It’s this last element that I’d like to focus on in this blog, although the other points, as you will see, come in to play as well. It is helpful to use the analogy of cinematic distance, how far away the camera is from the action, when considering point of view distance: long shot, medium shot, close-up, extreme close-up. Adjusting the point of view lens in terms of degrees of distance allows you to control the relationship between the reader and the story to evoke specific responses. David Jauss says, ‘Perhaps the most important purpose of point of view is to manipulate the degree of distance between the characters and the reader in order to achieve the emotional, intellectual, and moral responses the author desires.’ (On Writing Fiction, Writers Digest 2011)
Let’s look at the different degrees of distance and how they might translate on the page using either third-person, or first-person point of view.
The Long Shot
We’ll start with the long shot or bird’s-eye view. Picture a scene taken by a drone above a snow-laden suburban street. We can see the rooves of a dozen or so houses, the road, some parked cars; a small figure on the footpath is the only person visible. This view shows us the context in which the story is set, the bigger picture. It is somewhat reserved because we are detached from the character and our attention is focused on the setting in which the character appears, not the character himself; we can’t see any detail about the character.
In prose it might read like this:
Using third-person POV – It was winter, 1966. A man hurried through the late afternoon as the snow blowing in from the north took hold of the city. [Note the character is given a gender, but not a name.]
Using first-person POV – It was winter, 1966. I hurried through the late afternoon as the snow blowing in from the north took hold of the city.
The Medium Shot
If we pull the lens closer to a medium shot we can clearly see the character in the setting. From this distance the reader can see how thoughts and feelings are embodied (what they look like), but the distance suggests a formality. We are still outside the character. In prose it might read like this:
Using third-person POV – Jack Hardy hurried through the late afternoon, squinting against the cold. He had never much cared for snowstorms. [Note the full name of the character.]
Using first-person POV – As I hurried through the late afternoon, I squinted against the cold. I had never much cared for snowstorms.
Pulling in further the lens is filled by the character’s face and upper body, with some of the background still in shot. It’s more intimate and we have access to the character’s thoughts and feelings that may not be visible. We are still outside the character, but can see inside.
Using third-person POV – As Jack hurried through the late afternoon, he felt the bitter cold air on his lips. He wished he was home in front of the fire. [Note the first name of the character.]
Using first-person POV – As I hurried through the late afternoon, I felt the bitter cold air on my lips. I wished I was at home in front of the fire.
The Extreme Close-up
And then we pull right. We are fully inside the character. It is intimate, like a close-up, but now the narration uses the character’s language, even in third person.
Using third-person POV – God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
Using first-person POV – God, how I hated these damn snowstorms.
Shifting Distance – Patrick White
Fiction and narrative non-fiction shifts between these distances. Imagine a film in which the camera stayed the same distance from the characters, never moving back or pulling in. It would be boring, flat. The same is true on the page. Switching between distances plays a role in balancing scene and summary and in controlling the pace of the narrative. It works to great effect to establish settings and to provide context.
Here’s an example from the opening to Patrick White’s short story ‘A Woman’s Hand’ (The Cockatoos, Jonathan Cape 1974). White starts with a long shot, a birds-eye view, surveying the terrain.
The wind was tearing into the rock-plants, slashing reflections out of the leaves of the mirror-bush, torturing those professional martyrs the native trees. What must originally have appeared an austere landscape, one long rush of rock and scrub towards the sea, was prevented from wearing its natural expression by the parasite houses clinging to it as obstinately as wax on diseased orange branches. Not that the houses weren’t, nearly all of them, technically desirable, some of them even Lovely Homes worth breaking into.
Then, in the same paragraph, he pulls in to a medium shot to introduce the community. We can see how thoughts and feelings are embodied, but no characters are named.
Although the owners of the latter were surely aware of this, they had almost completely exposed their possessions behind unbroken plate-glass. To view the view might have been their confessable intention, but they had ended, seemingly, overwhelmed by it. Or bored. The owners of the lovely seaside homes sat in their worldly cells playing bridge, licking the chocolate off their fingers, in one case copulating, on pink chenille, on the master bed.
