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THE STORY DOCTOR: Narrative Distance

Monday, January 09, 2017


So many people email me asking me for writing advice I have decided to begin a new section on my blog where I share my answers to these questions. 
Over time, I hope to build a wonderful resource for aspiring writers to help them diagnose what may be ailing their story ... 

Dear Kate

I heard you speak one time about the importance of controlling narrative distance in your writing, and what a useful tool it can be in writing from a 3rd person perspective. Can you please explain a little further?

I can!

Deciding what Point-of-View (POV) to use when writing a novel is one of the earliest decisions an author makes. As you would know from grammar lessons at school, there are three types of POV:

1st person – I
2nd person – you
3rd person – he/she

Sometimes it’s an easy choice. The voice of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the protagonist of my novel Bitter Greens, came to me very clearly in 1st person: I was always a great talker and teller of tales …’ 

There are actually three narrative strands in Bitter Greens, two of them told in 1st person and one in 3rd person, which is an unusual authorial choice. I had a good reason for that choice (though to explain why would be a spoiler!)

I knew from an early stage of the novel that The Wild Girl would be told in close 3rd person: ‘Wild by name and wild by nature,’ Dortchen’s father used to say of her. He did not mean it as a compliment. He thought her headstrong and so he set himself to tame her. 

(Close 3rd person simply means that there is only one point-of-view all the way through the novel).

I initially wrote The Beast’s Garden in close 1st person, but then – after a great deal of agonised heart-searching – decided the book was not working as well as I wanted, and so I rewrote the entire book in multiple 3rd person (which means more than one POV). 

I fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world

was changed to: 

Ava fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world. 

It was a slow, difficult, back-breaking process. I could not blithely use the global change facility in my word processor – I had to go through every page line-by-line, checking it again and again, rewriting every sentences, every scene.

So why did I choose to go through the agony of changing POV?

There were several key reasons, but most important to me was that multiple POV allowed me to tell my story from many different angles, across times and geographies; and because 3rd person POV has one huge advantage over 1st person.

The use of the objective narrator.

When writing in 1st person, the author must always stay deep within that character’s consciousness, privy only to their thoughts and feelings and only ever speaking in their voice. Their POV is therefore necessarily limited.

However, when writing in 3rd person, the writer can move fluidly between the voice of the objective narrator and the deep, close point-of-view of the character. 

Not sure what I’m talking about? 

Now might be a good time to talk about narrative distance.
Narrative distance is the feeling of closeness between the reader and the point-of-view of the characters. It is, of course, controlled by the author and is part of what creates a distinctive “voice.”

John Gardner explores the idea in his book The Art of Fiction – though he calls it ‘psychic distance’. He defines it as ‘the distance the reader feels between themselves and the events in the story.’

Basically, it's how deep the reader is taken inside the character's head. Gardner has defined five different levels of engagement: 

1 It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2 Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3 Henry hated snowstorms.
4 God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5      Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing your miserable soul.

The first example creates the greatest distance between reader & character, but is the most effective for delivering information. Each new example takes us deeper into the character’s individual point of view, and – in the final two examples – into the character’s own voice. The deeper the author goes, the more is revealed about character and the less about anything else. 

The deeper you go, the more important is the character’s individual “voice”. 

When writing in 3rd person POV, the writer draws upon all five states of narrative distance, for different purposes and for different reasons. The first example is often called ‘the objective narrator’. It’s a really useful method for quickly giving the reader necessary information. Most writers will use it to give a wide-screen shot of the scene, before zooming in to the character’s thoughts and feelings, and then zooming out again. 

Others will write the entire story in ‘deep point-of-view’, only ever revealing the character’s thoughts, feelings and impressions in a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ manner. 

Of course, this method means a lot more investment from the reader – they need to figure out what’s going on with little help from the narrator.

The objective narrator is such a great tool for writers, but beware of over-using the device as it can create a coldness or a distance between reader and character. Slip into the deeper POV as often as you can without confusing the reader. One way to do this is to signal the change from the objective narrator to the deep point-of-view by moving from indirect discourse to free indirect discourse i.e. I wonder when she’ll be here, he thought. Damn, but I’ve missed that girl. 

What is crucial, however, is that narrative distance must always be controlled. The author must choose how deep to go. 

I hope this helps you!

all my best


Kate Forsyth has been writing stories since she could first hold a pen, and has since sold more than a million copies worldwide.  She has a Bachelor of Arts in Literature, a Master of Arts in Writing, and a Doctorate of Creative Arts in Fairy Tale Studies, and is an accredited master storyteller. She teaches creative writing at all levels at many different venues. Check out her Appearances Page to find out where she is next speaking.  

If you found this post of interest you may enjoy

THE STORY DOCTOR: How do you know when your manuscript is finally finished?

