Using Personal Space to Your Advantage

Diagram of Edward T. Hall's personal reaction bubbles (1966), showing radius in feet


Two weeks ago in the post “Using Stereotypes to your Advantage” we discussed how the careful use of widely accepted stereotypes can add flavor and personality to a scene without adding the bulk of excessive description.  Today we will do something similar using personal space and dialogue.

In humans and animals alike there is a need for personal space. In the brain the amygdala regulates the amount of discomfort we feel when someone we are unfamiliar with comes too close.  Because this response is so universal we can use it to our advantage.  Different cultures have different sizes of space, as do all individuals, so the distances are not exact but conceptual.

Public space – the impersonal space where we prefer complete strangers to roam; e.g. walking down the street, library, lectures.

Social space – the distance where we feel others are socially connected to us; e.g. talking at a dinner party, bar, nightclub.

Personal space – where we are comfortable speaking to someone one on one; e.g. discussing issues with trusted friends/colleagues.

Intimate space –  the space for intimate loved ones and immediate family members; e.g. hugging, pillow talk, etc…

When speaking to people we naturally use different tones of voice depending on where they are in relation to us. Capturing tone of voice is difficult to do well in writing.  However, showing where the characters are is easier.  If we as writers understand the ideas of personal space, we can help the readers hear tones of voice simply by where the speaker is standing in relation to the listener. Here are some examples:

Roger Thompson, the CEO of RediCorp, tapped the microphone at the lectern before clearing his throat and addressing the shareholders, “Thank you all for coming tonight…”

Julie tapped her fork against her goblet to gain everyone’s attention at the table. “Thanks everyone for coming tonight…”

Julie caught Sam trying to leave the party early; she knew he had a final in the morning.  Before he could slip out the door she caught him by the hand. “Hey, thanks for coming tonight…”

Stephanie pulled the heavy down comforter up around her neck as she snuggled up next to Tyler’s chest.  She could hear the thump of his heart, feel the warmth of his body. “Thanks for coming tonight…”

Hopefully you could hear the differences in the voices.  I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, there is nothing wrong with describing what a voice sounds like.  Understanding  the unique personal spaces is simply another way to get the job done.  What works best depends on the needs of the scene.

Happy Writing!

About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
This entry was posted in Art of Writing, Editing and Revision, Language usage, Visual writing, Writer's Voice and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Using Personal Space to Your Advantage

  1. nrhatch says:

    Awesome post, Jodi. Your examples are spot on!

    • tsuchigari says:

      Thanks for coming by! I see that you hooked up with Emlyn, she is doing great stuff to promote her platform – things that I would love to do if I had the free time!

  2. oldancestor says:

    Great examples. Sometimes it’s not the dialog itself but the frame around it.

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