Susan Vreeland's Thoughts on Writing

Award-winning author Susan Vreeland gives students advice on creative writing, from tools of the craft to revision strategies.
Grades:
9 |
10 |
11 |
Updated on: October 10, 2006
Page 2 of 4
Attitude
Voice in Fiction
Historical Fiction
Vreeland's Revision Checklist Or Am I Really Finished?

Notes on the Use of Close vs. Distant Narrative Voice

One way to make the interior world of the point of view (POV) character come alive is to use close voice, that sounds like it's the character thinking. Close voice should dominate in character-driven stories, in scenes of character development, or in moments of emotion. Distant voice, information coming from the narrator, usually dominates in action-driven stories, and should be used in either type to provide understanding of the situation, background, setting.

Distant Voice Characteristics

  • quick, accurate, less descriptive verbs, non-emotional language
  • smooth, flowing style
  • passive constructions (something done to POV rather than POV doing or feeling)
  • descriptions rather than feelings
  • distant voice words: then, suddenly, so, its (instead of a or the), that (instead of this)
  • distant voice constructions: He thought. It occurred to him that... He realized... She understood
  • complex sentence structure with dependent clauses and modifying phrases

Close Voice Characteristics (First or Third Person POV)

  • prompted by emotion of the moment
  • precise detail, small details noticed by character, narrow focus
  • repetition of word or phrase
  • abrupt syntax; short sentences; even sentence fragments
  • use of metaphor appropriate to character's thinking and time period
  • strong sensory reaction
  • more sharply descriptive verbs, more highly connotative
  • shift to "ing" constructions (drop the pronoun and the "to be" verb)
  • active constructions with POV as the subject of the sentence doing the action
  • words, phrases & syntax typical of the POV

Words that introduce close (transition verbs to shift from distant to close): thought, felt, sensed, watched, saw, remembered, considered, recalled, examined, studied, noticed, etc. (Once you're in close, no need to use these again unless you return to distant voice.)

Actions that introduce close: He closed his eyes. He lay back. He sighed. He watched her.

Distant: She cursed.

Close: "Dang! " or "Rats!" or "Holy petunias!" (whatever is the established voice of the POV)

Distant: She waited until he put out his cigarette. (complex sentence with a dependent clause)

Close: She waited. Finally he put out his cigarette. (short sentences with a word expressive of impatience, a feeling)

Distant third person POV:

Emily Carr couldn't take her eyes away. Those were powerful, energetic trees. Firs crowded cedars, their branches swinging, all the way to the sea. Up ahead she noticed that one had fallen away from the others and lay rolling in the water while wind whipped up a froth of sword fern sprouting in its bark. She thought all those greens were juicy enough to drink. Emily was thrilled to finally be right where she was at that moment, west of everything.

Close narrative third person POV: (still in third person but conveying the feeling of first)

Emily couldn't take her eyes away. These trees had some get-up-and-go to them. Firs elbowing cedars, swinging their branches, strutting down to the sea. Up ahead, a wayward one had leapt away from its sisters and lay rolling in the water. Wind whipped up a froth of sword fern in its bark. All those greens juicy enough to drink. At last. To be right where she was at this moment, west of everything, by God, yes.

Shifting of voices (close and distant) according to degree of character involvement and emotion provides tension; readers will be alerted to the intensity of feeling when they read a passage delivered in close voice, but that probably can't or shouldn't be maintained for the whole work. One (distant or close) probably ought to dominate, according to what kind of story it is to be.

Examples of Distant and Close Voice from Susan Vreeland's The Forest Lover and Life Studies

Distant:

She closed her eyes and imagined Fanny bending over her foot. The feel of Fanny's tenderness spilled over her.

Close, using a fragment and sensory detail:

Her eyes closed of their own accord. Fanny's hand's gentle on the ball of her foot, pressing out the ache, gentler still, squeezing the base of her toes. (The Forest Lover, p. 138 hardback; 177 paperback)

Close, using a fragment and sensory detail:

Her eyes closed of their own accord. Fanny's hand's gentle on the ball of her foot, pressing out the ache, gentler still, squeezing the base of her toes. (The Forest Lover, p. 138 hardback; 177 paperback)

Close, using fragments and repetition of structure:

Dear Fanny bending over her foot. Fanny, whose own feet ached, standing all day to paint. Fanny's hands, strong and tender. Knowing.

Moving from distant to close and back to distant:

Calmly, she removed the sugar bowl, swabbed the counter with a rag, and poured him some more coffee. He put his elbow on the counter, rested his forehead in the heel of his hand, closed his eyes and thought of Mame. He couldn't even visit his own wife without doing something wrong. Couldn't even talk to Mame right without her going off and doing some fool thing..

Can't you get that kid to shut up! His own voice scraped for the millionth time inside his skull. Then, in his mind, he heard again the slap, and the horrible crack coming a split second later, the sound that riled up his guilty feelings so fierce that it had kept him from seeing her in that place until now. But if he didn't find out what she was thinking of him, he'd turn crazier than a bedbug.

When Charles finally opened his eyes and lifted his head, there was a glazed doughnut sitting on a plate before him. (Life Studies, p. 249 hardback; 284 paperback)

Movement from distant to close too abrupt, resulting in lack of distinction between narrator and POV:

"Could you sort of draw a frame around it?"

She reached out her hand for it and drew one of those fancy old-fashioned frames with leaves and curlicues, like for really important pictures. (LS, p. 243 hardback; 289 paperback)

Smoother movement from distant to close:

"Could you sort of draw a frame around it?"

She reached out her hand for it and began to draw.

He felt better and better as he watched. It was one of them fancy old-fashioned frames with leaves and curlicues, like for really important pictures.

Starting a section in close using repetition and going closer by getting into bodily feelings, then moving out to distant:

La Renarde Rouge was gone. The skiff was gone. The tent was gone. The fire pit only wet ashes. The sea pocked and gray. The empty cove humiliated her. Wind knifed through her flesh to her womb.

She had come so far. He didn't know what she'd had to wade through to stand here, ready. He'd lost patience. She would shrivel. She was sure she would dry up and shrivel.

She slogged home dragging her umbrella, plodding through puddles.... (TFL, p. 52+ hardback; 65+ paper)

Alternating close and distant:

She stood on the sidewalk. The Louvre at last. Empty and closed. Surely her father would have taken her here. She crossed the Seine at Pont Neuf and watched a boat slide past. That would have been a nice memory if he had taken her on such an outing. (LS, p. 132 hardback, 151 paperback)

Movement from distant to close:

Consider the last four paragraphs of The Forest Lover. By this time in a novel, or even one third of the way in, readers have caught on to the character's close voice by virtue of lexicon and syntax, and likely thoughts. In this passage, what lines are coming from the narrator, and which are from Emily's close voice? Then examine a passage of your own writing, asking yourself if you're in close voice for moments of emotion.

Attitude
Voice in Fiction
Historical Fiction
Vreeland's Revision Checklist Or Am I Really Finished?

Back to Teaching Guides to the Works of Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland's Thoughts on Writing, Printable Version

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