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 Stream of Consciousness

Stream of Consciousness

Stream of Consciousness is the total range of awareness and emotive-mental response of an individual, from the lowest pre speech level to the highest fully articulated level of rational thought. The assumption is that in the mind of an individual at a given moment a stream of consciousness (the phrase originated in this sense with Alexander Bain in 1855 and was given currency later by William James) is a mixture of all the levels of awareness, an unending flow of sensations, thoughts, memories, associations, and reflections; if the exact content of the mind (“consciousness”) is to be described at any moment, then these varied, disjointed, and illogical elements must find expression in a flow of words, images, and ideas similar to the unorganized flow of the mind. However, because consciousness is neither a stream nor a thing given to verbal articulation, the stream-of-consciousness technique has become as artificial and convention-bound as any other literary technique, although it may give the impression or illusion of preserving a lifelike resemblance to real consciousness. Joyce’s approximation involved the removal of customary signals, such as quotation marks, hyphens in compounds, and chapter numbers and titles. By moving the written text closer to the realm of speech, which is normally unpunctuated, Joyce gave the impression, in effect, of moving his discourse from the outer world of the reading eye to the inner world of the listening ear…. (Handbook to Literature)

Stream of Consciousness Writing Exercise

Go to your favorite place—park, restaurant, bar, chair in your backyard. Sit with your journal and pen and close your eyes. Keep them closed and focus on the sounds and smells. When you open your eyes, write the sensory experience around you. When you think of something that seems completely unrelated, histrionic, futuristic or anything else, write the thoughts as they form in your mind. Forget about punctuation, sentence structure, grammar, spelling, just get the thoughts down as they come to you in whatever messy way they form. 

Resist the urge to edit as you write. Resist the urge to edit after writing. Close the journal and let it sit for a day or two. When you go back to it, try to let yourself read it for what it is rather than what you think it “should” be. 

Repeat this stream of consciousness exercise each day, as long as you can, so to form a sense of your voice in this freeflow form.

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.

Stream of Consciousness Sources

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