I am working on a novel inspired by the Shahnameh - a Persian epic poem by Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi. The Shahnameh (the title means "The Book of Kings") is structured as a series of interconnected tales: birth of hero Such-and-Such, heroic tale A about him, heroic tale B about him, hero Such-and-Such gets a wife, heroic tale of Such-and-Such's son, and so on.

My novel is taking a similar shape, albeit in a more limited scope - I focus on the reign of only one Shah, with him and his best knight as my main characters. In that aspect, my story is perhaps comparable to the tales of King Arthur, but with significantly less tales of other knights. Rather, there is a very definite character arc for both main characters. It's just hidden within the individual tales.

For this shape to "work", for the story to feel like an "epic" and a tribute to older epics, I feel a certain distance is required between the reader and the protagonists. Mark Baker explains the concept in this answer.

Now distance doesn't mean that we're not privy to the characters' thoughts at all. For example, in Le Morte Darthur, when Uther Pendragon first meets Igraine,

The King liked and loved this lady well, and he made them great cheer out of measure, and desired to have lain by her. (Sir Thomas Mallory, Le Morte Darthur, the Winchester manuscript, edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford University Press)

In that example, we are told rather than shown Uther's desire. In other tales, a character might "say to himself" something - a form that makes sense in a tale that is meant to be spoken rather than read. But overall, the story would be less intimate, we'd have less of the characters' innermost feelings and more of their actions (which are an expression of their innermost feelings).

But even armed with this understanding, I still struggle to maintain the required distance. My narrator feels too close, more intimate than makes sense for the shape of the story.

How can I maintain distance, and with it the illusion that this is a tale that's been told and retold? What elements am I missing?

4 Answers 4


Interesting question! Here's what occurs to me as the first principle of distance: From a distance, you can't see the small stuff.

At a distance you can see fear of dragons, but you can't see fear of bees.

At a distance you can see high romance, but you can't see petty infatuation.

At a distance you can see great thoughts, but not petty distractions.

At a distance you can see fatal wounds, but you can't see splinters.

At a distance you can hear grand speeches, but you can't hear whispered asides.

At a distance you can see moral conviction, but you can't see psychological ticks.

At a distance you can see the battle, but you can't see blood, sweat, and tears.

At a distance you can see the great heroic sacrifice, but you can't see the meaningless accident.

At a distance you can see the wedding, but you can't see the fourth date.

At a distance you can see the divorce, but not the quarrel over the TV remote.

The purpose of pursuing intimacy in a story is to examine all the ticks and insecurities that plague our everyday existence, that hold us back from doing grand deeds. The purpose of pursuing distance is to clear all those things from our vision so that we can examine the great themes of human existence. To do that, we have to step back from the petty and the ordinary and the everyday. Distance clears our vision so we can focus on the big stuff.

  • But is there a happy middle ground between what you describe and the adage, "Can't see the forest for the trees?"
    – J Crosby
    Oct 1, 2019 at 20:03
  • 1
    @JCrosby I think every level of distance can be a happy gound for the right kind of story. Stories are all about focusing the reader's attention on the matter at issue, and maintaining the correct distance for the particular story is a key part of maintaining that focus. All distances are happy for the right story.
    – user16226
    Oct 1, 2019 at 20:08

Build yourself an excuse for knowing what you wish to reveal; the story you are currently telling was related to you by others.

When Rodrick first told Geoffrey's tale, he tells us, on this journey Geoffrey had fallen in love with Antonia, though even Geoffrey, at the time, did not recognize this feeling. Oh, he'd been in lust many times, but never in love. All Geoffrey knew is that when the time came for her to depart, when she embraced him and kissed his cheek to wish him well, his heart surged and his life was changed. He confided to Rodrick, years later, he felt all his great plans fallen, his future wiped clean and writ anew. If his life was not beside Antonia, it held no more meaning.

If your tale has been told and retold, it was first told by someone. Make the original teller a friend or confidant, a family member or priest close to your hero, that can (when necessary) explain the more intimate moments. In my example, Rodrick is the original teller, and heard Geoffrey's most intimate thoughts directly from Geoffrey, albeit years after the fact. And Rodrick's first-hand report is preserved.

Obviously in the generational sense, you need different confidant's for each, but it takes little space to introduce them: We don't need to know anything about Rodrick except what is given, he needs no personality. He is just a prop to let me plausibly reveal Geoffrey's inner feelings, at arm's length.


Distance is carving off the incidental details

It's not the size of the details, but their relevance to the story. In Cinderella, it matters that she scrubbed floors, and that her sisters were ugly. In Arthurian legend, it mattered that Uther had a thing for Igraine. It matters significantly less whether Cinderella liked raspberries, or whether Uther was normally a standup guy who would leave someone else's wife alone.

What survives multiple retellings is the essence

I would suggest that fairy tales are some of the best illustrations of "distant" storytelling. In fairy tales, the youngest son only has brothers because they cause him problems in the story, or because they explain why he had to go seek his fortune, etc. Cinderella has stepsisters because her mother has to have a reason to bestow her affections somewhere else.

"But all stories are like that. Chekhov's gun. Etc..."

Sure. But the more distant the story, the less dressing up there is with fine detail. In Solzhenitsyn's 1914, the rifles are heavy, and the ammunition cases have carrying straps, and soldiers have to reload, and when they're recklessly retreating they throw away their heavy ammunition cases, and later their rifles. In Peter and the Wolf, the hunters have guns.

But if part of the story is about running out of ammunition, then you would mention it.

Breadcrumbs are important in Hansel and Gretel. In many fairy tales, it's not really mentioned what people ate. Distance reduces to the essence.

  • (And what has been preserved as essential tells you about the re-tellers.)
    – Jedediah
    Oct 1, 2019 at 20:02

Look at every sentence and ask if it has a judgmental quality. Add judgment to tighten distance, and remove judgment to increase distance.

Judgment is very close third, because judgment is individualized.

Your example:

The King liked and loved this lady well, and he made them great cheer out of measure, and desired to have lain by her. (Sir Thomas Mallory, Le Morte Darthur, the Winchester manuscript, edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford University Press)

^^Would be closer third as:

The lady was desirable and well so, and he made great cheer. He would give his kingdom, nay his very life, to lay with her.

and more distant third as:

Her flaxen hair, her shapely form. He made great cheer and lay with her.

Try to remove individual judgment from your viewpoint character, to increase distance.

Also, add filter phrases.

The King found this lady likable, and he made them great cheer out of measure, and desired to have lain by her. (Sir Thomas Mallory, Le Morte Darthur, the Winchester manuscript, edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford University Press)

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