Don't Distance the Reader

by Marg McAlister

 

A few hours ago, I was busy critiquing a set task for one of my e-courses. I finished typing the following words: "This is one of those things that can create 'distance' between the reader and the character." Then I stopped and stared at what I'd written, thinking that I seemed to be saying the same thing rather a lot lately. So perhaps it was time to investigate the whole issue of 'distance' - particularly in regard to viewpoint slips, but with a nod to how you use your character's name, too.

This is the kind of thing that can be difficult for you to pick up when you're editing your work. The problem is, it's VITAL that you understand just how much of an influence this can have on your readers.

(1) DISTANCE THROUGH OVERUSE OF THE CHARACTER'S NAME

Sometimes I read scenes that mention the character's name in virtually every paragraph. This is not only irritating (and repetitious) to read, but it creates an enormous amount of distance between me and the character. Why is this?

When you keep using characters’ names instead of simple ‘he’ or ‘she’, it has the effect of someone talking about the scene rather than experiencing it from within the character’s head. (When I’m moving around in the real world, for example, I don’t think in terms of ‘Marg did this’ and ‘Marg did that’ – I think ‘I’ll just do this’ or ‘Maybe I’ll do that’.)

When you’re writing in the third person, deep in someone’s point of view, the use of ‘he’ or ‘she’ gives a similar sense of familiarity. It’s fine to drop in a character’s name now and then, but if you do it too often it has that ‘distancing’ effect on your readers – they don’t feel as though they’re seeing the scene entirely through the character’s eyes, but through someone else’s.

(2) DISTANCE THROUGH VIEWPOINT SLIPS (LOOKING AT, RATHER THAN EXPERIENCING)

Most of the problems I see with authors slipping out of viewpoint occur when they're trying to describe the character. The main problem is that the author begins the scene deep within the character's viewpoint (experiencing life from the inside out) and then suddenly switches to a 'distant' viewpoint (looking AT the character).

For example: "Jane grew warm with embarrassment. Her green eyes looked away so she wouldn't have to meet Tim's gaze."

The first sentence is written as though the reader 'is' Jane - we're experiencing that flush of embarrassment. The second sentence is written as though someone's looking AT her - she can't see the colour of her own eyes, and is not likely to be thinking about it, either. We're dragged out of Jane's head, where we are happily tapping into her thoughts, and forced to look at her from a distance. Very disorienting!

Similarly, a viewpoint slip can occur when the author describes an object that (a) isn't actually within the character's line of sight, OR (b) is something that is not important to her at that moment.

For example: "Closing her eyes as the battered old ferry bumped way through the swell, Jane swallowed hard in an effort to combat nausea ."

This last example of a slight shift out of viewpoint is a little harder to identify, because you can argue that she would already have known that the ferry was 'battered' and 'old'. That's true - but at this time, is Jane concerned with fighting nausea, or with how the ferry looks? The time for her to notice the ferry's condition is when she first sees it - not now.

By drawing the reader's attention to the ferry, rather than Jane's feelings, you are creating distance.

These two examples show how easy it is to unwittingly create barriers between you and your readers. By taking just a little care, you'll ensure that they remain immersed in the story.

© Marg McAlister

 

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