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Filtering by Tag: plot

Narrative Distance: The Forgotten Child of Dramatic Tension

Dramatic tension is the power that drives a story. Without tension, whatever resolution your story comes to can fall flat – there’s no payoff at the end. As writers, we’ve all encountered places where the tension seemed to be lacking for some reason, or inexplicable, was too high. Dramatic tension can be created and maintained a number of different ways, from some tidbit of information dropped into a conversation, to a dark shadow moving across a wall. These things can either add to or reduce dramatic tension, and mastering them can make all the difference in a compelling and engaging story. I’ve written about <dramatic tension> before, but here we are going to examine the nitty-gritty how-tos of one of the more obscure types of tension I referenced in that earlier article: Narrative Distance.

Narrative distance is easy to understand if you think of it as the imaginary space between an object or goal and the protagonist. This space is where the tension in your story is born and is built through moments of physical distance to an object of desire, or the psychological struggle between a protagonist and a decision, or even simply a race against the clock. In a tense and dramatic story, these things all work together to create the framework that allows the big questions to form in the readers mind.

Space

The first and easiest type of narrative distance to put into a story is actually the physical distance between your protagonist and what they really want. Jim Hawkins following the map to Treasure Island, Agamemnon fighting his way to Helen’s side, and Uncle Tom hunting down his wayward slave are all stories based around the physical distance between a character and their goal.

map.jpeg

Before you think this is too cookie-cutter, remember it can show up in so many different ways. Your protagonist is going about their life when they realize that thing they really want that will change everything for them is located somewhere else. A problem arises in another city, state, or country that only your characters can solve and they have to travel to get there. Physical barriers – walls, armies, shackles, arise to stop the character from reaching their goal. Or my personal favorite, someone very dear to the protagonist brings a problem to them. While this problem is not immediate to the protagonist directly, it does urge the protagonist to act and their physical proximity to the problem involves them in the outcome. This is the “wrong place, wrong time” theory of physical distance – John McClane always has this problem.

 
“Another basement. Another elevator. How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

“Another basement. Another elevator. How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

 

Just as Frodo had to traverse Middle Earth to get the ring to Mount Doom, so too can your protagonist journey to reach their heart’s desire.

Emotion

Physical spacing isn’t the only obstacle that creates distance in a narrative. Emotional distance is by far the most complex to explain and understand, since (as the name implies) is addresses the internal nature of your characters. Emotional upsets, mental illnesses, and self-talk are the tools you will use when creating emotional distance.

The best narrative fiction stories are the ones where we explore the characters inner worlds. Character-driven narrative especially is all about letting your characters drive the story, and they can’t do that unless we give them the tools to explore their inmost thoughts and desires. Just like we do every day, your protagonist will create the tension themselves if we give them enough emotional distance.

Your protagonist doesn’t realize the danger they’re in. Sure the reader knows there is a hit man with a gun lurking in the house, but Jane is just going about her day, completely unaware. Or perhaps they do know the danger. John sees the man following him, but dismisses it because it doesn’t seem likely to be a problem; he can handle it. In effect, your characters dismiss the danger because it doesn’t reach them emotionally on a sufficiently deep enough level to be transformative or moving.

“We are all fools, in love.”

“We are all fools, in love.”

It isn’t always danger, though. We see this kind of tension all the time in romance novels. Boy meets girl, they fall for each other and everything seems perfect, but they still spend three-hundred pages convincing themselves that they were wrong; the other person can’t possibly love them for a variety of reasons, there’s too many obstacles, it will never work, etc.

Jane Austen and Stephen King are both masters of emotional distance. Hubris, ignorance, or even fear can create a lot of tension in a hurry.

Time

Oddly enough, this method of narrative distance is the easiest to understand and the hardest to execute effectively. Too often it will come across as cliché or trite, or at other times artificial and forced. Simply put, time distance is a race against the clock – your protagonist has a limited amount of time in which to reach their goal.

The problem with time is that it is easily overlooked. We get so wrapped up in the plot that we forget the fundamentals of pacing, and pacing is all about time. If your protagonist has time to set the problem aside and worry about it later, that is too much time. There is no immediacy in the problem, and they can take as long as they like to come to a decision. If you give a character a deadline, you instantly ramp up the tension. But you need to be careful here as well. If it’s too far in the future, there’s no tension at all, but if you place the deadline too soon the tension is too high and effectively stops your narrative. Time distance and pacing is a balancing act between driving your characters forward and giving them room to evolve.

… today is the longest day of my life.

… today is the longest day of my life.

I had a number of other problems with the show 24, but time distance and the tension it caused was the whole premise of the show, and it worked. They struck that balance in a way that drove the characters toward an inevitable end, but in a way that made you feel like there was hope. Viewers were taken along for the ride, and the clock was (literally) the device.

When heightening or lessening dramatic tension in your story, you will want to keep these types of narrative distance in mind. As with most techniques, how much or how little you use them will be dependent on the type of story you’re trying to tell, and your own writing style as well. Keep in mind, good pacing and dramatic tension are all about building up readers’ expectations and then surprising them. And who doesn’t love surprising their readers?