Psychic Distance (Authorial 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….

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Psychic Distance (Authorial Distance) Sources

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