By the end of the paragraph the setting has been established and we have some insight into the types of people who inhabit this setting. Next paragraph he pulls in closer and introduces characters by name, giving us access to what’s going on inside their heads:
Evelyn Fazackerley looked away. It was, in any case, what she would have called a heavenly day. She was breathless with it, from the pace at which Harold was walking, as much as from the biting air.
‘You should walk more slowly,’ she suggested, because it was time she asserted herself. ‘That is what retirement is for.’
It was the kind of remark Harold ignored. Their marriage was strewn with such. It was not unagreeable that way.
The last sentence pulls even closer –’It was not unagreeable that way.’ It is an extreme close-up, using the character’s language. The reader understands this is Harold’s thought, perhaps shared by Evelyn, even without the attribution ‘Harold thought’ or the use of italics.
In the space of four paragraphs, White has carefully paced the zoom in to give the reader context for the fictional world which informs our understanding of the characters before we pull in to meet them from the outside, and then pull in even closer to climb inside.
Shifting Distance – Liane Moriarty
Here’s another example of the same type of shift in point of view distance from Liane Moriarty’s novel Apples Never Fall (Pan Macmillan 2021). This is the opening of a chapter about a third the way through.
Brooke Delaney parked outside her parents’ place and sat with her hands on the steering wheel, willing herself to move, to open the car door, to get out, go inside and be introduced to this girl, this Savannah, to whom she would try to be kind and welcoming. She didn’t want to make conversation with a stranger on Father’s Day, especially this particular Father’s Day, her first family event since the separation.
She considered putting on lipstick, just to please her mother. Brooke didn’t like to wear any make-up. She’d always found the whole concept peculiar. Why paint your face like a clown?
Let’s track the changes in distance here. The opening clause is not exactly a birds-eye view as we can see the character in some detail, but the use of Brooke’s full name is key. The reader has already met Brooke, including in close-up, so this is a conscious choice to pull us back from the intimacy we have had with this character in previous chapters, inviting us to consider her from a different perspective, to see her anew in a different context.
Brooke Delaney parked outside her parents’ place and sat with her hands on the steering wheel,
Then we pull in, mid-sentence, to a medium shot where we have access to her thoughts but see her in context – the physical context of the car, but also in terms of the significance of the event that is going to unfold.
willing herself to move, to open the car door, to get out, go inside and be introduced to this girl, this Savannah, to whom she would try to be kind and welcoming. She didn’t want to make conversation with a stranger on Father’s Day, especially this particular Father’s Day, her first family event since the separation.
The second paragraph shifts to a close-up with the focus not on the context, but Brooke’s thoughts and personality.
She considered putting on lipstick, just to please her mother. Brooke didn’t like to wear any make-up. She’d always found the whole concept peculiar.
And then in the last sentence the narration pulls even closer so that we are inside the character – an extreme close-up – using the character’s language. As with the White example, the reader understands this is the character’s thought:
Why paint your face like a clown?
Taking us seamlessly into Brooke’s mind in this way creates a stronger sense of intimacy than using the attribution ‘Brooke thought’, which would draw our attention away from the thought itself to the act of thinking it. And, while using italics for thoughts has merit in certain contexts, here the visual signalling to the reader isn’t needed.
Playing with point of view distance
Some writers naturally vary point of view distance, but not all. And while the White and Moriarty examples show a particular use of distance in setting up a chapter or story, there are other ways you can play with point of view. It can certainly work to begin with a close up or medium shot – there are no rules about this. However, establishing context is important to help a reader engage, and one way to do this is to reference the wider view.
Pay attention to point of view distance in your own work and note if you think you could vary it more, particularly at the beginning of chapters and new scenes, where you might want to pull out and then come in closer. This shifting of distance is also key in moments of heightened drama, where you may want to dissolve the narrator’s voice in an extreme close-up and adopt the character’s voice, even in third-person narration.
Play around with it and look out for it in books you read so that you better understand how you can use degrees of point of view distance to manipulate the relationship between the reader and the story for dramatic effect.