Friday, March 14, 2008

Writing Tips: Psychic Distance

I received a critique recently from my friend and fellow Texan, DiAnn Mills, in which she mentioned the term, "psychic distance." Now, I've been studying writing for over four years, but that one threw me for a loop. What in the world is "psychic distance?" Does that have to do with introducing a fortune-teller in the second act?

A little research (ah, Google is a wonderful tool) brought me to yet another book about the craft of writing, one that held the answer to this question and several other nuggets that I intend to incorporate into my work. The book is by the late John Gardner, and is called The Art Of Fiction: Notes On Craft For Young Writers. Frankly, a lot of the book was too abstract for me, some of it was too technical (trochaic, dactylic, anapestic, and antibrachic meter--oh, give me a break!), but some parts are pure gold.

For those of you who are wondering about psychic distance, it's just the term that denotes the relative distance the reader feels between himself and the events in the story. Think of it in movie terms: long opening shot, pan in to a closer view, maybe a two-shot (two people), and eventually a close-up of one character. The skillful writer generally starts with an overall view (always maintaining the same point of view, of course), then pans in. Here's an example from Gardner. The POV is third person, from distant to very close:

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. Oh, how he hated those d--n snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

Get the idea? Try looking for it in the novels you read, and incorporate the technique into your own writing. I plan to.

Gardner also mentions the most common errors in writing that he encountered during his years of teaching creative writing. I'll be posting about those later. Meanwhile, pan out and fade to black. Music up. Roll credits.


DiAnn Mills said...

Hi Richard

Wow, thanks for mentioning me on your blog. You explained psychic distance so well!
Great going!

Nicole said...

Geez, I thought you veered off to your medical profession in those parentheses--or the naming of dinosaurs. :)

Melanie said...

Yep, in those parentheses you could tell somebody liked his dictionary and thesaurus a tad much.

I like the psychic distance concept and will start a reread with that in mind.

I wonder, though. If you have a character who's a bit of an ice queen, would you maintain distance longer? Would you see the long view or mid-range view until she begins to thaw?

In filmmaking terms, I think changing POV would be like crossing vectors. It confuses viewers or readers when the field of action changes. My field production and editing professor loved to harp on it.

I wonder what the literary equivalent of a jump cut would be? The times in movies or television when a bouquet is in the middle of the table in one shot and is missing the next.

Timothy Fish said...

Moving from a broad view of the scene and then moving in is often a very natural thing to do if we are careful about giving our scenes a strong beginning, middle and end. Just as in filmmaking we would not want to keep the camera at the same distance or angle, in writing we need some variation in psychic distance.

For an ice queen, I think we usually want to see her through the eye of other characters, but we may want to show her motivation for being an ice queen, in which case a close psychic distance to her would be needed.

In writing, I don’t think a jump cut has as much to do with psychic distance as it does with failure to flesh out the story completely. In my WIP, the story occurs over a period of years. In the first part there is a girl who is in my main character’s first period class and later she has math that period. Even though the school year transition is not important to the story, I will mention it to prevent that the equivalent of a jump cut.