Monday, November 21, 2016


So many people email me asking me for writing advice I have decided to begin a new section on my blog where I share my answers to these questions. 
Over time, I hope to build a wonderful resource for aspiring writers to help them diagnose what may be ailing their story ... 

Hi Kate, I recently attended your Story Doctor course at the NSW Writer's Centre and loved it! Now I have a question. I've taken the medicine you prescribed, but how do I know when my 'patient' is ready for discharge? How do I know if my manuscript is ready for submission? Any tips would be massively appreciated. Thanks for the course too, it was amazing.

I'm so glad you enjoyed the course! Thank you so much.

It's always difficult to tell - even for established and experienced authors. At some point you've got to let the story go, and try and find a home for it.

My best advice is to use your intuition. Finish the final draft, and put it aside for a few weeks. Do something else. Let your subconscious mind work on it. Whenever a new idea or problem occurs to you, make a note of it, but don't work on the manuscript again. When a month has gone by, read it again with fresh eyes. Make notes of anything that jars you, or that seems like it may be a problem. Add them to your list. When you've read the whole manuscript through again, think about it for a while longer and note down anything that yu think needs a bit more work. Then work through your list slowly and methodically. Type it all up, check it's as clean as can be (i.e. no spelling mistakes or silly grammatical errors), and then think what you'd like to do next.

There are so many different ways to publish a book these days, you need to decide what you'd like personally.

Some authors like the control that comes with self-publishing, others would prefer not to have to worry about designing book covers and self-promotion, and so on. You may need to attend a few publishing seminars to decide what is the best step for you to take now.

Good luck with it!


Kate Forsyth has been writing stories since she could first hold a pen, and has since sold more than a million copies worldwide.  She has a Bachelor of Arts in Literature, a Master of Arts in Writing, and a Doctorate of Creative Arts in Fairy Tale Studies, and is an accredited master storyteller. She teaches creative writing at all levels at many different venues. Check out her Appearances Page to find out where she is next speaking.  

THE STORY DOCTOR: How important is research in the writing process?

Friday, November 11, 2016


So many people email me asking me for writing advice I have decided to begin a new section on my blog where I share my answers to these questions. 
Over time, I hope to build a wonderful resource for aspiring writers to help them diagnose what may be ailing their story ... 


I am writing to you to ask, if you have a spare moment maybe you could answer a few questions for me for the essay I am writing on you in my Writer's at Work Class at Sydney Uni. I am a bit behind with my work - I just got a new full time job so trying to complete all my final uni assignments has really piled up! However, I understand you would have a lot going on to, so if you don't have time honestly don't worry about these, I completely understand.

I have decided that I'm going to look into research and its importance in writing. After every time I read a novel of yours, one of the main things I think about is how amazing the sheer amount of research you do for your novels is! 

1. What is the research process you go through for your novels? 

Because all of my books are set in different places and times, I need to go through an extensive stage of learning everything I can about the world of my story before I even start thinking about my characters and plot. I usually start with determining the exact setting and time-frame for the story, and then set out to read everything I can about it. I order a lot of books over the net. I like to own all my research books as I shall mark them with highlighters, scribble notes on them, and return to them again and again. I love Abe Books because I can buy a lot of my books second-hand that way, and I also love Google Books because I can preview the book and see if it is what I need. I do a lot of research online as well, following a trail of breadcrumbs as far as it will lead me before it peters out. 

As I read my research books or search the internet, I make meticulous notes in a notebook, recording the title, the author, the page number etc. This makes it easier for me to find the reference again when I am fact-checking. I also scribble down ideas as they come to me. The research often throws up the events in my story for me. I also note down other books I might need.    

I begin to compile a list of characters, noting down key facts about them - their birth and death dates, their backgrounds, etc. This can sometimes take a long time, because most of my historical novels are inspired by the lives of real women, and so there is often only a few scraps of information about them. For example, when I was writing THE WILD GIRL - the story of Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told the Grimm brothers many of their most famous fairy tales - the only known facts about her life were where she grew up (in Kassel, next door to the Grimm family), her father's occupation (an apothecary), and the dates of her marriage to Wilhelm Grimm and her death. It took some time for me to track down her birth-date, with the help of the local history department at Kassel library, and then I had to imagine many other details of her life by studying the lives of other young German women of the era. I create detailed outlines for each major character, including what I call an idiom dictionary (which is simply a list of favourite words, expressions, curses etc; different for each character.)

I also begin to compile timelines. This will be an ongoing project because each new research book I read will give me another tiny piece of the puzzle. I generally have a general timeline, with only brief notes for each event, and then a much longer timeline that may have as much as a page of notes for each event. I may also create a separate timeline for each major character, for ease of reference when I am working on their stories. 

