Creating A Sense of Intimacy–Or Not

Sometimes the tiny revisions help more than you think.

I was revising a cozy scene, and I removed several instances of the man’s name and replaced it with “he” or “him”. I don’t know when I first started doing this, but I have found that a scene is more intimate if you refrain from using names. As long as there are only two people, you only need use each name once, at the beginning of the scene.

Think about it–in real life, how often do you actually say the name of your spouse, sibling, or good friend? Maybe to get their attention, but while in conversation? And you don’t think of them by their names, either. You are beyond names.

I really noticed this kind of thing when I did some contest judging a few months ago. Several intimate scenes were ruined when the hero and heroine said or thought the other’s name too often.

And the opposite holds true as well. To create a sense of estrangement, use names. As soon as you bring in a third person, you have to use names, anyway.

Here’s the intimate scene, between brother and sister:

Adele watched as he stared at her. She refrained from shaking her head. Mike had a way of walking about in a haze of his own making. She reached over, clasped his hand and pulled him onto the couch next to her.

“Talk to me,” she said.

He didn’t say anything. She thought about leaving him alone, but he was always pretty good about letting her know when he needed his space. He wanted her there. She waited.

At length, he tried to speak, but only ended up clearing his throat awkwardly. She rose, went into the kitchen and brought back a glass of water. She handed it to him, and sat down again as he drank.

“First off, I gotta tell you that there’s a few things you don’t know. Things that happened between Mrs. Watkins and me.”

She frowned in outrage. “What! She’s your employee! She—”

“For God’s sake—that’s not it, either. Christ! What must you think of me?”

“Well, look at the way you made it sound!”

“Well hold on and just listen for a moment.”

She subsided.

And between a nosy boss and his subordinate:

Briggs escorted Peterson in twenty minutes later. He looked nervous. “Good evening, sir,” Peterson said.

“Good evening, Peterson.” Haley said as he lit a cigarette. He didn’t offer one. Briggs took his post by the door. Peterson looked at him nervously. Haley said, “Your first name is Bradley, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Brad is fine.”

“Of course it is. So how goes things with Eliza?”

“Um, just fine. Sir.”

“Do you like her?”

“Sure. What’s not to like?”

“I can think of many things.”

“Huh?” he gulped. “Sir?”

“You seem to have a problem with that, don’t you?”

“With what?”

“With basic courtesy. Calling your superior ‘sir’ for instance.”

Peterson looked pained. “I’m sorry about that, sir. I’m still getting used to it.”

“Were your parents deadbeats?”

“Well … yes sir. Pretty much.”

Any intimacy was gone anyway because Briggs was present, but I did use names a little more often than strictly necessary.

This is just one of the tiny changes I keep in mind as I revise. What did you think? Did I succeed in creating a sense of intimacy, and a sense of estrangement?

21 Thoughts to “Creating A Sense of Intimacy–Or Not”

  1. I’d say you did. 🙂 I try pretty hard to use names as little as possible, unless there are a huge number of people in “the room”, so to speak. Good check for the editing phase!

    1. Agreed. This is the first time I have actually used names more than I would have otherwise, to increase the tension and conflict. It’s sort of experimental for me.

  2. The name trick is something I never noticed! Thank you. Yes, I think you did a good job of creating intimacy in the first example, and a sense of tension in the second. Hmmm…. I may have to look at this one next time I edit.

    Of course, there’s also the matter of nick-names and such. I was re-reading The Magic Thief series (mid-grade series by Sarah Prineas). The main character, Conn, is apprentice to a wizard, who is also a father figure to him. The wizard always calls him `Boy.’ It started as a way of not getting attached, then turned into a term of endearment when he got to like Conn despite himself. In the second book, Conn makes a huge mistake and ends up having to leave home. When the wizard calls him `boy’ in a letter, that’s when Conn knows he’s forgiven.

    1. That sounds pretty cool. I like it when an author can pull off something like that–have the reader just know something is true without having to say it outright.

  3. Honestly Tia, on the second scene, I forgot all about Briggs. I was so focused on Brad and his boss that Briggs ceased to exist.

    When you brought him back up in your question, I had to scroll up to find out who the heck Briggs was. Even then I didn’t get a sense of presence. As far as I know he was stationed outside the door. As soon as you stated that he took up his position, he had as much importance to me as a coatrack.

