Rethinking Your Story: What’s Your Favorite “Vicarious” Ride?

The Fourth in a Series on What Elevates a Story to Greatness

Wanted: Your Input

Some of you — many of you — are asking for examples of vicarious storytelling, and how this differentiates from, well, less than vicarious storytelling.

The mystery genre is a great example of storytelling that doesn’t particularly rely on the vicarious nature of the reading experience for its impact.  A killer mystery fascinates and challenges us, but it’s a stretch to say they it thrusts us into the role of the gumshoe or that of the victim or, especially, the perp.  We observe these stories, as opposed to really feeling them, and what we see there is the stuff of greatness.  Or not.

Thrillers, on the other hand, do depend on a vicarious reading experience. 

We may or may not overtly wonder what it would be like to face the impending darkness and danger threatening the characters, but to whatever extent we feel their fear and the weight of forthcoming consequences is the degree to which the thriller works.  Or not.

Remember Silence of the Lambs?  Chances are you felt the terror of that girl in the basement.  That was a vicarious ride.

So… You are invited to share you favorite “vicarious” stories, either novels or movies. 

The criteria isn’t how good the story is, or what genre it’s from, just how “vicarious” it is.  There is a difference between them, and that’s the point.  The more you understand that difference, the more empowered you will be to optimize them both.

For an introduction to this topic, read yesterday’s post (either below, or here).  Check out the comments, too, that’ll help clarify.

There are several qualities that can elevate a story to greatness, and the delivery of a vicarious ride is just one of them. 

Need an example of a story that wasn’t particularly vicarious, yet was very successful?

How about The Sixth Sense, the 1999 shocker from M. Night Shyamalan starring Bruce Willis.  It was interesting, certainly, it made you guess, but it didn’t really make you want to become that character, or one of the bit players.  You didn’t wonder what it would be like to be Bruce Willis in this story, you simply looked on, in this case with $600 million worth of viewer curiousity. 

You tried to figure it all out.  And when the ending came, you gasped out loud.  But it wasn’t vicarious, it was more like putting together a puzzle.

The more that a context of observation applies to a story, versus one of what-if-that-was me?, the less vicarious it is.

So think hard and share your favorites. 

It can be a tough concept to wrap one’s head around, so the more brains we get on this one, the better.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

23 Responses to Rethinking Your Story: What’s Your Favorite “Vicarious” Ride?

  1. Steve

    I’ll go for an obvious one, The Shining. One of my favortie movies and a terrifying book. Room 217! Don’t go in there.

    For me the experience was perhaps a little more vicarious than for others since I live in Denver, have been to the Stanley Hotel (my cousin got married there and Estes Park is an easy get away for us in CO) and know exactly how it feels to be snowed in. I’ve got chills right now. On a side note Bertha Lynn a local news anchor who is on the television in the background in the original movie, is someone I still bump into from time to time (she has no idea who I am but she’s a very recognizable local celebrity).

    The book and both of the movies do a great job of telling the story (well so much for going to sleep now).

    Attempt at humor to ease my fear: Danny wasn’t writing murder backwards, he was trying to spell “Bedroom” with a “U” and didn’t close out the “B.” See, everythings ok.

    This is a very helpful series Larry.

  2. Most recently, I thought The Hurt Locker provided a great vicarious experience. I found myself feeling frustrated at the new cowboy bomb technician and white knuckled waiting for the bomb in the car to detonate. I asked myself several times during the movie whether I would be able to handle these situations. I think the pacing, which was much slower than most action movies, and resulting tension were key to the vicarious experience.

  3. Lisa Miller

    I’ve been watching movies to study the story structure. Hotel Rowanda and District 9 both swept me away with the main character’s experiences.
    A book that did that lately was The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Several of the characters had experiences that grip the reader with outrage and empathy.

    Great series Larry. Keep it coming.

  4. Vicarious storytelling works particularly well for children and teens. How many children, teenagers and even adults asked themselves “What would it be like to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?” For me, the Harry Potter books and movies were not so much about “Fantasy meets Boarding School” as an Egmont editorial assistant claimed during a Twitter chat last week, but about the vicarious thrills and spills of life as a wizard-in-training.

