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Susannah Rickards

Thank you for this terminology. I have for so long been using omniscient, third person multiple, third person close viewpoint, first person to describe psychic distance, aware that it had its gaps and flaws as a set of distinctions. Just tonight in class a student was struggling with these terms. Think I'll introduce psychic distance next week as it's both clearer and more flexible.

Emma Darwin

I think it's great - as I've said before, I don't understand which it never seems to have got far beyond Gardner's book, although so much else of his seems to have spread far and wide.

I am brewing a post on narrators, mind you...

Susan Woodring

Love this--I'm posting a link to my blog.

Thank you for this!!

Barbara Baig

Thanks, Emma! This is such a clear explanation of a key concept.

In Twyla Tharp's book, "The Creative Habit," she talks about something she calls "focal length," which is the distance from which an artist (any kind) views the world. Some, she says, see the world from a great distance (the photographer Ansel Adams, for instance); others prefer arm's length (her example is the choreographer Jerry Robbins); other see everything in close-up (Raymond Chandler).And she says that each artist's preferred focal length is part of our "creative DNA" and something we can't change!

If this is true, then perhaps as writers we each have an instinctive liking for one or two of Garner's levels of psychic distance because that's how we see the world?

There's so much talk these days about writers having to find their "voice." But what about each writer having to articulate a vision of the world?

Season Harper-Fox

I love this! I've been teaching my students about psychic distance for quite a while now, and those who truly get it experience light bulb moments - aha! It's great to see. I'm always searching for different approaches to clarify for them, and ran into your article a while back. I've got you bookmarked. Lots of exploring to do yet.

Janet Burroway discusses psychic distance in Writing Fiction, by the way, but in different terms. She calls it filtering.

Emma Darwin

Susan, you're welcome

Barbar, that's so fascinating, and explains a lot - and I love both Ansel Adams and Chandler. Maybe it also explains why one writer is 'chilly, distant, airless' for one reader, and 'compellingly cool and observant' for another reader.

Season. Isn't it lovely when the penny drops? And it does so easily because it's not nearly as slippery a concept as point-of-view, for example. I must get hold of the Burroway book - so many people have recommended it.

Bren Gosling

I like this concept of an artists "vision of the world" - and would agree that probably one is drawn to writing stories from ones own particular stance. The Garner Psychic distance "scale" is useful for writers like me who like using close observation third person POV alot of the time and multiple view points. In working on my current novel -Sweeping up the Village- about an immigrant London street sweeper's atempts to break from his past and build himself a new life I seem to have settled on primarily two different close third POV's - my protagonist's and the other main character of the story who eventually becomes his lover. I started out with using the POV of some of the other(minor characters) too, sometimes within the same scene or chapter...when I workshopped these early drafts commentators were divided about whether it was acceptable or not to have different POV's so juxtaposed. Convention says not to do this, usually...BUT what I then went onto do was to give each character's POV a free reign within seperate chapters of their own.Ive largely stuck to this, however now I am approaching the rewrite - begining to end - sometimes I am allowing the POV of two characters (but not more than two) within a single scene - this I feel can work very effectively to show the reader how the actions/ behaviour of one character impacts upon the other...usually the majority of the scene is written in the CLOSE THIRD POV of the character who got most at stake emotionally at that particular point and there might just be a paragraph or two at the end of the scene to show whats going on for the 2nd character. In this way the reader (I hope) will be left on even a more precipitous level and with a greater appetite to know then how this conflict of emotions will play out and if it will be resolved.Does this make sense?

What I think is useful to me Emma is your point about transition and not shifting immeadiately from one characters level 5 straight into anothers level 5...but to ease the reader across into the head of the other character. In this way its possible to really build and lower emotional tension I think.You can do this by going from inner person to outer person and vice versa - starting the new POV for example with a concrete description of where they are standing, sitting or what they are physically doing and sho their physical and sensorial sensation s before moving onto their emotions.
Or maybe I'm talking Cr@p!
Bren Gosling

Jules Horne

Thanks, Emma (over from OU) - this has come at just the right time for posting to a student! His breakdown makes it beautifully clear. The 'focal length' analogy is a good one too.
Jules

Emma Darwin

Hi Jules - nice to see you here. It's so useful, isn't it. In teaching, I think I've seen more pennies dropping when students grasp this, than with almost all other topics put together!