    Now if you had Brad look nervously over his shoulder at Briggs or had Peterson glance at or say, give him a mysterious nod, Briggs could have remained inactive, but still a part of the scene, effectively killing the intimacy of the conversation. Instead, name calling or not, I felt like was witnessing a tightly focused convo between 2 individuals. Maybe not intimate in a true sense but it was definitely personal.

    But I’m not a writer either :>P

    1. Maybe I snipped this scene too closely around Haley and Brad. Briggs is definitely a major person in this scene, and Brad does look at Briggs nervously before all hell breaks loose. Next time, I’ll go ahead and use a longer example.

  4. Well, I feel the intimacy between the characters in the first example to a degree I don’t in the second example. It doesn’t feel like they know each other as well. I can’t guarantee that’s just because of using names more, but I suspect that helps. {Smile}

    There’s tension in both scenes, but different kinds of tension. {Smile}

    1. Hmm. I don’t know if I’m succeeding or not. But it appears my approach is not hurting anything, either. 🙂

      1. I honestly think you’re onto something, but the idea needs refinement. How you use names means something, as does which name you use. {thoughtful pause}

        The first outtake is good. It’s nice and intimate, and when they bother to use names at all, it’s first names, which is what we’d expect between brother and sister. {Smile}

        The second outtake, tho… Either I’ve got a little culture clash, or it’s not quite there yet. If “Briggs,” “Peterson,” and “Haley” are last names, I’d expect them to be preceded by “Mister” (or “Mr.” of course) unless Mr. Haley is deliberately leaving them off to remind the others that he’s the boss, and they’re the ones he’s bossing. Even then, that would be when Mr. Haley speaks their names, not in narration. {pause} If one of them is black, using last names without “Mr.” in front is more understandable, but even then, narration might not follow speech.

        Now maybe I’m wrong — I don’t have the best view of the story — but that’s my impression from this little snippet. I do like the scene as far as it goes. {Smile}

        1. Again, I think I needed a longer snip. Haley is their boss, and definitely addresses his subordinates (both other men in the room) by their last names. Since I wrote the scene from his POV, I used the last names only. It probably would have been the same way from Brad’s point-of-view, because Haley is his boss and he would not know Briggs’s first name. Briggs is black.

          In general, I got the impression that people did not move to a first-name basis as quickly as they do in modern times.

          1. I can understand that, Tia. It’s just… calling a man by only his last name isn’t the same as calling him “Mr, [Lastname].” At least here in Hawai’i, calling someone “Mr. Briggs” or “Mr. Haley” is a sign of respectful distance. Calling them “Briggs” and or “Haley,” is a sign that the speaker is black, in the military, or both. Because everyone else – including a lot of local ex-military – will use a title of some kind before a man’s last name. If he’s not a “Mister Briggs,” it’s because he’s “Doctor Briggs,” or “Reverend Briggs,” or “The Right Honorable Briggs,” etc. instead. {Smile}

            (This does hold for women we want to show respect for, too, but specifying men saved me from having to type out “Miss/Ms./Mrs.” a few times.)

            (Also, you’re right that this was more common in earlier times. Working-age adults tend to be on a first-name basis, tho we still tend to call retirees, some professionals, and near-retirement Orientals title-lastname.

            Oh, and if it’s different in Florida, then they’ll follow the conventions of the area they live in. If it is, a little comment mentioning this would help me understand. (Of course it would never happen to be in a snippet like this; I’m just thinking about the story as a whole. {Smile}


            1. Aah, at last I understand! I’m glad you specified that this may be regional differences. Here in the south, I never noticed blacks using social titles differently from anyone else. They must have different customs in Hawaii? I agree with you about the military–I was called by my last name the whole time I was in. That will be the same no matter where the duty station is.

              In these modern times, we still use social titles in the South. Children are taught to use “Miss” or “Mister” followed by either a first or last name, depending on how casual you want to be. Children call me “Miss Tia”. Even adults do, sometimes, especially with greetings. “Why, hello Miss Tia!” It does not matter that I am married–I am Miss Tia. My doctor and his staff call me Mrs. Nevitt.

              When I lived in Arizona, no one ever used social titles–not even children.

              According to my research of period fiction and what reference material I could find, by the 20s, which is when this part of the story takes place, the world is starting to move away from social titles. St. Augustine is a cosmopolitan little town in the 20s, but only among its wealthier citizens–of which my little cast of characters is NOT a part.

