How to Control Distance in Creative Writing
When a reader or critique group member says they feel distant from your characters or story, it is rarely a good thing. Distance often means a lack of connection to your plot, characters, or world. Too much summary, the wrong point of view, and lack of tension can lead to distance. As the author, you are in control of these story aspects.
Control Distance Through Scenes
There are many reasons too much summary can be a detriment to your story; one of those is distance. When you summarize an event, you leave out details and are reporting something instead of showing it. This robs the reader of the experience of the event. They don’t get to feel the suspense, hope your main character achieves their goal, or immerse themselves in your setting. In summary, the event feels farther away, like it’s happening somewhere else.
Making sure your character or plot impacting and conflict-rich events are in scene is one way to make the reader feel closer to your story. They want to experience the emotional turmoil with your characters, taste the decadent dessert, and worry about the outcome. Scenes are less distant.
Usually, you want to eliminate distance because the closer your readers are to your characters and plot, the stronger their connection to your story. However, there are some instances you might want to distance your reader – and characters – from an event. For example, people often slip into their minds to get through a traumatic event, or maybe you want one event to leave a greater impression, so you put that one in scene and a less important one in summary. Use scenes and summary to control distance.
Point of View and Perspective Impact Distance
Choosing POV for Distance
Which point of view you choose will have one of the greatest impacts on the distance your reader feels from your characters and story. Omniscient and distance third person feel far away. They don’t reveal many of your characters’ thoughts and emotions, which makes your characters harder to get to know and relate to. First person and third person close can be extremely close to your characters, showing every thought and emotion. Sometimes they can be too close.
If you have a character who thoughts would be off-putting to a reader, you might choose omniscient or distant third person to create some distance. If internal conflict is a major component of your story, first person or third person close might be a better choice. Consider the major conflicts of your plot and personalities of your characters to decide which POV will give you the correct distance.
Who’s in the Conflict
Your main character will also determine how distant your reader feels from your story. If you choose to follow a character who witnesses events and conflicts but doesn’t experience them, your readers will feel distant and disconnected. When you pick a character who is in the middle of your conflict, that conflict feels more immediate and effective. Your reader feels closer to the events; the events feel more real because they are directly impacting the main character instead of indirectly affecting a bystander.
When choosing your main character, make sure you pick the character who is the closest to the events of your story, who will be changed by them. Picking a side character dampens the impact of your story and cheats the reader out of the experience.
Lack of Tension Leads to Distance
When your story lacks tension, readers feel too distant from it. Each scene should have an obstacle your characters need to overcome and something at stake. Stakes and obstacles control tension. When your readers aren’t worried for your characters, they start to lose interest. If your stakes or obstacles are too far in the future, you eliminate the urgency and tension. This is a form of too much distance.
In one of my stories, a character has a genetic condition he’ll likely die from in about ten years. Death in ten years is way too distant. While that works for a problem towards the end of the story, that stake is not good enough to interest readers in the beginning. Instead, I threatened to take away his greatest passion in the first scene. That obstacle and stake are immediate and bring the reader closer to the story and character.
It’s okay to have a stake or obstacle looming in the future as long as you counter them with a more immediate threat. Sometimes slowly creeping closer to the major stakes is a great way to build tension over the course of your story. However, each scene needs some form of tension to carry the reader to the next scene and that eventual stake.
Why an Editor Recommends Writers Pay Attention to Distance
Too much distance leads to readers losing interest and moving on to another story. This is why a good critique partner will let you know when they aren’t connecting with your characters or plot. If you receive feedback that your readers feel distant, take a look at which events you summarized and which ones you fleshed out in scene, the point of view you chose, and what’s at stake. Be aware that these aspects can be related. Choosing the wrong character to focus on might lead to more summaries of major events. Too much summary will eliminate tension. Then look at what you’re trying to do and say. Ask yourself if you need distance in one place or not. Control your distance to Ignite Your Ink.
How have you overcome distance in your writing? Share you solutions in the comments below. For a in depth description of the different points of view and how they affect distance and more tips on writing from an editor, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.