Pete Grimm

You have explained Psychic Distance so well here that I would like to copy this (and credit you) and repost it on my Blog.

You have been at this longer than I have. Perhaps in another post you could address the interaction between Psychic Distance and POV. Clearly to maintain a tight POV the Psychic Distance between the reader and the POV character needs to remain close. Any use or personal or possessive pronouns in relation to other characters loosen and jangle that closeness.

I would be very interested in your take on this subject.

cbaldwin6@carolina.rr.com

This is an interesting discussion for sure. I am wrestling with using struck 3rd POV and the narrator's POV. Is that "mixing it up" like you described in this blog?

Emma Darwin

Carol - I'm not sure what you mean by "struck 3rd" - can you elucidate?

Emma Darwin

Hi Pete - so glad this is useful!

Certainly the closer-in you get in psychic distance, the more closely the narrative is bound to a given point of view and - by implication - voice. But I think one of the many huge advantages of thinking in terms of psychic distance is that PoV is so often thought of in terms of either/or - either your in this PoV or that one, or fly-on-the-wall. Whereas it's possible to have plenty of narrative where the PoV is ambiguous.

Certainly how Other People are denoted is part of guiding the reader into a PoV. I've got characters in the WIP who the reader and some characters know by their first name, but who other characters know by their surname. It's being an interestingly delicate matter, deciding when to use which, in the narrative.

I run this blog under a Creative Commons Licence, so do feel free to copy it verbatim, with acknowledgement, as long as it isn't for commercial purposes.

Cargodslady

I was hoping this would clear things up for me, but it hasn't.
:( I guess it is something that isn't truly clear and I guess can't be explained in definite terms. Nice article anyway. Thanks.

Emma Darwin

You're welcome - sorry it didn't get to the bottom of it for you.

Can you pin down at all what's not clear? I might be able to help a bit.

Julietocallaghan

Dear Emma, I first read your post on psychic distance ages ago. It is such a useful concept, particularly when rewriting. I am really pleased you have updated your post to include an example of first person. Your explanation of the narrative being polyvocal, shared between character and narrator, really sums up the conflict in writing a novel that is both objective and subjective (broad and yet specific), (wide reaching and yet intensely personal). There is not a lot on psychic distance at there on the web, my searches always bring me back to your blog. Juliet

Emma Darwin

Juliet, I'm so glad this was useful for you. I'm always surprised more writers and teachers don't talk about psychic distance, because I think it's incredibly useful, not just as a technique of itself, but because it draws together so many things that are central to the business of storytelling which are so often treated as separate, purely technical issues: first/third person, voice, point of view, narrative mode, and so on.

It was not just a lightbulb moment but more of a thunderbolt moment when I read it in Gardner, and virtually everyone I've introduced to the concept since has found it incredibly helpful.

Plus, of course, it's where the practical business of making a narrative work for readers overlaps with much wider questions of how fiction works and what it's for: it's Bakhtin, no less, who talks brilliantly about how fiction is polyvocal - not just in the nitty-gritty of how it's written, but in its philosophical/aesthetic functions...

Gordon Kessler

Great post, Emma!

Like you, I don't undestand why so many writers don't know about or treat lightly this very important aspect.

When John Gardner described psychic distance thirty years ago in his book The Art of Fiction, I think it seemed buried in this wonderful writing book. Many new writers have trouble grasping all the elements Gardner discusses in the first read through. For me, after putting hundreds of thousands of words on paper, I went back and reread it. That second time it was more than a light clicking on inside my head--more like a nuclear bomb.

As with all writing aspects, I believe that once understood, psychic distance can be used by the writer like a craftsperson might use a tool--like a woodworker, using a chisel in various amounts, varying angles and pressures to produce a desired effect. The writer should be aware of and understand both the tool and the effect.

Something I don't believe Gardner goes into great depth about is how unwanted psychic distance can be created unknowingly by writers who describe a POV character "hearing", "seeing", "watching", an action in a scene, which pushes the reader out of the POV character's head and forces that reader to imagine, from a distance, the POV character witnessing the action. For example:

Jim watched Zoya walk into the tavern, saunter to the bar and light up a cigarette.

instead of:

Zoya walked into the tavern, sauntered to the bar and lit up a cigarette.

In the second example, if this isn’t the first sentence of the scene, it’s not necessary to say “Jim watched …” since POV should already be established and the reader will know that Jim is the one witnessing this action. Also, the woman’s action seems more immediate if not filtered through Jim’s head before going to the reader. This makes a for a minimal psychic distance—the reader more easily immersed into the psyche of the viewpoint character and thus more likely to find empathy for that character.