  5. That’s easy, the Star Wars movies. As a kid I tried to summon the force on countless occasions (and still secretely want to be a Jedi).

  6. Larry, this series is great. It finally clicked for me yesterday that this is what I’ve heard in workshops called “writing a bigger book”.

    As far as my recommendations, I second @Lia on the Harry Potter books, and again, anything in Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooters series. For movies, Pirates of the Caribbean.

  7. Joan of Arc. The Power of One. Both afforded the thrill of one person having the guts to make a difference around them. Helped me gather courage to do the same. I’m with Lisa M. This series is stretching us. Thanks.

  8. Martha Miller

    Okay, I’m starting to get this . . . and you’ve already mentioned the movie I was going to suggest: Jurassic Park. How about citing a thriller novel you think fulfills the requirement? “Whisper of the Seventh Thunder” had me in its clutches throughout for sure. I’m reading “Shutter Island” right now (Lehane did something right–they made that one into a movie) but a vicarious experience is not what I’d call the book. “The Shining” as a novel scared the s**t out of me, and I’ve studied it trying to figure out how King did it. This post of yours cracked open my head a bit, so I’m hoping a future post might include some how-to-do-it suggestions–HOW to make a novel more of a vicarious experience for the reader (sensory and specific, telling details?)
    Keep up the great work, Larry. Storyfix is a unique blog that is well worth reading.

  9. Monica Rodriguez

    I’m afraid I’m a little blocked at the moment on titles, but I wanted to let you know how helpful this series is, Larry. Keep it up!

  10. I mentioned a few TV dramas on the previous post. I guess for clarity I’d have to divide the films, books and TV dramas I like into three categories:
    ~those where I have deep empathy for the characters and care what happens but wouldn’t like to be there,
    ~those where I wish I could be a supporting character because I love the arena and know the characters so well I wish I could be in there helping them,
    ~and those that make me feel I could be the character.

    Can’t give you any examples right now because so many came to mind, it fried my brain!

  11. Great input from all, thanks so much for sharing. Harry Potter is maybe the consummate vicarious ride; I can’t even remember the plots, just the arena and the ride.

    In writing this I realize that it’s the primary driver of my story creation process, especially immediately as I engage in “ideation” — the evolution of an idea into a concept. Before I get to the “what if?” stage of conceptualization, I realize I began with, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” then fill in some experiential adventure.

    In my first book: wouldn’t it be cool to meet the absolute perfect woman, the one you never dreamed you’d get to meet? Then I added the dark “what if” — “what if she really was too good to be true and I found myself trapped in something that could take me down?” Result: USA Today bestseller.

    In my last book it began rather thematically — wouldn’t it be scary, interesting, bizarre and meaningful if suddenly you (me) found yourself the pawn in a war between good and evil, and everything — EVERYTHING — depended on what you decided?

    Thanks for listening. No matter how long I do this stuff it continues to evolve and clarify and excite.

  12. nancy

    I’m reading The Help. Eugenia wants to publish, but her editor needs a killer concept. Her arena is Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960’s, and she decides to interview her friends’ maids to disclose the experience of domestics 100 years after emancipation. The wealthy South is a foreign setting for me, but she draws me in.
    To gain the maids’ trust, she guarantees anonymity, as they could get sacked. Can she keep this promise? At every clandestine meeting, I fear someone will observe Eugenia driving into the ghetto. I fear that she will leave her interview notes where someone can see them. If found out, the maids will be black listed and unemployable. They have kids with dreams—it’s the 60’s when servants were allowed to dream. My vicarious feeling comes from knowing the urgency to create and publish and the worry of my friends discovering they are flawed characters in my book. It also comes from the fear of being fired and of unfair treatment, as well as from having kids with dreams. The biggest vicarious fear for me–and all of the characters–is having someone blab your secret.

  13. Well, I just have read and commented on the last post, touting one of my favorite authors, Adriana Trigiani, but this post, and the responses, caused me to remember the insanely vicarious ride that Margaret Atwood took us on in Year of the Flood. Oryx and Crake, the prelude to YotF, was a great read, but while reading it I didn’t even think of what it would feel like to be in that world, whereas with YotF, I really felt I was in that world, and wondered “what would I do?”
    Super series Larry that has really helped me get a better grip on the novel I’m writing, and what I can do to improve it. Thanks so much!

