Levels of Distance in Writing

I recently read The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardener. The book contains a good deal of practical advice mixed with some interesting thoughts on the purpose of literature and its relation to truth.

The tone of the book is both encouraging and stern, and Gardener’s thoughts for the new writer go much deeper than a simple list of rules. He assumes that the young writer is serious about learning the craft, so he presents the difficulties of writing in their full complexity. However, the book is geared toward newer writers, with a list of common n00b mistakes and some basic plotting structures.

I found his discussion of psychic distance particularly useful. He defines psychic distance as the distance the reader feels between herself and the events in the story.

Here are Gardener’s examples, from greatest to least distance.

  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 snow storms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes…

Gardener also notes that the writer may use different modes in the same story, depending on the action.

I’ve been thinking more about distance in my own writing, especially as it relates to character voice. Perhaps the trickiest part is knowing when to dive in close, hoping that the reader can feel what the character is feeling, and when to back away, giving the reader some space to think.