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Tip 1. Manage psychic distance until it feels perfect
Psychic distance—often just called 'distance'—is one of the most important yet least discussed aspects of craft. Sure, we hear plenty about third person-limited versus omniscient versus first person, and all that jazz, but how often have you heard anyone talk about psychic distance? What books deal with it?
I’ve nosed around in a zillion writing books, and only one of them—John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction—gives distance proper attention. Because Gardner lays it out so cleanly, and far more economically that I could ever manage, I’m going to quote him at length here.
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 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 be 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). At the beginning of a 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…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.”
Gardner’s infamous Mary Borden paragraph only gets more painful the more often you reread it. Yet there is nothing there your average creative writing teacher would counsel against in principle, except to caution against the use of an omniscient-seeming voice.
You hear certain rules again and again nowadays: Avoid the omniscient voice. Never write exposition. Don’t info-dump. Show, don’t tell. What all of these rules do to many writers who try their best to follow them is make them lock in to a narrow range of psychic distances—often just one or two levels of Gardner’s five-level scale.
One psychic distance for the length of a short story may work. One psychic distance for the length of a whole novel is like trying to read next to a beehive—either the relentless buzz will drive you mad, or will gradually become soporific. At least with a real beehive, you have the excitement of risking a bee-sting.
The problem is to modulate psychic distance, from the dispassionate narrator’s voice all the way down to the point where we are getting the POV character’s thoughts directly, without even “thinker tags” (“he wondered” or “she thought”). And the trick here, usually, is to do it so smoothly that the reader never feels a bump at any transition from level to level.
One point I would add is that while a scene (especially a chapter opening) may start wide, in a narrative voice rather than a clear POV, once the writing gets locked in to an intimate level, it is trickier to retreat up to the dispassionate narrative voice again. (Though it can be done.) Zooming in is more forgiving than pulling back.
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