Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Psychic Distance, Exposition, and Information, Part II

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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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15 comments:

Janet said...

Actually, Orson Scott Card does deal with this in Viewpoint and Characterization, but he calls it level of penetration, not psychic distance. Unfortunately, I'm a long way away from my home library, so I can't throw chapter and verse at you. It was definitely a useful part of the book.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Does he indeed? I've read many a book on writing--it's a bit of a twitchy hobby of mine--but I've never looked at that one. I mean to check it out now, though, as the issue is too seldom discussed.

Isn't it funny how craftspeople like bricklayers have all these great terms like "corbelling" while writers can't even specify what they mean?

Anyhow, thanks for the tip.

Tim Stretton said...

Greg Mosse, who teaches creative writing near me, makes extensive use of Gardner's metaphor of the camera dolly. On his courses we'll look at films to see the shots in action, and then work on how you might you might replicate the effects on the page. It's a useful technique, and while we've never used the term "psychic distance", it's really the same concept.

The key, as you suggest, is modulation. I'd rather read something stuck in the same register than have the disorientation of perpetual swooping--as in the Borden paragraph.

It's fascinating to me, on reflection, how many of the writers I like work mainly in the 1 to 3 territory: Vance, Austen, Highsmith, even Stark. When these writers break into 4 and 5, the effect is that much more pronounced for its scarcity value.

On my blog I've often mentioned the 'cool narrative tone' of writers I admire. What I'm saying, in terms of your analysis, is that they tend to work in 1 to 3. It's possible to write satisfying fiction which works with a restricted palate. What's interesting is that their style is at least as much a product of what they choose not to use.

An excellent and highly thought-provoking piece, David. I'm keen to read more!

Aliya Whiteley said...

Yes, a really interesting couple of posts. Makes me realise how much I do on instinct. (Gulp...)

Sam Taylor said...

Seconding aliya here. It's good to see why the instincts work.

For another example -- Fairy Tales use this effect of zooming in rather extensively.

"Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away there lived a princess..." When I read this, I imagine a black lens fading into a shot of rolling hills with castles, then zooming down onto a princess.

In fact this is probably where I learned the technique from. I remember being worried about zooming in right even when I was 8.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim. Interesting comments.

And the movie analogy is almost irresistable. The interesting thing about writing is that you can move so many places compared to film, including inside of people.

You're right--many fine books stay in a narrow register on the Gardner scale. Epics and fantasy often stay away from the closest focus--your can't really maintain an air of Melvillean weightiness if you interrupt it with Shit. Now his glasses were broken, too.

I've been writing something in first-person present tense, and I find that it has a great deal of urgency. (Which I think works well for this particular book.) But it's almost impossible to back off to the upper registers--it's relemtlessly close and colloquial.

To be frank, I'm finding it induces claustrophobia. But that's okay for this story, too.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya--

Yeah, there was a time when I was afraid to think about how writing works for fear I'd mess it up--sort of like thinking too hard about how to walk.

Your instincts, though, are so solid that there's no reason for you to think about this--except for fun...

Rob in Denver said...

Robert Olen Butler also compares what you describe to movie making in his book, FROM WHERE YOU DREAM. Chapter 4 is called, Cinema of the Mind.

(I hated the book, by the way. YMMV.)

Usman said...

I've been lurking around your blog for some time. This whole post and the others are great.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

Good to have you say hello. Don't be shy!

Jake Jesson said...

Regarding the Orson Scott Card book: I have that, I believe, and read it some time ago. There were pictures and diagrams of the distance thing. I didn't really get it, though. (It's been a while...)

On another note, I saw Gardner's book in Moe's and bought it the other day. If it isn't any good, I'll be sure to blame you.

I've been pondering this whole psychic distance thing in my recent writing (and re-writing). This serves as useful food for thought - and I love these craft posts of yours in general. Keep 'em going!

Alison said...

Narratologists such as Edward Branigan (Narrative Comprehension and Film, Routledge, 1992, see Chapter 4 especially) refer to psychic distance as "Levels of Narration." Levels of narration theory give us words like "diegesis." I find their explication of the concept much clearer than psychic distance; for one thing I'm a filmmaker and most of the people using camera shot sizes as a metaphor for psychic distance are doing it incorrectly. So if you use the psychic distance approach, tread with care, and try to learn more by learning about levels of narration. The jargon can seem obtuse at first but the effot pays off. Also note that Gardner defines psychic distance as the distance between reader and character. This is imprecise -- it's the distance between narrator and character (or event). The distance between reader and character or event and narrator is another variable point on the narrative continuum and needs to have its own terminology, a terminoloogy which as far as I know has yet to be developed. Hope that helps.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alison--

I've done a bit, though not much, reading in narratology, and I'll take a look at the book you mention. I found Dorrit Cohn's "Transparent Minds" to be interesting and stimulating--and also more applicable because it is about written texts rather than film.

One problem that I have with most of the field of narratology is that most of the writing is composed by critics and academics, not practitioners. Gardner was one of our foremost novelists, and therefore what he says tends to be of more practical application to a writer than most of what I have seen in narratology texts. The academics are classifiers, the zoologists of literature; I haven't found zoologists to be all that useful when what I want is a lion-tamer.

Janet Ursel said...

I love the zoologist/lion tamer analogy. Very apt.

David Isaak said...

Thanks, Janet.

It's amazing that there's activity in the comment trail from a post from 2007, innit?