Writing Psychic Distance (Authorial Distance) with John Gardner

Psychic Distance

As with the chemist at her microscope and the lookout in his tower, fictional point of view always involves the distance, close or far, of the perceiver from the thing perceived. Authorial distance, sometimes called psychic distance, is the degree to which we as readers feel on the one hand intimacy and identification with, or on the other hand detachment and alienation from, the characters. (Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft)

John Gardner on Psychic Distance (Authorial Distance)

Careless shifts in psychic distance [authorial distance] can be distracting. By psychic distance we mean the distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story. Compare the following examples, the first meant to establish great psychic distance, the next meant to establish slightly less, and so on until in the last example, psychic distance, theoretically at least, is nil.

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul …

When psychic distance [authorial distance] is great, we look at the scene as if from far away—our usual position in the traditional tale, remote in time and space, formal in presentation (example 1 above would appear only in a tale); as distance grows shorter—as the camera dollies in, if you will—we approach the normal ground of the yarn (2 and 3) and short story or realistic novel (2 through 5). In good fiction, shifts in psychic distance are carefully controlled. At the beginning of the story, in the usual case, we find the writer using either long or medium shots. He moves in a little for scenes of high intensity, draws back for transitions, moves in still closer for the story’s climax. (Variations of all kinds are possible, of course, and the subtle writer is likely to use psychic distance, as he might any other fictional device, to get odd new effects. He may, for instance, keep a whole story at one psychic-distance setting, giving an eerie, rather icy effect if the setting is like that in example 2, an overheated effect that only great skill can keep from mush or sentimentality if the setting is like that in example 5. The point is that psychic distance, whether or not it is used conventionally, must be controlled.) A piece of fiction containing sudden and inexplicable shifts in psychic distance looks amateur and tends to drive the reader away. For instance: “Mary Borden hated woodpeckers. Lord, she thought, they’ll drive me crazy! The young woman had never known any personally, but Mary knew what she liked.” (The Art of Fiction)

Psychic Distance (Authorial Distance) Writing Exercise

Rewrite the first three to five paragraphs of a work you’ve already drafted with a closer perspective. If your work opens with a description of a room, rewrite the opening so it begins with a description of one object within the room. If the work opens with two characters, rewrite the opening so it begins with a focus on one character. If the work opens with one character, rewrite the opening so it begins with one particular attribute of the character. Consider how this rewritten, closer in point of view, might more fully anchor the reader into the opening. How might this closer-in point of view anchor the reader at the opening of each chapter, section….

Psychic Distance Writing Exercise

Using the above examples from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, create various psychic distances within your own work. 

First, choose an opening line from a recent writing project—short story, novel, essay, etc. In which distance is your original line written? 

Now, rewrite the line in the style of each example given by Gardner:

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul …

Give ourself a day or two and then go back to the lines and read them aloud. Have a trusted reader read them aloud to you. Which line is your favorite? Would you entire narrative benefit from the same psychic distance?

The Eckleburg Workshops

Join us at The Eckleburg Workshops for writing exercises and tips on psychic distance.

Work with a Reedsy Editor for Individualized Attention

Submit your work for developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, editorial assessment and more at Reedsy.com, where hundreds of experienced, awarded writers and editors are ready to read your work and help you make it the best it can be.

Psychic Distance (Authorial Distance) Sources

Writing Reader-Response Criticism

Reader-Response Criticism

Reader-Response Criticism is the conventional notion that a writer or speaker has an “idea,” encodes it—that is, turns it into words—and the reader or listener decodes it, deriving, when successful, the writer or speaker’s “idea.” The reader-response critics assume, however, that such equivalency between sender and receiver is impossible. The literary work, therefore, does not exist on the page; that is only the text. The text becomes a work only when it is read, just as a score becomes music only when it is played. Eric Kandel takes reader-response critcisim further with his theory of the “beholder’s share.” (The Norton Introduction to Literature

Writing Reader-Response Exercise

How many literature teachers have prompted you to figure out “what the author means when…”? According the reader-response critics, “what the author means” is irrelevant to the reader’s experience of the text. The experience should be whatever the reader perceives and brings to the text.

First, choose a scene from a narrative you wrote several weeks or months ago. It should be a scene that you haven’t edited or read for a sufficient amount of time so that you will have fresh eyes.

As you read the scene, consider whether or not the “meaning” or context of the scene aligns with your original intention for the scene. This is different than the craft or technical intention. Of course, you want the technique of the scene to serve the overall narrative; however, the “meaning” of the scene might change over time as your experiences in life change over time, allowing for you and other readers to experience the scene in an organic and personal way that transcends the mere text. 

