A post by Donald Maass at Writer Unboxed: The Dilemma of Narrative Distance
Maass starts this way:
The most difficult aspect of craft for participants at the workshops that I teach to master is immersive POV. (Sometimes referred to as deep POV.) It’s puzzling, since that narrative perspective is so much like how our human consciousness really is.
Briefly, immersive POV is an enhancement of close third-person POV, that durable perspective on the page which strictly reports only what a POV character would see and hear. Immersive POV takes that idea a step further. It reports on the page not only what the camera’s eye and microphone’s ear would get, but a character’s whole experience of what is happening.
The simplest way to understand the difference is that immersive POV adds to any story moment what a character is feeling or thinking about anything in the story environment. The advantage of immersive POV is that it can capture in words non-material things, such as the mood of a crowd or the effect of a painting on a viewer.
I’m puzzled because to me immersive third person seems pretty common. My impression may be biased because CJC uses close third and I’ve read all her books a lot of times (excluding the Rusalka ones), and she’s written so many books that maybe it just seems a lot like half the SFF novels in the world are written in immersive third. Still, it does seem common.
I think I used to write more in close-ish third person and now I often write in thoroughly immersive third. I mean that I used to say, “…..,” he thought more often, while now I more often bring the reader into the characters pov more deeply than that. Or, thinking about it, I think I kind of do both at the same time. I mean, here, look at this, a tidbit from Keraunani:
The driver had disappeared among the bandits up ahead, so that confirmed Esau’s opinion of the man. The driver’s boy hadn’t. He was a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen, picked up to help care for the horses and heave luggage around. No more a bandit than the merchant’s daughter. Esau disliked the driver for putting the kid in this situation almost more than for setting up the rest of them.
Up again, and down again, and look at this, the narrow mouth of a cave. Wasn’t this going to be fun.
Oh, hey, Keraunani is up to 100 ratings and reviews on Amazon! That’s nice to see, good round number, book’s only been out since, I’m not sure, this spring sometime. 4.6 stars, the same as Tuyo. Well good. But what I meant to say was that Esau disliked the driver is close third. Look at this, wasn’t this going to be fun is immersive third. Both are useful, and I think the overall feel when writing like this is immersive.
So, what does Maass have to say about this?
There are two ways to convey the substance of a story: to float apart from it or to dive into the deep end. There are pluses and minuses to each approach. Each gives readers a different reading experience. Standing apart from the story means showing what’s happening to readers, letting readers see the story in their mind’s eyes and feel the story’s effect for themselves.
Conveying characters’ emotional and cognitive involvement in what’s happening, on the other hand, is intimate. It brings readers right inside the mind and heart of someone else, bringing alive another person’s authentic self and enriching a story with meanings that readers might not have found on their own.
It’s a dilemma, then: Do you trust your readers to “get” the story or do you want them to lift them from themselves and immerse them in another’s consciousness? In one approach, readers are sure to see the story vividly. In the other approach, readers are certain to understand what characters in the story are going through.
This is really interesting! I hadn’t thought about it quite like this, partly because I’m not at all analytical when I write, so I never ask myself what I want the reader to do or feel. I’m just telling the story. However, looking at craft analytically does interest me. I see that Maass is arguing that the skilled writer should use both, just as the skilled writer uses both telling and showing. That seems right. He’s arguing that the author ought to use both to surprise the reader:
Thus, the choice has less to do with what’s going on at any given moment on the page and more to do with what will catch readers off guard. Readers may see more vividly when they feel something they don’t expect. They may feel more profoundly when they are directed away from feelings themselves and are instead cued by things that they visualize, or hear, or should, but that are missing.
Interesting! Maass then goes on to illustrate his point with an excerpt from a novel, taking an analytical look and concluding:
Thus, the choice [of immersive or more distant] has less to do with what’s going on at any given moment on the page and more to do with what will catch readers off guard. Readers may see more vividly when they feel something they don’t expect. They may feel more profoundly when they are directed away from feelings themselves and are instead cued by things that they visualize, or hear, or should but that are missing.
More like that in the post: excerpts followed by analysis of how close the third-person pov is and why that works.
My point here is that what feels like a dilemma, a set of opposing and mutually contradictory narrative modes, actually only exists in a writer’s mind. When narrative distance is neither always aloof nor relentlessly intimate but rather blends together, it allows us to experience the story both for ourselves and as the characters also do. There’s room for both. Even more, I would say that there’s a need for both. The dilemma has a solution and it’s to recognize that there’s really no dilemma in the first place.
A good post, interesting and meaty. By all means click through if this is the sort of thing that interests you.