              I eventually settled on these loose rules. My main source was The Great Gatsby, which was written just a year before and in a similar sort of resort-town setting. I erred on the conservative side because the locale is in the south.

              * anyone newly acquainted, or those doing business with each other–title and last name
              * men who are well acquainted–last name only.
              * a man and a woman who are acquainted–title and last name
              * women who are acquainted–first name
              * anyone who are good friends–first name
              * female bosses would address subordinates by first names; male bosses would address subordinates by last names. Males over females would–most of the time–use title and last name.

              In the second excerpt, I was going to estrangement, not intimacy, and Haley is definitely the sort of guy who would keep people at a distance by using their last names.

              Fascinating discussion.

              1. This is a neat discussion because I’m really fascinated by all the little regional cultural differences we have within the same country. I also think there are differences depending on the type of community, even within the same geographic area. Like I live in a rural community, and children and adults both call adults by their first names…but some people I know from the suburbs make their children call me Mrs. Lovett (which feels really weird). It’s all southwest Ohio, but there’s a definite difference.

  5. Interesting that the rural community is more informal than the suburbs!

  6. I live in a rural community where titles are very much in evidence. But mainly for women. Take a look at obituaries some time. I can give you a pretty good guess as to who is rural and/or elderly simply by how an obit is listed.

    If I see Mrs. Albert Smith, I can predict with almost complete certainty the lady in question is rural, elderly and was married for longer than I’ve been alive.

    If the obit lists her as Mrs. Mabel Smith, it could go either way but age range drops slightly.

    However if it is Ms (or no title) Mabel Green-Smith, survived by her husband, Albert Smith, I go even lower in age, add in professional and throw in city born and bred. Then I feel really bad for them because their parents passed on some very old-fashioned traditional family names. (Albert and Mabel being 75+ for example is normally a pretty safe bet.)

    Nicknames can be another clue. George “Bubba” Jones. Ya just don’t see too many Bubba’s in corporate America yanno.

    It isn’t foolproof but it tickles me how often I get it right (I look at the name, guess, then read the obit itself. And yes, occasionally I have way too much time on my hands.)

    Now me, I wouldn’t be caught dead letting myself be defined by who I married. (catch the pun?)

    1. I think it was a matter of pride, back then. Women were very much aware of the value of their “catch” in those days. Mrs. Andrew Carnegie would have significant incentive to use her husband’s name, as opposed to Mrs. Leroy Smith. Unless Leroy had distinguished himself.

      I am not at all surprised at how often you can get it right. The traditions for social titles have been chipped away at over the years. “Mrs. Albert Smith” was rare among newlyweds by the 80s (when I got married), and my mother, who married it in the 60s, stopped using that form by the time I was old enough to notice.

      1. Actually, the way my parents tell it, there’s a significant incentive for Mrs. Leroy Smith to use her husband’s name fully, especially into the 1960’s. Mrs. Leroy Smith was either Leroy’s wife or his widow. Mrs. Mary Smith was a divorcee, because the act of divorcing made her lose the right to use her ex-husband’s first name. Both wives and widows were more respectable than divorcees. This changed around the late sixties and early seventies. {Smile}

        I mention this in part because I know you’re working on time travel, Tia, so it might just come in handy. {Smile}

        Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

        1. That is consistent with my experience. I would not have been old enough to notice until about 1975, but I guess I should have just said so!

          In the 20s, Mrs. Leroy Smith would definitely prevail.

          1. I wasn’t likely to notice anything until a little later than that. However, I noticed that the Hilo Woman’s Club has pictures of Past Presidents on the wall, each with a name underneath. Every one was “Mrs. Husband’s Name” until Mrs. Daisy U. Smith took office (in the late sixties, I think). After that, everyone was “Mrs. Own Name,” just like Miss Daisy. When I pointed this out to Mom, I got this explanation. After a few repeats, I actually remembered the explanation well enough, I didn’t need to ask again. {Smile, wink}


  7. Oh, this is a great post! I completely agree with you, too. I hate it when the perfect intimate scene is completely ruined by the overuse of names. No one really addresses their loved ones by name so often, especially when it’s just two people talking.

    1. When my husband says my name, I know I’ve said somthing kinda stupid. Otherwise, he uses endearments–which must be used sparingly as well.

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