That understood, if this is the first sentence in the scene, saying “Jim watched …” might be a better choice in order to establish POV for that scene and the reader shouldn’t need to be reminded whose POV it is after this opening line. Also, if the way Jim is watching is important to the scene, then the closeness of psychic distance might be forfeited or traded for a desired effect, for example:

Jim ogled the young woman as she sauntered into the tavern and up to the bar. Zoya was much more attractive than he’d expected, and he imagined the taste of her full lips as she lit up a cigarette and drew in the first puff.

Understanding this aspect of psychic distance and using it as a tool can make a huge difference to the reader and to the success of a scene.

That’s my subjective view of this very important fiction writing aspect, and only further illustrates the beauty of this art, a subjective endeavor in which no two writers will ever find perfect agreement.

Season Harper-Fox

Hi, Emma,

I tried to post a link, but it wouldn't "take." I've found the following article very helpful for my students who have a challenging time wrapping their minds around psychic distance.

Google "Leslie's Writing Exercises: Filtering."


All the Best,

Season

Emma Darwin

Hi Season ... let's see if I can persuade it to take:

http://writerleigh.blogspot.co.uk/2009/12/filtering.html

and thanks so much for the link - very interesting discussion, and I agree with lots of it (even if, as ever, Burroway saying "give it a go - you'd be surprised" seems to result in students taking it as gospel that saying "he wondered" is Bad Writing...)

The Gardner quote does make sense - as that blogpost quotes him, he talks about "filtering" as

"the failure to run straight at an image; that is, the needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness. The amateur writes: 'Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.' Compare: 'She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.' Generally speaking--though no laws are absolute in fiction--vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as "she noticed" and 'she saw' be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen"

Obviously this business of "filtering" is one of many things which can be used to control psychic distance, because it can set the reader at more of a distance - which may or may not be what you want to do. But there are lots of other ways as well, of course - none of my examples are "filtered" in this way, for example, but have lots of other techniques to control the distance.

Emma Darwin

I do agree - one of the strenghts of Gardner's idea is that it DOESN'T privilege one or other end of the spectrum. The focus is all on which you'd use when. As you say, "Jim watched" might be just what you need.

Claire Scobie

Fantastic post, Emma. So detailed. Thanks very much for taking the time to write it. Lots to mull over.

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Claire. I do think it's a topic that's worth mulling over!

Carol McGrath

What can I say. Brilliant post.

psychic in nyc

Love this--I'm posting a link to my blog.

Thank you for this!!

Emma Darwin

Well you're welcome to say that, Carol! Glad you liked it.

Emma Darwin

You're welcome!

tony priest

Hello Emma,

Doing novel writing course on Writers' Workshop led by Jess Ruston. She pointed us to your blog. I found this a really useful blog/ post , I need to refine my POV and your comment about developing a rhythm of intimacy and distance in storytelling is spot on for me. Thank you

Tony

Emma Darwin

Hi Tony - lovely to see you here. I'm so glad you found the blog useful. I agree, I think the rhythm is crucial.

Enjoy the rest of Jess's course!

alexander

Just picked up this post via Tony Riches and his Writing Desk. I have noticed similar writing to this and liked it. Where as a reader one is almost standing with the particular character and everything they do. Must add this to my try to do in my own writing crib sheet. Some writers make these writing approaches seem so easy almost like great athletes.

Emma Darwin

Thanks for coming by, Alexander. Yes, I think it's something that it's really useful - important, even - to learn to do in one's own writing. The wider the range you can manage - from the furthest-out to the furthest-in - the more tools you've got, haven't you. Good luck with trying it out.

Lynn

This is something like trying to learn trigonometry. It makes some sense the first day, but not much. If you keep at it and keep coming back to read this, (which is why I'm here again), in a few months while studying and practicing, it makes more sense. It makes even more sense in six months, more sense in a year, etc.

The first person to introduce me to this blog did so in 2012. (This page too.) I was blown away. I've read it about once every six months since. It keeps making more sense, and keeps reminding me what I have to do. Don't give up. What we don't get the first time, we eventually get if we keep working on it.

My next goal is to reach the point where I think this is simple and easy. I hope to live that long. :D

Emma Darwin

Good for you for going on with it, Lynn. Good to know that you feel you're getting there.