As I read and research, I draw up lists of questions I need the answer to, and then I will slowly and methodically search out the answer to each question. 

I will also be slowly building a plot-line for my story, thinking about the inner architecture of the story, thematic structures, scenes I wish to include. The more research I do, the more story I have.

I will also search out experts in their field who may be able to help me, and I may employ a translator or research assistant . For example, when I was writing Bitter Greens - a retelling of Rapunzel interwoven with the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the French noblewoman woman who first wrote the tale - I paid to have all of her fairy tales translated into English, many for the first time.  The stories were written in 1697, and so the French was archaic and the printing very old-fashioned and hard to read. My translator Sylvie really earned her money! 

I also read a lot of social history books as well - I like to know how my characters would have lived. I want to know if they wore underwear, what they ate, what they read, what they did with their urine, if they slept sitting up or lying down ... 

I try to do as much research as I can before I start writing, but the story will always throw up new questions and new problems, and often I will need to stop writing and find out what I need to know before I can go on.


2. Have you always done extensive research for each of your novels? Or does the process change for different stories you write? 

Naturally, it depends on what kind of novel I am writing. Research for a 30,000 word children's fantasy novel is obviously much less intense than research for a 160,000 historical novel for adults that has three different time periods in it!

3. One of the problems I have is knowing when you have enough research to start writing, how do you figure this out for yourself? 

I don't really think you can do too much research. The more you know, the more vivid the world will be. 

The trick is to learn as much as you can, internalise it, and then write the story. Too much exposition, too much detail, will weigh your story down. You need to include just enough to make the world feel real for the reader, and no more.

Sometimes authors will use the research process as an excuse to procrastinate. This usually means they are feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task they had set themselves. In this case, it can be a good idea to begin writing. Writing begets writing, and so it may help them overcome the psychological barrier that is holding them back.

Normally I know I'm ready to start writing when my head is full of scenes and snippets of dialogue and images that are keeping me awake, and I feel that seething excitement in the pit of my stomach as the story comes alive in my imagination    

4. Do you have a passion for research? Is it something you enjoy? 

I love research. I always say that research is simply reading with a purpose. I love to read, and I love to learn, and research allows me to do both at once. I also love the way that research throws up ideas for the story itself. It helps me plan my novel, which I think is absolutely crucial.

5. Some of your characters in your novels are real life historical figures; after having researched these figures, do you ever have trouble trying to fit actual elements of their lives into your storyline? Or do you feel in this case authors have a sense of creative license with them as characters in their story? 

I always take the known facts of their lives, and set those as my immoveable pegs. Then I try and understand the forces that shaped their psyche, and drove them to do what they did, and then weave my imagined story around those known facts.

The best example I can give you is the story of Dortchen Wild's life, which I told in THE WILD GIRL. 

I knew from primary sources such as letters and diaries that Dortchen grew up next door to the Grimm family, and that she first met Wilhelm when she was twelve and he was seventeen. I knew that she had a childish crush on him , thanks to a letter she wrote to her best friend, Lotte Grimm, when she was thirteen. I knew that her sister Gretchen told the very first fairy tale that the Grimm brothers collected when Dortchen was seventeen. I knew that Dortchen herself began to tell Wilhelm stories when she was eighteen, and that she was the source of almost a quarter of the tales in the first collection of fairy tales. I knew that they fell in love, but Dortchen's father forbade her from seeing Wilhelm. I knew that she defied her father, because she continued to tell fairy tales to Wilhelm. In many cases I knew where and when they were when she told him her tales, because Wilhelm wrote the name of the teller and, often in the case of Dortchen, the date and place the story was told in the margins of his first edition copy of the first fairytale collection.

What I did not know was why Dortchen defied her father - a grave misdeamonour for a young German Lutheran woman in the early 1800s - or why she told the stories she did. Some were very dark, very violent, very sexual.

I also knew that Dortchen ended up marrying Wilhelm ... but not till she was thirty, twelve years after the beginning of their romance. 

I would much have preferred her to marry him years earlier! Yet wondering why it took so long helped me to craft a much more interesting and powerful story (or so I believe).            

6. Was the research process for your PhD thesis any different from what you do with your novels?

Not in essence. It's the same slow, laborious reading and sifting of facts and recording of sources and following trails of clues and red herrings to find what is unknown or forgotten. The primary difference is the material I am reading. When researching for a novel, I read very widely and seek to immerse myself fully in the period. When researching for my exegesis, I was reading a lot of academic papers and seeking to understand what others have thought and written about a subject, and then responding to it. The method was the same, the outcome different. 

You may also find a blog post I wrote on '15 Research Tips from Kate Forsyth'  for Writers Bloc on research of interest to you.

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