When to keep your distance: why you don’t always want the reader in the thick of the action

Most of the time we’re trying to put readers in the thick of the characters’ experience. But distance is also an interesting fictional technique with a power all of its own.

In Hitchcock’s film Torn Curtain, there’s a scene where the protagonist kills a taxi driver. Normally you’d expect scenes like this to be presented in close up. We’d see the struggle, the driver’s desperate fight and the hero’s anguish in taking someone’s life. We might wonder what the outcome will be.

But that’s not what Hitchcock does. The scene is shot from a distance, as though it is happening to someone across a road. Almost as if it’s not even happening to the protagonist.

There are no questions about whether the MC will succeed. The driver is killed, and that is that. The MC doesn’t even pay a price by getting hurt. He doesn’t flinch from what he has to do. The distance of the camera plays with our empathy, representing how the characters distanced themselves from the deed. And so we see a normal, married man forced to kill an innocent stranger in cold blood. We see the resources he has in his soul that will ensure he survives. What does it do to the viewer? It makes us complicit in an uncomfortable world. As if we have made that choice too.

In Persuasion, Jane Austen shows the final reunion between the lovers as though she’s filming it at a distance. It’s surprising, but allows the characters privacy in their moment – which is all the more touching.

Of course, you need to use distance carefully. I often see scenes where writers duck out of showing a key event, possibly because they didn’t feel up to writing it. There is a strong likelihood that if you pull the prose camera away, the reader will feel cheated. You have to make a careful judgement call. If there are any questions lingering, the reader needs to see what happened. But if the reader can fill all the blanks and be just as satisfied, it might be powerful indeed.

Every event we share in a story has an effect beyond just showing what happened. And distance can sometimes lend more power than a close-up. Like Hitchcock, you could create an interesting complicit effect, show characters turning a corner. Result? The audience is disturbed in a way that is far more complex and chilling. Jane Austen had spent so long keeping her lovers apart that we wanted them to be together. When they finally were she went one better – she allowed them to be totally alone. Result? Reader satisfied.

That’s just two examples. Give me yours and tell me why you think they work!

Oh, and (spoon tapping glass). My Memories of a Future Life is getting great reviews. Episode 2: Rachmaninov and Ruin, is limbering up for release on Amazon at midnight as 4th September turns into 5th. You can find episode 1 here and you can try the first four chapters on a free audio here

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  1. #1 by erikamarks on September 4, 2011 - 2:43 pm

    Roz, I love the examples that you use–AND I love your point that distance can sometimes be a crutch (a most transparent one, too) when a writer doesn’t feel, as you say, up to writing the scene. I know I have been guilty of that myself, so it does require finesse in deciding when to employ the technique. The skill is in, as in the example from Persuasion, using the technique to enhance the desired mood of the scene–to indicate privacy, or some other reason for a certain degree of detachment and space.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 4, 2011 - 6:40 pm

      Hi Erika! We all duck out of scenes from time to time. I know I’ve found myself thinking ‘can I get away without doing this because it’s going to be difficult’. Then I know I have to ask myself some serious questions about what’s best for the book. A goodly amount of sweat later and I usually decide to write the scene.

  2. #3 by L.S. Engler on September 4, 2011 - 2:59 pm

    These are really great examples! And a very timely post for me; I’m working on a scene where the main character is watching events unfold from a distance. A little bit different, I think, than what you’re talking about here, but it approaches the topic in an almost meta sort of way. I was pondering whether or not this approach, of the reader getting to see things through the observances of the main character from a distance was a good one, but I think, if considered in the light of the points made in this post, it could be pretty effective!

    I can’t think of any other examples off the top of my head, but I’m sure to be considering others throughout the day.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 4, 2011 - 6:42 pm

      Ooh, tricky. I think you have to give the reader something to be involved in. But don’t forget that some stories are told entirely through narrators who filter the action – like Wuthering Heights. But there are many things in that story that anchor us tangibly to the story as well.

