Colder. You’re getting colder. (Distance in fiction)

A lot of my photos feature distant subjects. Hmm.

Let’s talk about distance some. Sound good?

You remember that childhood game, right? You’re in a room searching for something hidden and another person knows where it is and as you get farther away, they say, “You’re getting colder.” And if you get closer, they say, “You’re getting warmer.”

(Apparently, there’s are a number of variations on this game with, like, nine thousand crazy names. Huckle buckle beanstalk? Hot Buttered Beans? Really?)

There’s so much “distance” in fiction. There’s narrative distance and emotional distance. There’s the distance you should have from your subject matter and the distance you should give yourself from a draft before entering into revision.

Distance, distance, distance. Why so much? You’d think we writers were avoiding some things.

*Nervous laugh.*

Distant bridges...
Distant bridges…

Each of these subjects probably deserve their own post – and maybe someday they’ll each get one. But today I’m pushing them together into one topic because what’s interesting me right now is the frequency with which the idea of distance has come up lately in my study of the craft.

I’m just going to touch on some “distance” topics that are interesting to me right now, hand out some quotes and links and maybe come back another time to explore each one in a bit more detail.

Narrative Distance

There’s this brilliant article by David Jauss that was passed to me by an editor I was working with that dives deep into the topic of narrative distance. It says everything I could want to say about the subject and I think every writer should read it. I will warn it’s a bear to get through – really long and kind of deep, but it says all that needs to be said about the power and variations of point of view and narrative distance.

That article’s more than a decade old but it really holds up. Narrative distance, I’ve come to discover, is so important in good fiction. A writer needs to wield the distance they maintain from their characters with skill and intention. The “camera” needs to move in at the right times and out at the right times, as a very smart writer friend with a background in film is fond of saying, to give the reader the proper perspective at exactly the right times.

Narrative distance, when employed effectively, draws the reader closer to your characters and helps give life to their motivations. It can be pulled back, too, like that camera, to allow us to have a broader view of the character’s world, which can help us understand the greater truth of the story we are inhabiting as writers and readers. This can be done without breaking point of view, necessarily.

Read Jauss’ article. Put narrative distance into your tool belts, folks. Keep it sharpened.

…distant mountains.
…distant mountains.

Emotional Distance

In an earlier post, Keep your eyes open and be ready to fall in love, I mentioned I’m reading a book of essays on fiction writing by Debra Spark called Curious Attractions.

Yeah, reading. Possibly savoring is a better term for it. I really don’t want to get to the end.

In her essay, “Cry, cry, cry: Handling emotion in fiction,” she includes this quote from Anton Chekhov:

“When you…wish to move your reader to pity, try to be colder. It will give a kind of backdrop to…grief, make it stand out more…Yes, be cold.” – Anton Chekhov

Spark and Chekhov are talking about emotional distance. They aren’t saying we writers should be cold, calculating bastards (though, some of us are…I’m looking at you, Franzen). No, the point being made is that, in order to drive your readers in the emotional direction you’re hoping for, you need to (perhaps counterintuitively) be more distant. It’s not enough to “tell” your readers a character is embarrassed, you must use “external signs” to show the embarrassment. Showing the events and moments that led to your character’s embarrassment makes the reader feel that embarrassment with the character.

I mean, remember in Seinfeld, how embarrassed you were FOR HIM whenever George Costanza did just about ANYTHING?

So, at it’s core, emotional distance is in some ways another SHOW DON’T TELL lesson, but it’s also more than that. What’s important is to SHOW the reader what gave rise to the emotion, not TELL them about the emotion itself.

Sparks summarizes her point better than I could:

“Why should you be cold? Of what use is emotional distance? I’m circling around a point I’ve already made. The way to get to emotion is to present what gives rise to the emotion, not to give the emotion itself. A story or a movie that opens with someone crying is not moving. How could it be? We don’t know what the tears are about. We don’t know anything about the person who is crying. All we have is the emotion, and that, by itself, is not moving. To be moved we need to have a true encounter with something, the sort of encounter that coldness and emotional distance can provide.” – Debra Spark, Curious Attractions 

As Spark illuminates, Chekhov’s words are an advocation of coldness as a method, a certain distance – emotionally, but also narratively – that evokes emotion in a reader that traveling too closely to the character might never do.

It’s tricky, but really cool.


Another book I’m reading lately is WONDERBOOK: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. This is another great craft book, especially if you learn visually.

We’re often told as writers to “Write what you know.” I hardly ever do this and I’m often questioned for it. Why are you writing about this culture or that race or these events?

I tend to follow the philosophy instead “Write what interests you” and this is also mentioned in WONDERBOOK. (Yay! Validation!) Even when I’m writing about events inspired directly by my experiences, I can’t be too close. I need DISTANCE.

Vandermeer includes the following quote from Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz when discussing this very topic:

“I’ve never been able to write directly about things that happen to me: I need to deform them in ways to make them strange to me. I need to change them enough so that I can ‘play’ – invent freely. My art begins when I stop trying to be faithful to my life – if I’m playing the court stenographer, then there isn’t going to be room for play, and if there is no room for play, the work sits on the page lifeless. It’s during play that I come up with all the weird connections, when my subtle structures come to life, when what’s best about the book starts to unfold.” – Junot Diaz

The other day a friend told me about a news story he had heard about that “I might find interesting to write about.” This happens a lot to writers.

He told me a quick summary of the story – which was interesting and full of alarming and dark imagery – some neighbors had called the police because a woman and child were on a playground for a very long time and they were concerned. When the police arrived, they found that the child was deceased and had been for some time. The mother was still pushing him in the swing.

This is a heartbreaking and horrible story but after hearing those details, I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t look up the story and research it, though I do agree it might be interesting to write about. Why? Because I don’t want too many details. I’d rather allow the story to grow and morph in its own directions in my head, away from reality, to maintain a distance from it. That way, if I were ever to use it, it would have by then become my own.

Probably, if I ever did seriously consider using the concept, I’d research it then, if only to confirm how different the version that had developed in my own head was from reality.

Viriginia Woolf is famous for a similar quote: “There must be great freedom from reality.” Again, she’s talking about distance – from the truth, from reality – so that a writer can explore a topic with freedom.

I wrote about this concept myself once before in an earlier post: The Benefit of a Bad Memory to a Writer. At the time, I thought I was talking about memory and how not having a great one for certain details allowed me to fictionalize things more easily.

But I think, now, I was really talking distance and just didn’t know it yet.


By now, every good writer knows you’re supposed to wait between finishing a draft and embarking on a revision. The exact amount of waiting varies by whose advice you follow, from weeks to months even.

Why, at its core, are we waiting again?

Dammit, it’s distance again, isn’t it?

Sure, we need to detach from the material so that when we dive back in, it’s with a fresh perspective. Everyone knows a big part of revising is killing your darlings, and you can’t do that if you still love them.

“Yes, be cold,” Chekhov said.

“Yes, kill those darlings,” I agreed. Then we did a sinister, secret Skull and Bones handshake.

But what do you need first, in order to kill those darlings? That’s right: Distance, distance, distance.


So what’s the real point of all this? As usual, I’m not 100% sure. I think what I’m realizing is that mastering this rhythm of the proper distance – in your narrative, emotionally, in deciding what to write about or handling your revisions – is a big part of mastering this indefinable blob of skills that is Writing with a capital W.

The better grip we as writers have on distance in all its myriad forms increases the power of the work we create. Distance, in several fantastically strange ways, makes us better writers.

“You’re getting warmer.”

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