Thursday, June 17, 2010

John Gardner's Psychic Distance

Directly linked to the function of point of view in fiction is the concept of psychic distance: the distance between the narrative and mind, heart, and body of the pov character. I first encountered this concept in the classic book of fiction-writing exercises, What If?, but the concept is originally from John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. Here's the example Gardner gives:

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.

Here, from 1 to 5, we get the whole spectrum, from bird's eye to the way it feels to be inside the character's body. I just love this. Don't you?

Try this: Use Gardner's five sentences as a template and go from 1 to 5. Here, I'll go first: (I'm switching to present tense, adding more details, just because I want to.)

1. It is summer, 1988. An adolescent girl, thin and wispy and bikini-clad, steps onto a heat-soaked driveway.
2. Sarah Emily Thornbird has always had pale, un-tannable skin.
3. Sarah hates her paleness.
4. She yearns for a golden, beach-perfect tan.
5. She can see it: a coppery, buttery tan that will cast a softening glow over her bony limbs and create the illusion of sexy.

Now, your turn. Feel free to share in comments. (I'd love to see what you come up with.)

Oh, and I found a really great post on psychic distance on novelist Emma Darwin's blog, This Itch of Writing. You should check it out--she explains not only what psychic distance is, but also, how to use it.


katrina said...


Great post. And timely since I was just last night noticing a lot of the use of #5 (and others, but mostly 4 and 5) in the novel I'm reading by Drew Perry "This is Just Exactly Like You."

emilberry said...

Ok, so I am giving this a shot. Hmmm, but I am still not sure. Maybe I need to switch the middle ones:

1. It’s the day before Christmas, 1979. The old woman cracks the screen door open putting one taupe shoe onto the brick step.
2. Granny Jean wishes it would snow this Christmas.
3. She has only seen it snow on Christmas once in her sixty three years of life. When she was eleven, it fell in Baton Rouge, Christmas Day, and her Uncle Paul ran his Model T into the house.
4. She wants it to snow all night, coating everything, making it all pure again.
5. Soft flakes, falling, a furious white. Maybe this year it will be like Christmas in the movies.

This is a difficult but useful writing exercise.

Susan Woodring said...

Katrina, it's kind of like how when you're pregnant, you start to see pregnant women everywhere. Once you start thinking about psychic distance, you notice it all over the place. Haven't read the Perry novel, but I just started Let the Great World Spin and it's blowing my mind...

Susan Woodring said...

Oh, Emily, this is wonderful! You have a great character here, and possibly the beginnings of a story?