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Emotional Distancing In Stories

Copyright 2001 Dorian Scott Cole

There are a variety of ways to describe how an audience connects emotionally when it watches a movie (or reads a story). It is said that we "suspend disbelief" or "enter a fictional dream" or become in a trance like state. We allow ourselves to be involved in the story as if by hypnosis, fully able to control what we believe, but permitting our emotional involvement in the story. If we aren't asked to swallow totally unrealistic plots (depending on story type), and characters are done well, we are able to identify with the characters and empathize with their plight. We often project parts of our own psyche onto the characters, more strongly identifying with them and their plight through our own experiences, wants, needs, and tastes. An experience of a story is different for every individual in the way it involves them at an emotional level, or even involves them at all.

To me, comedy is the highest form of entertainment because it can deal with the most difficult topics in a way that we can stand to look at them. Comedy has great control over the emotional distance of the audience, torturing them with rib-tickling, and then with the audiences emotions properly desensitized, draws them in emotionally for the climax. Comedy asks us to become detached and look at ourselves from outside (objectively), enjoying the comedy of our own suffering. Comedy controls emotions with finesse. Most movie-goers go to see comedy. But good comedy is much more difficult to write than action and drama.

Pure drama typically seems to have one emotional state. Drama jumps into the emotions, soaks in the emotional bath, and then wallows in them, trapping our emotions until the end of the story. Drama nearly drowns us in emotional reality before it lets us leave the theater or book to take a refreshing gulp of our own reality. Drama often won't let go until it makes us think, and is more likely to leave a lasting impression. The techniques mentioned in the lists below can be used to break up drama.

We relate to action and thriller movies as more of a fantasy than reality. Most of us personally don't want to see other people injured or killed - we don't even want to know these people or have these experiences - and we don't want to personally take the risks demonstrated in action movies. We relate to these emotionally as we do a thrill ride at a theme park. Momentarily we are immersed vicariously in our fears, our wanton pleasures, our "power" fantasies that for a moment let us "good people" win, we ride an adrenaline rush of fear and excitement, and colossus images overwhelm our senses - all operate like a "refresh" button on our psyches. These feelings are extensions of base emotions - but we don't connect at a serious emotional level with the characters, and we usually don't expect to, but it is nice when better developed characters are in the story (as in The Professional). Most of us don't confuse fantasy with reality.

A number of techniques can be used in a story, or visual drama (movie, play) to draw the person emotionally further into the story, or to move them emotionally away from the story. Why would the writer do this? For a number of reasons:

  1. To fit the style of drama
  2. To give the audience an emotional break from intense drama or action
  3. To create an important point, as in character motivation, or the climax of the story
  4. To establish mood for the scene

There are a number of methods of controlling the emotional distance of the audience from the drama. The most important method is to form an emotional connection with one or more characters within the first few minutes of the story. The other methods include:

  • Cinematic presentation style: Fauvian Postimpressionist (animation - although more recent animations have used more pastels), realist (all the gritty details, no makeup, etc.), dramatic representation (nothing you see is as it really is, and may be computer generated, in most modern movies). (These are my opinions - see a cinematographer for better information.) These styles can be mixed within the same story to good effect to increase or decrease the emotional involvement.
  • Dramatic style, listed roughly in least to most personal/emotional: Animation, Action, comedy, drama.
  • Point of view, especially in books: first, second, or third person telling (or the primary character that the camera follows in the film).
  • Rendering of statements and cinematics in a continuum from impersonal, past/present tense, and objective, to objective, personal and immediate, such as, "It was a cold day even for the Artic," to "Everyone is complaining about the cold," to "I'm freezing my goose pimples off and I want out of here." In cinema, this relates to camera closeness and character action.
  • Comic relief: Interjects a moment of comedy between scenes or intense moments in a scene. This allows the characters and audience to momentarily look at their suffering objectively, or relieves the dramatic tension momentarily.
  • Melodrama: While "overacting" is typically not a good thing, it can be very effective when employed in the right way. Melodrama distances emotions because it presents reality in an over-dramatized way, sometimes in an almost comedic way. It says, "We're not being quite as serious here, we just want you to see something." The use of melodrama is a good way of compressing time, or of showing events without being dragged down emotionally by them. My best example is in Bullets Over Broadway where characters are rushed from a car onto a pier in the dead of night, and out of our view are shot and left in the ocean. It is quick, we don't see the action, and we don't see the consequences. So we get an idea of what the mob does, but it doesn't overwhelm the story. The very stylized movie, Moulin Rouge is another example, and it is full of melodrama.
  • Motif: Uses recurring elements such as music, recurring comedic or villainist character, recurring events, recurring symbols, or other things to change the emotional distance for a new scene or change within a scene.
  • Scene intensity: Showing greater or lesser degrees of character anguish and the repercussions in the character's life, which includes the length of the scene and the dramatic intensity of scenes such as turning points, plot points, the climax, and other important events or dialogue moments.
  • Dwelling on the character for lesser or greater periods of time to see his struggles.
  • Increasing the "stakes" (what might be lost) for the character, and emphasizing those consequences for the audience.
  • In depth characterization: Makes the audience more familiar with the character's history and motivations so they are able to identify more and empathize more since the character seems more "real" to them.

Emotional distancing can be used to present the dramatic action as drama, or action, or comedy. They all three have a different emotional distance. In the comedy Bullets Over Broadway, one character takes people out to a pier and shoots them. It fits well in the comedy, as explained below.

In drama, people might be crying as they lead up to the person getting shot, and the camera lingers as he gruesomely dies.

In action (drama), it's just something that happens, and we probably don't have any emotional attachment or identification with the victim, and would see the guy fall and blood splatter, and then the shot changes - we don't get involved emotionally or hang on emotionally, unless the writer is using it as character motivation.

In comedy, it's treated much more lightly. The guy is shoved quickly, behind a fence, not at all personable, and we don't see him shot at all. No personal emotional connection or identification is involved. It's not really very funny, but it isn't maudlin - it fits. It's a motif showing gangsters getting rid of people, and when it happens to a major character later (a whiny woman everyone wants to see disappear), there is no emotional connection.

A motif is an element, usually recurring, that sets mood. For example, in some movies, when it starts snowing, that signifies something supernatural is happening, or a supernatural change has happened.

- Scott

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