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What Is Aesthetic Distance?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Aesthetic distance is a literary term that describes an audience’s emotional involvement in a story. It can refer to stories in any media, including novels, stage plays, films, comic books, and even video games with strong narrative content. Expert storytellers can increase an audience’s involvement in a story through various techniques that will cause them to identify, or sympathize, with the characters. Understanding of these techniques is important for anyone who aspires to successful storytelling. Some writers will deliberately increase the aesthetic distance between the audience and the characters, as a means of focusing the audience’s attention on other aspects of the story.

The psychology and techniques of dramatic structure have been studied for centuries. Early on, it was observed that audiences will become more emotionally involved in a story if there is at least one character with whom they can identify. When an audience identifies strongly with a character or characters, they experience the emotional highs and lows of the story as if they were living through it themselves. This is considered a close aesthetic distance. For many kinds of stories, this is the ideal, and writers will expend significant energy and time creating this effect.

There are numerous techniques to decrease the aesthetic distance between an audience and a given character. One way is to have the character come from a background that naturally elicits sympathy, such as poverty or loss; for example, by making the character an orphan. A character with aspects that are shared by a large segment of a given population is called an "everyman." A first-person narrative is also an effective means of drawing an audience into a story. It conveys a sense of immediacy to the audience, allowing them to experience the story’s events just as the viewpoint character does.

Anything that reminds the audience that the story is not real is said to be violating the aesthetic distance. Usually this is unintentional, resulting from problems such as unrealistic dialogue in a novel or low-budget special effects in a movie. The ability to tell a gripping story under any circumstances is the mark of a good storyteller. Many successful filmmakers, in fact, first achieved notice because of their ability to engage audiences and close the aesthetic distance, despite working with low budgets. Sometimes, however, a storyteller will have a deliberate reason for increasing the aesthetic distance.

Famed German playwright Bertolt Brecht pioneered a process he called verfremdungseffekt, or the distancing effect. For example, actors might address the audience directly, in character, so the audience could no longer play the role of the impartial observer. Brecht believed this effect would allow the audience to analyze what they were seeing, rather than becoming “lost“ in the story, as most writers intended. His hope was that this would reveal the social problems underlying his story, and perhaps motivate audiences to seek real-world solutions. In modern times, the effect of having a character address the audience is known in film, TV and theatrical production as "breaking the fourth wall."

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