, if that's something they found out at some point after the moment of the story. The key is to think in terms of your character-narrator being in narrator mode, saying whatever the story needs, rather than being locked tightly into the the physical and mental point of view of the character in the moment:

In the far-off days of Uther Pendragon, witches stalked the earth. Folk believed that they swept into dairies and soured the milk, that they flew over crops and set them a-r0tting, that they left no baby unmarked. But one morning between Easter and Whitsun, just a few years before the Great Battle of Maldon, one man defied the injunction of our village elders, stepped out of a doorway into a flurry of wind, and raised his arms to the ragged clouds that swept across the face of the sun. This man was my father, and I never knew him. My first memories are of my mother, weeping as she gave his best cloak away to a beggar. I was sad, I remember, because the cloak was warm and furry, and I loved curling up in it on cold winter nights. Still, Mamma said that we had a fire and food but the beggar had none - see how thin he was, and how pale! - and I was to be a good boy and not make a fuss. But in my dreams that night the beggar came again, thinner still, his hands like sticks and his eyes bright as the coals in the fire...

A few things to notice about that passage: 

  • notice how it gently locates itself into first person with our village. Of course, you get to choose. Want to do that sooner? In the far of days of Uther Pendragon, before I was born, witches stalked the earth.
  •  as we get closer in, the narrator's adult voice is gradually coloured by the child's: the cloak was warm and furry and even the mother's, as the child remembers it: I was to be a good boy and not make a fuss. This is free indirect style in action: it works just as well in first person as in third, once you've got your head round the fact that your character-narrator has two voices: one as narrator, one as character.
  • even at the far-out stages, which aren't locked to a particular viewpoint and are Tell-y in the sense of being general description - in the far-off days ... left no baby unmarked, - , they're nonetheless Show-y in being specific and physical: flew over the crops and set them a-rotting. (more on Showing and Telling here.)

For clarity's sake, in that passage I moved fairly steadily from furthest out (Gardener's 1) to far in (Gardener's 4) and if the dream got any scarier we'd have been heading for Gardener's 5, as I moved into full stream-of-consciousness to try to evoke the overwhelming in-the-minute-ness of a nightmare. But there's nothing to stop you recreating the effect of real life, where the past and our memories, and knowledge of things beyond our own boundaries, is stitched into the present moment:

How could my mother have given away my father's second-best cloak? I was tall enough to wear it by then, and it seemed monstrous that she should think that a beggar had more right to it than I.  And it had no fur, no expensive buttons, nothing that she could deem luxurious and so sinful. What about me? I rattled a stick along Dame Green's fence as I trailed along the track to the village. In those days there were no houses until one reached the forge: I could cry to the air that I had been robbed of my inheritance, and none would hear me. Was I not a man, nearly? How could my mother give away all that was left of my father? Yes, the day my mother gave away my father's second-best cloak was the first day I seriously thought about leaving home. 

Close-in in Third Person

It seems to be harder, when you're telling a story about Him or Her, rather than I, to get inside their heads. Even if you lock into a single character's viewpoint, you've got an external narrator who is telling the story about these others. But of course that doesn't mean you can't get in close. Thanks to the magic of free indirect style and stream of consciousness, an external narrator can not only tell us about what goes on in a character's consciousness, but evoke it for us. This is a fairly usual middle-distance mixture:

Pete's heart was hammering so hard he wondered if the rest of the design office could hear it. Mr Anderson had already spoken to the senior people. What if he doesn't stop there, Pete thought. Losing his job would of course be a disaster, but Pete couldn't help himself thinking that - oh, God! - losing Laura would be worse, worse than losing his job. I can’t bear it! he cried out, but no one heard, and he remembered that in space no one can hear you scream.

See how  the mixture works? Some is the character's direct experience being evoked: heart hammering so hard ... What if he doesn't stop there.Some is free indirect style: losing Laura would be worse. And some is the narrator telling us: he wondered if the rest of the office could hear ... Losing his job would be a disaster, but... . Indeed, maybe the more narrated, Tell-y voice is deliberate, to contrast with the real thing he can't bear, which is losing Laura. 

It's fine: it transmits the story perfectly well. But if this is a big moment - if the state Pete is in is the start of some change or drama - then you probably want to be much more strongly evocative of his experience - our experience - of this moment.  This kind of evocation is certainly something you need in your toolkit; apart from anything else, it comes in very handy for writing scenes that involved altered mental states, such as sex and violence. For example, this  could be the close-in sort of passage that you grow out of that middle-distance one:

Bang, bang, his heart bursting out of his chest, and Mr Anderson in there like a devil in his dark lair, waiting, knowing who’s next. Bang bang, churning stomach and feeling sick – the letter for the bank wasn't in red but it might as well have been because Laura was, red and furious, and for two pins she'd have walked out on him that minute if it hadn't been midnight – black midnight, and midnight forever it would've been – it would be – if she went. He'd be in midnight for ever outer space - he couldn't bear it - bang, bang, bang - in space no one can hear you scream ...

There's some free indirect style here - he couldn't bear it and for two pins she'd have walked out on him- where the character's voice colours what's basically still normal narrative. But elsewhere the character's experience takes it over entirely: the reader experiences it as the sense-data and thoughts downloading directly: Bang, bang, his heart bursting out of his chest, and Mr Anderson in there like a devil in his dark lair. 

However, many writers find it hard to let go of the normal chain of cause-and-effect of narrative, of sentence structure and grammar and one thing leading to another. One thing that can really, really help you to find that in-deep voice - and help your writing in general - is to get used to free-writing. That link explains it, so I'll just say that it's the way to learn to let go of the organised language which we normally write in. And that's what you want to do, when you're tackling these super-close-in psychic distances. It's about getting better at letting go of your Inner Editor, who is a benignly-motivated Inner Censor. If you practice preventing your own thoughts and sensations being censored before they can hit the page or the screen, then you soon find you can do it for your characters' thoughts and sensations. Of course, in the story itself you need to craft such passages carefully, so they work properly as narrative. And, as with that passage, you might in fact move in and out of it. But that's not the impression you want to give: you want our mirror-neurones to spark in third person as fiercely as they ever do in first person. And, as you can see, there's no reason why they shouldn't.