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Swooping in, pulling out - a psychic distance starter guide

We’re going to talk about narrative distance. (Or psychic distance. Or, sometimes, emotional distance.)

It’s one of the most important tools in the writer’s armoury and the fluid use of it adds depth and motion to your text. You may very well be using the technique perfectly without being aware of it. Or you may have an aha moment in this email that illuminates something and unlocks a whole new level of your writing.

We start with a simple definition and some examples.

Narrative distance has to do with how far your narration is from your character’s innermost heart and thoughts. So:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

That’s Dickens commenting on eighteenth-century London, and he’s swooping, god-like, over an entire city, or an entire country. He’s so not-close to a character that no characters have yet appeared in the book.

But you can swoop in further:

“It was the Dover Road … on a Friday night late in November.”

We’re getting more specific about time and place now. We haven’t yet hit character, but we’re getting closer. We move in again:

“The sound of a horse at a gallop came fast and furiously up the hill.”

Things are now completely external (still no character to focus on), but time and place has become completely precise. It’s not that Dickens has given us precise co-ordinates of place and time, but whereas “Friday night” refers to a whole reach of time, the sound of this galloping horse must be heard within one specific half-minute of that night.

We swoop in again.

A coach – the Dover mailcoach – stops. The horseman asks for a Mr Jarvis Lorry. And:

“[The] passenger showed in a moment that it was his name. The guard, the coachman, and the two other passengers eyed him distrustfully.”

We’re now, as it were, face to face, with our character. If that “best of times” quotation had Dickens flying over London, we’re now in a coach right next to a person. We’re close enough that we see him physically acknowledging his name.

That said, our view of this character is still external. We’re not in his head at all.

As it happens, this scene from Dickens is just an appetiser. He doesn’t plunge all the way into the man’s head. But he could have done:

“Jarvis Lorry reached thoughtfully for the note.”

That word “thoughtfully” is somewhere between a purely external view and a genuinely internal one. Yes, we can sort of see from someone’s manner whether they’re thoughtful or not, but the word could equally well be used by the excellent Mr Lorry to describe himself.

“He pondered a moment.” And now we’re definitely in his head. No one outside the admirable Lorry knows if he’s pondering or not.

“As he read the missive, a slow fury crept over him.”

From thought to emotion, and our sense of interiority grows greater.

“The devils! Would they never leave him be?”

And boom! The character has now taken over the actual narration. We’re in stream-of-consciousness mode. The character’s own thoughts are spilling, live and unedited, onto the page.

And that’s narrative distance, the whole spectrum from hyper-remote to extremely intimate. From being actually removed from any characters at all to so up close and personal that the character themself barges the narrator off the page.

Why this matters

I hope there’s something conceptually interesting about noticing this narrative spectrum. As I say, you quite likely deploy it fluidly and without noticing it. But to notice it fully can illuminate various elements of your text.

For one thing, there’s rhythm. If you operate only at one level of psychic distance, your text will have a monotonous quality, much as if you had to watch a movie with no close-ups and no panoramas.

For another, there’s movement. If you want to zoom right into a character’s innermost thoughts, you can. This is fiction. You can and should. But you can’t just crash into them without a graduated approach. You need to shift fluidly through the gears, getting closer in on the character, step by step by step. (Just think how crashingly awkward it would be to jump from “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” straight to “Jarvis Lorry reached thoughtfully for the note. The devils! Would they never leave him be.” Because the approach has been so rushed, the text is unengaging and hard to read.)

And then there’s usage. When do we want to be right inside a character’s head? When that character is experiencing strong, significant emotion, of course.

When do we want to be zoomed out and somewhat detached from character? Well, when we simply want to convey important external data about the scene, of course.

When you think of it like that, it’s easy enough, but put all the pieces together and you have a powerful, powerful tool at your disposal.

Because this post has run on long enough already, I’ll shut up now. But because these things make more sense in context, I’ve pasted a chunk of one of my scenes in the PSes below. That scene has a whole graduated movement from basically external to extremely internal. It’s delivered, what’s more, in first person narration, which just goes to show that these psychic distance issues are conceptually identical, whether or not you have an external narrator.

That’s it from me. I’m about to saddle up and head for Dover. Giddy on up!

Feel free to pile in with your own comments and observations in the comments thread below. Meantime here's a slice of my forthcoming Fiona novel, with plenty of comments - here's psychic distance happening in the flesh ...


So here’s a chunk from my forthcoming Fiona Griffiths novel. Bits in square brackets are my commentary on the whole psychic distance thing. The setting, by the way, is a secure psychiatric hospital, which is not a setting my Fiona is likely to enjoy …

The transport whirrs up the little slope.

Strange how a little knowledge alters the scene. Yesterday, with Rogers fulminating away about a rest-cure for psychos, all we saw was beauty. The sparkling sea, the scatter of buildings. [External. Loosely anchored in the past. Even the descriptions suggest something viewed from afar.]

Now, all I can see is those yellow marker stones. The panic button and the taser. Those hummocks of stamped-down turf. [Descriptions now much more specific, local.]

And suddenly – it feels real. [When you shift from far-out narrative distance to something closer in, you get that sense of enhanced reality, so Fiona is just voicing what the reader already half-feels.]

