Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on 10th March
Your words & your story live in your head: how to stay there

Psychic Distance: not just long-shot, but wide-angle, not just close-up, but narrow-beam

When Debi Alper or I are trying to explain Psychic Distance (which we very often are, since it can make such a spectacular difference to someone's writing), we often use the analogy of a film camera. We start with John Gardner's examples, which take the same moment in a story and re-tell it at five separate points on the psychic distance spectrum, and unpack them thus: 

1) It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.

is like a long-shot: we can't discern much about the man. If we were even further away, depending on the period we might not even know the gender from the outline.

2) Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.

we say, is getting a bit closer: we have some data about this man, but it is data, the narrator is in charge and is informing us. It's like being able to see the broad outlines of his body-language, and perhaps read the brass plate on door of his office.

3) Henry hated snowstorms.

ah, now we have something which is beginning to evoke a sense of the man himself: a first name, and a direct, emotion-coloured verb. It's as if we can read from his face that he's not happy, and feel in ourselves some kind of response to his emotion.

4) God how he hated these damn snowstorms.

And here's Henry's voice, with its angry inflexion and the swear-word: where in prose we're using Free Indirect Style, in a film we'd actually hear him saying this, or be in close-up and be able to read the changing, complex expressions. This is the level, it seems to me, where we might start to feel some kind of real, mirror-neurone emotional connection with this character. 

5) Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul

And this, Debi and I suggest, is where we writers can go that film can't. This evokes the inside Henry's mind and body: it's like a download of both thought and physical experience - a stream of his consciousness, the literary critics would label it.

It's all true, and it's the reason that psychic distance week on our course Self-Editing Your Novel (coming up for 200 graduates) is possibly the single biggest light-bulb-switcher-on of any teaching that we do. It's possible (though a bit limiting) to write never needing the furthest out level, but much harder to get people to enjoy your writing if you don't use the close-in levels to evoke the real experience of the characters. So in working with writers, I'm much more often saying "Exploit closer-in" than "You need more further-out stuff". 

But now I want to propose a different way of thinking about psychic distance, because this is just as true: 

1) It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.

This is a whole picture: a world. It's not just a long-shot: much more importantly it's a wide-angle. Here is context, understanding, the bigger picture, the larger story.

2) Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.

Still pretty wideangle: the full name places him as a person and we know something about his overall tastes in weather, not just how he's feeling this moment. What's more, the voice of the sentence establishes some of the narrator's voice: we have a wider sense, beyond this sentence, of how this piece is going to work, how this story is going to be told.

3) Henry hated snowstorms.

So? Where are we? What's this all about? Who's Henry? Yes, of course, it's information of a sort, but as a reader we don't really know what to do with it. We don't know who Henry is, so are we supposed to hate the snowstorm, or think he's being a neurotic kill-joy? And because it's such a plain statement, we no longer feel the informative support of the narrator explaining things and giving us the context.

4) God how he hated these damn snowstorms.

It's a cross man in a snowstorm but who - what - when - where - why?  Now we really don't know where we are, or how we're to take this information and make sense of it. 

5) Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul

All right, I give up. I have no idea what's going on. Who is this? It appears to be someone who at the moment doesn't like snow. Man, woman, child or animal? And where are they - and hence where am I? Are they right, or are they missing the joy of snow? Someone give me some anchors quickly, or I'll give up trying to work things out in this story, and go back to Harry Potter.

I'm not very serious, obviously: I wouldn't, personally want to do without any part of the psychic distance spectrum. But I do want to make the point that it's not a given that closer-in  is automatically better, any more than it's a given that showing is always better than telling. For a start, you need both because the changes of psychic distance, the changes from evoking to informing and back, make a huge difference to how dynamic the story feels.

And of course readers have had centuries of practice at intuitively, unconsciously doing the math: at deducing the information they need from the evocation that the writer gives them. One reason for the informative, explainy, telly authorial narrator of the 19th and 20th centuries is that readers (especially that sizeable group who were being read to) had less experience in sorting out the what and how of understanding this story. Modern readers may not need much help to to do the math, but they do need something to start from: some anchors, some context, some information, some help.

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