Like most things in writing it only starts to make sense for most aspiring writers once they try doing it. However hard I try in a post, I can't do the real work: it's like writing a post about how to throw a pot: you have to have your hands in the clay. And of course it can never be definitive because nothing in writing is ever definitive!

Good luck!

Eric Scott

Very informative, undoubtedly very accurate and for me, very paralysing.

Krisztina

My teacher on creative writing used this extract and your own word, Emma on our seminar. :)
Congratulations, you are being taught in schools!

Emma Darwin

Oops! It's a lot to get your head round, for some writers. You might find it helps to give up trying for your own writing for a bit, and just notice how it works in others'. Train your sensitivity to it first, in other words, before you start trying to put it into practice. YOu may find it comes more intuitively then, without need worrying over.

Emma Darwin

Thank you, Krisztina, that's lovely to know!

Laurel

Interesting point! I love Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit and I had forgotten about the passage on focal length. Thanks for mentioning it.

Emma Brass

I love this post, it was really helpful for me- I've never taken a writing class so the internet and knowing what works in other books are my main references. I'm currently working on a novel, and this was a great way for me to figure out what perspective I wanted to use (objective or stream of consciousness). This is my first time on this site, but I have the distinct feeling that it won't be my last.

Emma Darwin

So glad it was helpful. Best of luck with the novel, and I hope you find more useful things on the site!

Martin Nathan

I've been thinking about this and reading Gardner's book. It is a useful concept but for me feels like a conflation of three elements and it may be useful to separate these out.
One is an observational distance: whether the narrator is observing in long shot, or in the thick of the action. The second is the degree of immersion in the action; is the narrator an uninvolved observer, manipulating the action strategically, or in the thick of it and acting reactively. The third is the interpretive level: the extent to which the narrator is able to understand event and the context within which they are able to do this.
For me there are benefits in this separation, as each can be at a different level.
Or do you think I am misinterpreting Gardner?

Emma Darwin

Gosh, Martin, that's really interesting, although I have to say it's not at all how I understand Gardner, or have developed his ideas for my purposes.

For me, it's all about the narrator, as the storyteller, and the viewpoint character/s, as an act-or in the events of the story, being separate entities, even if they're the same person. I don't see it as being about what action actually happens - manipulated or otherwise - but about how it's expressed in the writing. And whether the voice of the writing is dominated by the narrator's take on things, or taken over by the character's voice-and-take, is what that controls our experience of psychic closeness or distance.

Obviously, the narrator may have more context and understanding than the character-in-the-moment, the act-or, will have. If the narrator is a character but not the main character, the central focus of the story (e.g. Nick telling Gatsby's story), then it's up to them as a storyteller how much and what to let themselves narrate the inside of (e.g.) Gatsby's head. In Nick's case, not very much: Gatsby remains mysterious. But it is the narrator's story, and her/his rules....

Patrick Doherty

I find all th discussion fascinating. I'm in the final year of my PHD specialising in autobiography and writing my memoir in the child's voice at different ages. I'm attempting to psychic distance technique to represent the ageing child but I can see it will be fraught with difficulties.

Sarah Grace Liu

I just wanted to let you know that I have read this post so many times over the last year that Google has stopped telling me exactly how many times and just now says, "You have visited this page many times."

So incredibly helpful! Psychic distance can be used to explain so many of the narrative issues that I come across as an editor. I'm about to write a blog post about this that I will link to yours! Cheers.

Emma Darwin

Patrick, that sounds like a fascinating project. It sounds to me as if you need to be very clear about the difference between the voice-and-point-of-view of the (adult, I guess) narrator, and the voice-and-point-of-view of the child-actor. Then, having separated those, you can decide how present the adult-narrator is (if at all: they're like a third-person omniscient narrator, in a sense), versus how much the child voice-and-point-of-view forms and colours the narrative. And of course that doesn't have to be a fixed ratio: you can move to and fro along the spectrum.

In terms of child PoV stuff, it might be worth looking at Alexandra Fuller's memoir Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight. There's no sense of an adult narrator - there's no "I didn't realise till later" or "In those days". It's completely locked to her childhood self, from first memories to oldish teenage-hood; and her control of what her child-self-character observes at each different age, and how she thinks and understands her world within the confines of that age, is just masterly. Fascinating book, too - UDI Rhodesia.

Good luck!

