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Psychic Distance: how terrific writers actually use it

You won't read This Itch of Writing for long without coming across my conviction that Psychic Distance - a.k.a. Narrative Distance - is the most useful way there is of working with point-of-view, voice, the insides of character's heads, the reader's feeling for those characters, the relationship of characters and narrative ... about 75% of your job in writing a novel or life writing piece, in other words. Pyschic Distance week on the current Self-Editing Course has, as ever, lit a galaxy of lightbulbs in the participants, but I've realised we could do with some more examples of how it works out, in practice, in really good writing. So here they are - and if you're not sure what I mean by "internal" and "external" narrator, just click those links.


Internal Narrator:

My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me. I was Mrs Sucksby’s child, if I was anyone’s, and for father I had Mr Ibbs, who kept the locksmith’s shop, at Lant Street, in the Borough, near to the Thames.

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith, (London: Virago, 2003) p.3

External Narrator:

The gardens of Lambourne House ran down to the north bank of the River Cam. The previous owner, Mr Whichcote’s great-uncle, had built the elegant pavilion there; its tall windows had a fine prospect over the water, with Jesus Green and Midsummer Common beyond. On the ground floor was a loggia where one could sit and take the air on fine afternoons. The pavilion seemed far removed from the bustle of Cambridge, though in fact Mr Essex’s Great Bridge into the town was only a few hundred yards away in one direction, and the gaol in the castle gatehouse a few hundred yards in another.

Andrew Taylor, The Anatomy of Ghosts (London: Penguin, 2011) p.75


Internal Narrator:

Lying awake from midnight until half past three and then going out in the moonlight with a bottle of gin to try and get another Rumpler [German plane]. Waiting with the mechanics till the first streaks of light showed down on the horizon, watching the Handley Pages coming back from some night raid. Like great cathedrals, two Rolls Eagles, seven hundred and fifty horsepower and four men in them. The heavy dew upon my flying boots, the gin in my mouth. Contact, and the men swinging on the prop, the swish and crackle, the spitting back, the blipping till she warmed [...] The ground fire, much worse than before. Machine guns everywhere, all spitting flame at me. God this is bad. Must, must keep low. They hit, several times, but not me.

  Nevil Shute, The Rainbow and the Rose, (London: Heinemann, 1958) p.101-2

External Narrator:

Thinking no harm, for the family would not come, never again, some said, and the house would be sold at Michaelmas perhaps, Mrs. McNab stooped and picked a bunch of flowers to take home with her [...] There it had stood all these years without a soul in it. The books and things were mouldy for, what with the war and help being hard to get, the house had not been cleaned as she could have wished. It was beyond one person’s strength to get it straight now [...] This had been the nursery. Why it was all damp in here; the plaster was falling. Whatever did they want to hang a beast’s skull there for? gone mouldy too. And rats in all the attics. The rain came in. But they never sent; never came. Some of the locks had gone, so the doors banged. She didn’t like to be up here at dusk alone neither. It was too much for one woman, too much, too much.

  Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse (1927) (London: Penguin 1992) p.147-9

Have you noticed the relative publication dates of my examples? I didn't choose them for that, but they demolish the idea that stepping back to narrate from a distance is automatically "old-fashioned", and it's automatically "modern" to get close in. Good writers have always done both, giving the text energy and dynamism by mixing things up and moving to and fro. Good writers know, too, that far-out may well mean Telling in a good way, and far-in may well mean Showing (same link!) also in a good way, but that it's not nearly as simple as that. And here are some of my favourite examples of how gloriously un-simple it can be:

FAR-OUT TO CLOSE-IN and other mixtures

External Narrator:

New Year 1529: Stephen Gardiner is in Rome, issuing certain threats to Pope Clement, on the king’s behalf; the content of the threats has not been divulged to the cardinal. Clement is easily panicked at the best of times, and it is not surprising that, with Master Stephen breathing sulphur in his ear, he falls ill. They are saying that he is likely to die, and the cardinal’s agents are around and about in Europe, taking soundings and counting heads, chinking their purses cheerfully. There would be a swift solution to the king’s problem, if Wolsey were Pope. He grumbles a little about his possible eminence; the cardinal loves his country, its May garlands, its tender birdsong. In his nightmares he sees squat spitting Italians, a forest of nooses, a corpse-strewn plain.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009) (London: Fourth Estate) p.142

Internal Narrator:

Glasgow Empire. Prince’s, Edinburgh. Royalty, Perth. Freeze off a girls’ bum, the winters up there. Somebody threw a grouse on stage, once, as a gesture of appreciation. Not even a pair. That was in Aberdeen. Tight as arseholes, in Aberdeen.

We pounded the boards like nobody’s business because, by that time, Perry had lost all his moolah in the Wall Street crash, every red cent, and couldn’t keep up his contributions any more, so it was just as well we girls could earn our living because after that we had to.

When he came to say goodbye, it was by tram. Lo, how the mighty have fallen. No cab softly ticking away on the kerb, this time ... Not that we cared. We only thought how much we’d miss him. We sat on the arms of his chair, one on each side, and watched him eat his buttered crumpets, too down at heart to eat anything ourselves.

Angela Carter, Wise Children (1991) (London: Chatto & Windus) p.94

For more close-up attention to how writing works, click through to An Education in Writing, about Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day, or Straight Proof: what any of us can learn from Dick Francis.