Writing Psychic Distance (Authorial Distance) with John Gardner and Lorrie Moore

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)

Psychic Distance and the Funnel Effect

In general, once the reader has been brought “up close” to the narrative and the characters, it is difficult for the reader to pull out, again. It would be like a loved one suddenly treating you like a stranger. It is jarring. Unless the writer intends to jar the reader for an essential narrative effect, the story will benefit from following the funnel scheme, or rather, once the narrative has pulled the reader close, the narrative keeps the reader close until the end of the narrative, or at least, the end of the chapter or section.

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 Writing Exercise with John Gardner

Using the above examples from John Gardner’s The Art of Fictioncreate 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?

Psychic Distance (Authorial Distance) in “Paper Losses” by Lorrie Moore

Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other.

—Lorrie Moore

In the above excerpt, notice how the opening line begins with a good deal of distance written in third person. By the end of this opening line, however, the narrator has taken us from a distant past to the “now.” With that single word, mid-sentence, the narrator pulls us into the present moment, even though we are still reading a third person narrative

Rewrite the above line in the style of Gardner’s examples:

  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 …

Which is your favorite distance? How does it add to the overall effect of the opening line?

Which is your least favorite? Why?

How would the above line read if reversed? For instance: Now, they wanted to kill each other, although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs. Does the reversal have the same impact as Moore’s original line?

Psychic Distance Writing Exercise with Lorrie Moore

Using Moore’s opening line as an example, rewrite the opening line of a current work. Begin wide and by the end of that first sentence, bring the reader into the close and present perspective. 

Next, try reversing the distance. How does it feel as you read it. 

Continue this exercise for each chapter or section of your work.

*You can also complete this exercise by pulling the reader close by the end of the first paragraph rather than the first line.

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


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *