Psychic Distance

Lately, my students and I are preoccupied with psychic (or narrative) distance, or how close the reader feels to a story. In close psychic distance, the reader stands next to the characters, perhaps even sitting in their laps. Long psychic distance puts the reader across the street, or in a hot air balloon overhead, or looking down from heaven.

John Gardner said in The Art of Fiction, “In good fiction, shifts in psychic distance are carefully controlled.” Writers often interpret that to mean the change should be imperceptible.

And sure, that works. In her story “Snowfall,” Deesha Philyaw uses first-person plural to plunk her readers as close to her characters Arletha and Rhonda as possible— or so you think.

“We, who apparently are built for everything, are simply not built for this. No gloves exist that keep our hands from freezing as we move snow and ice from one spot to another and from the car windshield. And no, the physical activity does not warm us up. It makes usresentful.”

Later, Philyaw uses second person to pull the reader even closer:

“In the South, the weather does not hurt you down to your bones or force you to wake up a half an hour early to remedy what has been done to your steps, your sidewalk, your driveway and your car, as you slept.”

The tightening psychic distance in “Snowfall” is a tractor beam—invisible and inescapable.

But you can be equally effective when your reader is acutely aware of the change.

In his film Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock starts viewers medium-close to Richard, who may or may not have murdered his ex-wife. The audience is close enough to suspect him, but not enough to be sure.

Then, another character kills someone, and we’re in the room where it happens.

The film then alternates between Richard and the real killer, Hitchcock keeping his audience uncomfortably close to the murderer. We’re walking right alongside him as he runs into his former co-worker Babs, as they stroll through London, as he invites Babs to see his apartment. At this point, the audience is trying to use its close psychic distance to psychically communicate STAY OUT OF THE APARTMENT, BABS!

Spoiler: Babs goes into the apartment.

And then, famously, the camera leaves.

It backs away from the closed door, down three flights of a winding, silent stairwell, onto the sidewalk, and across the street, people and cars filling the space between the audience and the building. We’re as far from that apartment as we can get without a rocket.

I saw Frenzy in a crowded theater, and when that camera started gliding backward, the once-quiet audience started shouting, “GobackgobackGOBACK!”

Different stories, different styles, different distances, but one thing’s the same. When Philyaw and Hitchcock shift the psychic distance, the story intensifies.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

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