If you find that the scene reads the same for you, regardless of time, and for other readers, regardless of their experiences, consider whether or not the scene could be “opened” a bit more so that readers can find personal connection. Of course, sometimes, we want our scenes to read more statically so to perform an essential need within the overall manuscript; however, too many static scenes can marginalize the reader’s creative response to the text.

Take time to consider reader-response within key scenes. Your readers will thank you.

Consider Other Critical Theories

Feminist Criticism (1960s-present)

Like Marxist criticism, feminist criticism derives from firm political and ideological commitments and insists that literature both reflects and influences human behavior in the larger world. Feminist criticism often, too, has practiced and political aims. Strongly conscious that most of recorded history has given grossly disproportionate attention to the interest, thoughts and actions of men, feminist thought endeavors both to extend contemporary attention to distinctively female concerns, ideas and accomplishments and to recover the largely unrecorded and unknown history of women in earlier times. (The Norton Introduction to Literature)

Write More Reader-Response in the [Em]Powering Self Workshop

The “[Em]Powering Self Workshop” is a gender and diversity narrative project taking its title from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman but it does not stop at gender. This workshop  is open to all forms: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction and hybrid. It is open to all genders, identities and backgrounds. In this course we will explore how progressive experiences with cultures, both our own and others, inform our voice in both the artistic expression of voice and the voice we give to self. It is our intention to give power over self, not others. 

Reader-Response Criticism Sources

The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the PresentEric Kandel.

The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth-Century Responses to MeaninglessnessKaren L. Carr.

A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.

“Cogito et Histoire de la Folie.” Jacques Derrida.

Cognitive Neuropsychology Section, Laboratory of Brain and Cognition.

Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Lynne Truss.

The Elements of Style. William Strunk. 

Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Peter Barry.

Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Stephen Eric Bronner.

Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. Lois Tyson

The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. David H. Richter.

A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.

Literary Theories and Schools of Criticism. Purdue Online Writing Lab. 

New Oxford American DictionaryEdited by Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg.

The Norton Anthology of World LiteratureMartin Puchner, et al.

The Norton Introduction to PhilosophyGideon Rosen and Alex Byrne.

Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. Patricia T. O’Conner

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French & Ned Stuckey-French.

Writing the Other. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.

Writing Action Beats

Action Beats

Action beats are short modifiers before or after a piece of dialogue that describe what the character is doing in relationship to what the character is saying. Beats can be used effectively to change the pacing within a longer dialogue stream. Use them sparsely, at just the right moments, and they can add a great deal of texture to dialogue. Use them too frequently, and they will detract from the dialogue. Example:

“Look at me.” 

“I’m looking at you.”

“No. Look. At. Me.” She moved her face to three inches from his.

“Okay. I see you. What?”

Writing ExerciseAction Beats Writing Exercise

Choose a longer section of dialogue from a work already written. The section should have at least five lines of dialogue. Now, remove all dialogue tags—she said, he said—and give one line of dialogue an action beat. The action beat should communicate both character gesture and mood. Rewrite the dialogue so that it is clear who is speaking in each line without the need for dialogue tags. Also, study the introductory paragraph and closing paragraph so that the narrative flows both in and out of dialogue in a manner consistent with the intended atmosphere of the scene.

Submit to Eckleburg

We accept previously unpublished and polished prose up to 8,000 words year round, unless announced otherwise.  We are always looking for tightly woven short works under 2,000 words and short-shorts around 500 words. No multiple submissions but simultaneous is fine as long as you withdraw the submission asap through the submissions system. During the summer and winter months, we run our Writers Are Readers, Too, fundraiser when submissions are open only to subscribers. During the fall and spring, we open submissions for regular unsolicited submissions.

Note: We consider fiction, poetry and essays that have appeared in print, online magazines, public forums, and public access blogs as already being published. Rarely do we accept anything already published and then only by solicitation. We ask that work published at Eckleburg not appear elsewhere online, and if republished in print, original publication credit is given to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. One rare exception is our annual Gertrude Stein Award, which allows for submissions of previously published work, both online and print. Submit your work.

Eckleburg Workshops

Take advantage of our $5 work-at-your-own-pace writing workshops where you can create new work as well as fine tune work you’ve already written. Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction and more, Eckleburg Workshops offer writing prompts and craft techniques that will take your work to the next level. 

Work with a Reedsy Editor for Individualized Attention

Submit your work for developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, editorial assessment and more at Reedsy.com, where hundreds of experienced, awarded writers and editors are ready to read your work and help you make it the best it can be.

Action Beats Sources