Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The concept of Pychic distance - Emma Darwin

This very helpful blog post from Emma Darwin is useful for a writer like me who is writing a novel primarily in close third person POV, in mutliple POV's - especially the rule of not shifting directly across from a level 5 in one characters POV to a level 5 in the other characters POV - this is likely to jar/confuse the reader..better to slowly do it by moving down from a 5 to a 1 or 2 and then creeping up to a 5 again in the other characters POV(if shifting POV within one scene or chapter). I am now doing this sometimes to heighten my readers "hunger"to read on, rather than just have whole scenes/chapters in one POV only - although this is mostly what I am doing.

Psychic Distance: what it is and how to use it
Psychic distance is a concept which John Gardner explores in his book The Art of Fiction, and I think it's absolutely crucial, not difficult to understand, and not nearly talked about enough. Basically, it's about where the narrative (and therefore the reader) stands, relative to a character. Another way of thinking of it is how far the reader is taken inside the character's head. Gardner breaks it down thus:
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
Obviously it's really a spectrum, not separate stages, but you can see what this is about, can't you?
1) is remote and objective. It has a nice 'Once upon a time' feel to it but doesn't give us any sense of the man as a person with thoughts and feelings: a consciousness. It tells us a lot about where we are and what's happening, but if it stays at this level we might not care much about this person, and it limits the writer's scope for exploring how he experiences the world and himself.
5) is tight close-up and subjective. It's very much in his voice, and it's extremely expressive of this person's character and situation. But it doesn't give us any information about where we are, who this is, and so on. We empathise with how he feels, but if we stay at this level we may never understand what's going on, and it limits the writer's scope for bringing in other characters and their consciousness.
And 2-4 are various stages in between. Gardner's point is not that one is better than the other, or that you have to stick to only one. Indeed, it would be a mistake if you did, because it can make the piece very monotonous, specially if you stick at the 1-2 end. Just as good novels have a rhythm of action and reflection, so they have a rhythm of intimacy and distance. So I've extended Gardner's concept to think in terms of the psychic range of a piece, from the closest to the furthest that it covers.
It's not only important to know (roughly) what the psychic distance is at any one point, but also to understand the possibilities of the different distances, to control the reader's involvement with the character and the story.It's also intimately connected with Showing and Telling, which I've blogged about here.
It's also helpful to bear in mind that jumping straight from, say, 1 to 5, may risk leaving the reader behind: there'd be nothing to tell you that the man we were shown stepping from a doorway is the same as this person with snow down his (her?) neck. Competent readers may make the assumption, but everything they read till their assumption is confirmed is, as it were, provisional, and means they can't be so involved with the story. Other readers, not being sure where they are, may give up any involvement at all. It usually works better to work your way by stages from, say, 1 to 5, making sure the reader comes with you through at least some intermediate stages.
Understanding psychic distance is also the key to working with a moving point of view. It's obvious that even if you limit your narrative to a single point of view, how far inside your character's head you take the reader will vary. If your third-person narrative moves between several points-of-view within a chapter, say, then you have to start coping with the transitions. Many beginner writers are guilty of of 'head-hopping', which is switching points-of-view too often and too abruptly. But it's not necessarily that the transitions happen too often (though it may be, and some teachers and editors are very doctrinaire about it), but that you haven't handled them properly. Handle them properly, and you'll find that said teachers and editors may not even notice, let alone disapprove.
I'm working on point-of-view for another page in this Resources section but, put simply, if the reader is deep inside someone's head, then teleporting us to deep inside someone else's is going to be a wrench for us. Not only will we suffer the literary equivalent of jetlag, but we may simply get confused about who's doing, say, this 5-ish kind of thinking. And readers who feel wrenched from a character they were living inside lose their involvement, as do readers who get confused. The feeble tutor/editor's answer is not to switch viewpoint characters, but when did the fact that something's hard to do well mean one shouldn't do it? The key is to move us slowly, by Gardner's stages, out - 5-4-3-2-1 - of one character, and in - 1-2-3-4-5 - to the next. Or something like that: obviously it's much more fluid, and you need to listen to your instincts about how and how fast to move. But that's the idea.
Next time you're reading some fiction, have a look at how the author handles psychic distance: what range they use, and how and why s/he shifts betwen different stages. Have a think about how that affects the way you experience the piece. If it's told from more than one point-of-view, how do the transitions that interact with the psychic distance? And if you want an example of a lovely story which is pure 5, Jane Gardam's 'The Great, Grand Soap-Water Kick', in her collection The Sidmouth Letters, is pure joy. But it's not an easy trick to pull off.


  1. I've come across some writing recently (interestingly by people who have either undergraduate degrees in creative writing or teach it) where there's a scale of 0 or even -1.

    This is when the narrator is a dead character who is able to see way into the future -- so suddenly zooms from a 5 (inside someone's head) to then make an observation about that character's later career and death. It plays havoc with their use of tenses, for one thing.

    No doubt that sort of stuff will win a literary award.

  2. I think they call that"experimental" dont they ...ha!

  3. Yes -- but experimental gets new authors published as agents and publishers think it will perhaps catch the zeitgeist and win an award. There seems to be commercial at one end and experiemental at the other end of the scale and those in the middle fall between the two stools.

    I've been going back to the start of my novel, which is a good 9 months old but I don't think I ever workshopped it at City (handed it in for assessment instead). I'm getting reaction from my coursemates on the MMU MA and it's interesting. There's a lot I wanted to change before even putting it in front of them and I've changed quite a bit after their comments.

    Still the same old situation of some people getting what you're trying to do and some not.

  4. I guess thats just how it is Mike ...keep going with what YOU belief in.

  5. Thanks BG - very insightful comment. I've never thought of POV in that way before. I believe you need to be conscious in your writing but it seems a little too clinical for me. Sometimes you need to just feel your way. I guess it's always down to a balance. Happy writing. TGW