  14. And another Margaret Atwood — The Handmaid’s Tale….

  15. Neuropath by R. Scott Baker. This book is the reason I don’t read horror anymore. It completely wigged me out – I don’t want images, like the ones he painted, in my head.

    An aside: I started a website called – It’s dedicated to the study of film from the screenwriters point-of-view. I aim to post two movie deconstructions per week according to accepted story structure principals. I hope the readers of storyfix will join me 🙂

  16. Martijn

    The Matrix series, Star Wars ofcourse, Lord of the Rings. Books? Hyperion, Potter, what about His Dark Materials by Pullman. Best fantasy I ever read…

  17. I love the vicarious journey that Krakouer takes us on in Into Thin Air. You feel as though you are climbing the mountain, yet you are in the comfort of your our easy chair.

    The same with the adventure in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. You experience the ships’ battles with the waves as though you are in them yourselves, but really you are at home on the couch. I particularly loved how he described drowning in that book. You could almost feel it.

    I love the Man vs. Nature themed books. They really lend themselves to vicarious writing.

  18. @Farmgirl – I love that you’ve brought non-fiction into this discussion. Vicarious writing is as powerful there as it is in the best of fiction. You mention Krakauer… this is his genius. I just finished his Tillman book, “Where Men Win Glory,” and it immerses the reader into relationships, into family, and into war, more viscerally than, perhaps, any book I’ve ever read. Thanks for contributing here!

  19. @Martijn — fantasy and sci-fi depends, almost totally, on the vicarious experience, much more so than mysteries. As previously mentioned, Harry Potter is a great example – the plot is almost moot, anything that gets us into that schoolyard will the trick — as are the stories you’ve mentioned. Take us out of our own world and plunk into another place, time, culture, environment – think Avatar – and you’re being vicarious.

  20. Stockdalelady

    Why has no one put Twilight up here?? I practically AM Bella. How did she (Stephanie Meyer) do it??? And (most) every woman out there feels like she’s Bella too, no matter what type of relationship she’s in or her age; that doesn’t seem to make a difference. This is a great new concept Larry, thanks!

  21. Trish

    A little late to the party…
    I have to agree about Into Thin Air – held my breath through huge chunks of that one and dreamed about it to boot. Also thought Lonesome Dove (both the movie and the book) had a “put you there” feel to it. On the YA end, I’d have to say Laurie Halse Anderson can really make you feel like you’re in high school (not that anyone wants to go through that again).
    🙂 I also think David McCullough does an amazing job of painting historical figures in a way that makes the reader feel like they know them….

    Great discussion, Larry.

  22. Kurt

    I found Kelly Jarosz’s comment intriguing, as I found The Hurt Locker to be an excellent example of vicarious storytelling, but from the polar opposite perspective.

    I found myself completely identifying with the cowboy bomb technician. I was totally there, in his head, when he removed his gloves and headgear to defuse the bomb. The mentality being, ‘if this bomb goes off while I’m standing over it this suit isn’t going to do a damn thing to protect me, so what purpose does it serve beyond increasing the chance of me making a mistake while performing the extremely delicate operation to disarm it?’

    I mean, the suit serves a purpose on the approach (and later retreat), but once you’re up there, why would you continue wearing it? It’s far more a liability than an asset. Is the ILLUSION of protection that important?

    Anyhow, perhaps that’s why the film was so engaging. Regardless of the perspective you take watching it, when he tugs the spiderweb of wires revealing the daisy chain of IED’s surrounding him, EVERYONE is right there with him.

  23. @Kurt — agree completely. The Hurt Locker is terrific example of vicarious storytelling at its best. That quality and essence is precisely why the movie got the Oscar, and why critics love it. Some viewers actually wonder what the fuss is all about, because the story doesn’t have a strong plot, it’s almost entirely relying on the experiential nature of the story. The way you describe it here captures what works about this story, it plugs you right into the moment. Well said, thanks for contributing.