  3. #5 by Suzie Quint on September 4, 2011 - 3:03 pm

    Interesting observation. I’m going to have to give this some thought.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 4, 2011 - 6:43 pm

      Thanks, Suzie! I love looking at the flipside of principles anyway, and spotting where another storyteller has turned one around always fascinates me.

  4. #7 by Paul R. Drewfs on September 4, 2011 - 3:17 pm

    In my current novel, I switch-hit between third person narrative standoffs and embedded second and first person intimate events. The narrator links waves of present tense protagonist shifts in and out of her first and second person entanglements with her future selves and others. By a means of altered states and a device, my protagonist is able to watch from outside, chat up inside, or literally become her future selves and companions. It sounds tricky gnarly, but it has proven to be fun to write, easy to script-trace, and exciting to read. It seemed the only way to seamlessly integrate the 451 year research rich time-span and still keep the protagonist intense and onstage 90 percent of the time.

    Of course, I do end up envying your continuous reader psychic-fusion with the protagonist “Carol” and her future self that makes “My Memories of a Future Life” standout like a pulsar in the Galactic darkness.

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 4, 2011 - 6:45 pm

      Hi Paul! That does sound very complex… but the first thing you should do is try to winnow out every possible area where the reader could be confused (unless you have an extremely good reason for confusing them). If the reader’s confused, they’re not feeling the story.

      And thanks for the comment about MMOAFL! There are a lot of points in that story that pose questions, but I always tried to make sure the reader wasn’t confused. There’s a difference.

  5. #9 by Paul Greci on September 4, 2011 - 3:33 pm

    Roz, I can’t think of any concrete examples off the top of my head but I do think the technique is a powerful one. :-)

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 4, 2011 - 6:46 pm

      Hi Paul – thanks! I think it works because the reader is able to supply so much themselves. When the author is aware of that, it can be used to very interesting effect.

  6. #11 by Laura Pauling on September 4, 2011 - 9:09 pm

    I haven’t seen Persuasion and I can’t think of a book where the author did this and I didn’t feel cheated. Or maybe they did it and it was done so well that I didn’t notice! If a writer does something well then I’ll usually buy it.

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 4, 2011 - 10:50 pm

      Good point, Laura – done badly it’s a real let-down. Done well – you perhaps don’t even realise what’s going on.

  7. #13 by Juliette on September 5, 2011 - 5:19 pm

    Fascinating examples of this done well, thanks – my most recent memories of distancing are from The Hunger Games, book 3, which is definitely of the you-feel-cheated variety

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 5, 2011 - 8:05 pm

      thanks, Juliette! My husband is reading that and has been muttering about dissatisfying episodes. It’s a fine line.

  8. #15 by jacquelincangro on September 5, 2011 - 6:54 pm

    Another great tool to have in your writer’s toolbox. As long as you use this technique with caution and sparingly, it’s a wonderful option.

  9. #17 by catwoods on September 6, 2011 - 10:34 pm

    Interesting…

    I’ve never really thought about this as a writing technique, but will have to consider it as a future tool.

    I’ve got your e-books on my next list. Glad to hear things are going well regarding their release!

    Best luck as you continue.

  10. #18 by Thérèse on September 11, 2011 - 7:53 pm

    I quite like your perspective on distance here. I agree that sometimes it is better to have distance, but the writer must be careful because readers can certainly see it when it’s a scene that belongs.

    A romance novel comes to mind, in fact, wherein an explicit sex scene (however explicit the author wanted to make it) was called for, but she let the tension build until the very end of the book — and then didn’t put it in. As readers, we see that something occurred off-camera between the first book and the second in the series, but it ended up leaving a lingering impression of having been cheated, and the end result was frustration.

    • #19 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 12, 2011 - 6:14 am

      Tricky, Therese – some kinds of tension need to be let out, no matter how (as you say) this is accomplished. But it needs to look as though it has been dealt with, ahem, satisfactorily

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