Emma Darwin

Hi Sarah - I'm so glad it's being so useful, and thanks very much for the link. I do think that Psychic Distance is rather magical, in the way that once you start thinking in these terms, all sorts of other questions and problems sort themselves out. You just have to think "How close-in should I be here?". It's why I'm so evanglical about it - the simplicity of the idea...

Sarah

I thought I had commented this before, but perhaps I didn't. I just want to say...I am a professional editor, and I have linked to this blog post countless times for my authors. I have found that it is one of the single best resources to help them understand the true function of the "narrator." THANK YOU!

Emma Darwin

Sarah, you're SO welcome. So glad it's that useful for you and your authors. It is why I keep banging on about psychic distance: it's amazing how many problems it sorts out, all in one chunk of understanding...

Chris Draper

Fascinating explanation for something I have been experimenting with recently, and now it all makes so much sense.
The easing into and out of intimacy has another benefit:
If your character is deciding what to do next and you want to leave a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter or scene to go off elsewhere - then 'easing out of their head allows their last thoughts to remain hidden to the reader - which would not happen if you stay too deep in the POV head at that time.

Emma Darwin

Yes, indeed. As long as the moving-out feels very natural, and we're taken elsewhere, we'll be looking in the new direction and not notice what's not being given to us.

I think it goes wrong when the reader notices the subterfuge - and so feels the fell hand of the author in witholding stuff.

André

Hello Emma Darwin,
thank you for the great article, to which I return every now and then.
I want a smooth transition from 1. to 2. in my 1st or 2nd paragraph (Chapter 1). But it sounds like two different characters.

"The van was waiting, the taillights shining against the firewall of the house.
With his head drawn in, his coat collar turned up, the young man quickened his footsteps. Don´t drive away, Robert Schäfer thought."

Does this work out, the young man being Robert Schäfer?
Thank you.

Many kind regards
André

Emma Darwin

Obviously I don't know the context - but I agree, as it stands, it reads to me as if they're two different people, because we read "the young man" as the PoV of someone who doesn't know who he is. If you want to locate us inside Robert's PoV, we need something like this:

"The van was waiting, the taillights shining against the firewall of the house. Don´t drive away, Robert Schäfer thought. He drew his head in, turned up his coat-collar, and walked more quickly."

or

"The van was waiting, the taillights shining against the firewall of the house. Don´t drive away, Robert Schäfer thought - but at least his head was drawn in and his coat-collar turned up. He walked more quickly."

Another minor PoV misdirection doesn't help, perhaps: a person doesn't quicken their footsteps - the sound is incidental, and something that someone else hears. The viewpoint character would quicken their pace, or speed up their walking, or something like that.

Hope that helps. It sounds like the opening of a nice, tense thriller!

Emma

Andre

Hi Emma,
thanks for the great response. It helped me a lot. Appreciate the boost in motivation.

André

Lance Haley

Emma -

I am sitting here in the middle of this pandemic, finally trying to work on writing a novel that I have contemplated for years. Nothing like taking a somewhat attenuated break from the stress and occasional drudgery of decades practicing law.

While I was reading about the myriad of complexities regarding POV on Storygrid, Leslie Watts made reference to "Narrative Distancing" - a term I was not familiar with before today. Maybe because reading John Gardner's book, The Art of Fiction, is another of the hundreds of things on my long "list to do before I die".

So I clicked the highlighted term, and now I am deep in your world of writing - astonished at how clearly you have explained this concept. As well as all the ideas that suddenly were generated in my mind from these five elements/ranges of psychic or emotional distancing, as you have so aptly referenced them.

Particularly in this age of social distancing. How strange and ironic.

I will end up spending the rest of this Saturday afternoon drilling down through all the links in this article, instead of attending to my professional obligations in preparation for the courts to open up over the next week. Including that motion to disqualify a judge that must be on file by Monday. That can all wait until tomorrow. No rest for the wicked on Sundays.

Emma, you have completely distracted me with your intelligence and insight. Now my brain wants to propose marrying your brain. Is it spoken for?

All kidding, aside: Thank you, dear lady. This was quite enlightening.

Respectfully,

Lance

Emma Darwin

Hi Lance - isn't Psychic Distance amazing? You're so not alone in finding it helpful, and I'm so glad the blog's being useful.

And sorry-not-sorry that the work got postponed: I hope it got done in the end, and good luck with the writing!

Emma

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