This place. It’s not a rest cure. It’s a supermax prison for psychos. The pretty buildings are just window-dressing. A cloak tossed over darkness.

The float whirrs up to reception and stops.

I don’t get out.

Say, ‘Sorry. Sorry, I just need . . .’

I don’t say what I need, but my heart is racing. My face and neck are slippery with sweat. I have my head down between my knees and I think I want to vomit. [We’re getting even closer in now. We see the sweat on her face and neck. We feel her sickness.]

A wash of fear.

A constricting awfulness. [There’s something almost panicky in her language now. Very short paragraphs and main verbs have gone AWOL.]

Mervyn Rogers thought I was the right person for this particular job. Oh, leave it to Griffiths. Sure, she’ll piss a few people off and make a cock of things, but it always comes right in the end. She’ll sort it out.

And he couldn’t be more wrong. He’s the wrongest person on earth.

The driver says, ‘You all right? We’ve got a doctor on site if you need.’

I shake my head.

Can’t talk. [Notice that she says, “Can’t talk” not, “I can’t talk” or “But I find myself unable to talk.” It’s like Fiona’s mounting panic is interrupting her ability even to narrate normally. Her gaspiness is making her narration gasp too.]

Wipe sweat off my forehead, but it returns instantly.

A prison for nutters. That’s where I am. That’s what this is. A prison for nutters with an unhealthy interest in violence.

[Boom! And these are Fiona’s thoughts, quoted real time. The slightly formal, reader-aware narration with which we started has been replaced by this panicked and forceful stream of consciousness.]

My heart is a long way distant from my chest.

It is a bird taking refuge in a treetop. It is a rabbit watching its own skin fold down over its eyes.

[And so on. Obviously, you can’t write like this for long without crowding the reader – being over-intense, over-intimate. So gradually the scene starts to pull back again. It ends where it started, with a nice formal narration of who does what, goes where, and says what. Narrative distance: I thank you for your services. I couldn’t write without you.]

 Now over to you. Thoughts, comments, questions below ...

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Comments (6)
  • Oh boy . . . very important stuff you brought to light for me Harry. When I start a story I often just sort of wade in without giving attention to the story-telling art, like it's a task that has to be got done. With the quotes above, the opening few lines, one gets the feeling of old Dickens sitting in front of the open fire, perched on the stool, manuscript in hand, taking his pipe from his mouth and starting to read, in slow deep tones, pausing at each phrase, while his wife and children sit around, their faces illuminated by the orange glow of the burning coals, wide-eyed and expectant. Why are good times also bad times? It strikes a chord and needs no further explanations.

    With regard to my openings . . . I think I better think them out again!


    Oh, here's an opener I'll have to work on . . .


    The car roof glowed orange in the upholstered gloom. Two girls lay back, blowing smoke at the windscreen as the joint passed between them.

    “Here, give me that, Saf.”

    ”Careful, it’s coming apart.”

    “Ah, then I’ll have to show you how to roll them better.”

    “You think I can’t roll, Tam?”

    “Oh, you can roll all right. You can even rock and roll, but your spliffs always burn down one side. You could try using a little less spit.”

    With a flick of the wrist, Takami Tanaka shook off the dark grey stub of wasted ash and blew on the lighted end. With a crackle and pop, a spark of incandescent seed spat out of the loose roll to make a forlorn dash for life, only to hit the windscreen, bounce off the dashboard and disappear down the air vent.

    “Whoa, did you see that?”

    “Yeah, cool.” But Safi’s eyes had caught sight of the clock. Glancing up, she noticed the sky had lightened and the distant flanks of bare concrete were already changing from blue-grey to radiant peach, a morning masquerade that struck her as slightly obscene. She turned. “Shit, the time. We have to get the car back.”

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    • Ha ha! I think we can write worse openings than Dickens did and still be OK. That best of times, worst of times opening is just about as good as it gets ...

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    • Really good discussion, and thanks! I've been known to spend years wondering why a short story didn't get anywhere when sent out to earn its leaving, only to remove the first paragraph and have it instantly win a prize.

      I didn't take part in the discussion about webinars (head to full of stuff that isn't writing atm) but I would like to say that, by and large, I've gone off them. Not because they aren't a good idea, but almost always they are an exercise in waffling on for two hours (that you will never, ever get back) before they get to some almost useful point and then move to how they really want money. It's a real pity. It would be lovely to take part in something that really is about information and discussion and isn't just a promotion with seasoning. xx

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      • Yeah! Know what you mean about webinars. We don't do things like that. We're going to stuff these things with meat (** or appetising vegan alternative **) all the way through. We'll make slides available too, if we can figure out how to do that. And we'll have a replay available, so if you're time-short, you can always watch the replay and zip through bits that don't seem relevant to you.

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        • bless!

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        • Love the topic of psychic distance. A couple of months ago, we touched on this topic in the women's contemporary forum here on Townhouse. So I got very excited when I read through this post today--as though I needed the refresher but didn't know it. It is an area that I struggle with in my narratives.  If my work reads like a grocery list, I know that I'm way off. But, other times, I think I'm almost there but am not quite sure on what to do to push it that much closer. Any pointers?

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