Psychic Distance is a concept which John Gardner explores in his book The Art of Fiction, and I think it’s absolutely crucial, not difficult to understand, and not nearly talked about enough. You’ll also find it called Narrative Distance because, basically, it’s about where the narrative (and therefore the reader) stands, relative to a character. Another way of thinking of it is how far the reader is taken, by the narrator, inside the character’s head. Gardner breaks it down thus:
- It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
- Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
- Henry hated snowstorms.
- God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
- Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul
And since sometimes it’s hard to see how this can equally well apply in first person, and to a less realist project, I’ve done a version which does both. Watch how in this version still has a sense of narrator, and a character, but this time they just happen to be the same persona:
- In the far-off days of Uther Pendragon, witches stalked the earth.
- Every village had its witch, and we feared or consulted her according to how desperate we were.
- When I was a child Mistress Margit frightened me, and when she walked down the street the big ones would shout “Here comes Old Margit!”, while I hid and crossed myself.
- And here came Old Margit, with her ragged clothes and her big black cat, and I shivered and prayed because St Mary would save me, wouldn’t she?
- Margit’s coming and her cloak like little demons dancing and what’ll I do – mustn’t catch her eye – hide in the ditch cold and wet but Black Peter will see me – Mother Mary save me, he’ll look at you and then Margit can see into your mind and plant demons in there and…
Obviously it’s really a spectrum, not separate stages, but you can see what this is about, can’t you?
1) is remote and objective. It has a nice ‘Once upon a time’ feel to it but doesn’t give us any sense of one or more particular characters in the story as a person with thoughts and feelings: a consciousness. It tells us a lot about where we are and what’s happening, but if it stays at this level we might not care much about this person, and it limits the writer’s scope for exploring how he experiences the world and himself. It’s the subtitle across the beginning of the film that locates us.
2) is bringing in some particulars: the narrator is telling us (informing us) about a place, and an individual and their emotions. Think of it as a wide-angle shot of a village, or a voice-over.
3) is more particular, more personalised still: the narrator’s voice is beginning to show us (evoke for us) the particular character and their experience. This is, to quote James Wood’s How Fiction Works, “standard realist narrative”: in other words, the predominant mode of the vast majority of fiction: the narrator is in control, taking us into the experience of this world and that of individual characters and quoting speech directly. A medium shot where we can identify individuals.
4) is beginning to colour the voice of the narrator with the the vocabulary and point-of-view of the character. Shorthand for this is that we’re going further into the character’s head, courtesy of free indirect style, as invented by Jane Austen: “God how he hated … ” and “St Mary would save me, wouldn’t she?”. But, of course, we’re losing touch with anything that the character doesn’t see or think, or any other ways of saying it. In a movie – which can’t go inside heads – we could see a face, and try to read what it’s feeling.
5) is tight close-up and subjective: almost a brain download, with thoughts and sensory information all jumbled up. In Wood’s terms this is stream of conciousness. The character’s voice is wholly present and the narrator’s voice has faded out. It’s extremely expressive of this person’s character and situation. But if we stay at this level we may never understand what’s going on, and it limits the writer’s scope for moving between different characters and their consciousness.
Gardner’s point is not that one is better than the other, or that you have to stick to only one. Indeed, it would be a mistake if you did; it can make the piece very monotonous, specially if you stick at the (1)-(2) end. Just as good novels have a rhythm of action and reflection, so they have a rhythm of intimacy and distance. So I’ve extended Gardner’s concept to think in terms of the psychic range of a piece, from the closest to the furthest that it covers. And that’s why it’s important to be able to spot (roughly) what the psychic distance is at any one point. If you understand the possibilities of the different distances to control the reader’s involvement with the character and the story, then you’ll not only be training your instinct for when to stand back and when to close in, but you’ll also get better at spotting and fixing things when they’re not working.
My own lightbulb moment about this stuff happened when I saw that John Gardner’s Psychic Distance fits beautifully with Showing and Telling, (or as I like to call it, Informing and Evoking): Gardner’s (1) is the Telliest Tell, his (5) is the Showiest Show. And they both fit together with James Wood’s dissection of the different modes of narrative, and with another fascinating discussion by David Jauss: “From Long-Shots to X-rays” (that’s the full article: do read it.)
And notice, too, that although the character’s voice starts coming through as we get closer in to their head in the (4) and (5) sort of levels, the narrative has its own voice however “distant” the long-shot is. What could be stronger than In the far-off days of Uther Pendragon, witches stalked the earth? I’ve blogged more about voice here: the important thing for this post is to understand that fiction is polyvocal. Different voices – the narrator’s and the characters’ – combine to make the narrative, interpenetrating each other to different degrees depending on the psychic distance at that moment.
It’s also helpful to bear in mind that jumping straight from, say, (1) to (5), may risk leaving the reader behind. If you wrote: It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul, there’d be nothing to tell the reader that the man we were shown stepping from a doorway is the same as this person with snow down his (her?) neck. Competent readers will make the assumption, but everything they read till their assumption is confirmed is, as it were, provisional, and means they can’t be so involved with the story. Other readers, not feeling secure in the world of the story and the line of the narrative, may give up. So be aware of this: either work your way by stages from, say, (1) to (3) to (5), or make sure you give the reader some handholds, so that you keep them with you at all times.
Understanding psychic distance is also the key to working with a moving point of view. It’s obvious that even if you limit your narrative to a single point of view, how far inside your character’s head you take the reader will vary. If your third-person narrative moves between several points-of-view within a chapter, say, then you have to start coping with the transitions. Many beginner writers are guilty of of “head-hopping”, which is switching points-of-view too often and too abruptly. But it’s not necessarily that the transitions happen too often (though it may be, and some teachers and editors are very doctrinaire about it), but that you haven’t handled them properly. Handle them properly, and you’ll find that said teachers and editors may not even notice, let alone disapprove. If you want to know more, have a look at my post on Moving Point of View, which is part of the big series on Narrators and Point of View.
So, next time you’re reading some fiction, have a look at how the author handles psychic distance: what range they use, and how and why they move to and fro within the range. Have a think about how that affects the way you experience the piece. If it’s told from more than one point-of-view, how do the transitions between different points of view interact with the psychic distance? Doing this will help to train your intuition about this stuff for your own work. And if you want an example of a lovely story which is pure 5, Jane Gardam’s ‘The Great, Grand Soap-Water Kick’, in her collection The Sidmouth Letters, is pure joy. But it’s not an easy trick to pull off.
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