The Mark Blog

WATCHING THE DISTANCE

 

 
Back in January, at the beginning of The Mark Program, I wasn’t sure what narrative distance meant.  Antoine sometimes spoke about the psychic, or narrative, distance of a piece.  He called attention to lapses in the psychic distance, and questioned why I had made that choice.  Was narrative distance similar to point of view?  What was it, anyway?  In our bible for the program, Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern describes psychic distance as “the degree of intimacy readers feel toward characters.”  He uses the following examples in contrasting psychic distance in a piece: 
 
A young man and a young woman sat morosely under a green parasol. They seemed mutually peeved.
 
Versus:
 
Philip stared unhappily across the table. The honeymoon was not going well at all.
                 
The second example has less distance.  As Stern points out, “readers are virtually inside the characters.”  By closing the gap in the narrative distance, the writer allows the reader to gain access to the character’s world.  I found this concept so helpful.  It helped remind me the importance of transparency in presenting our characters, of making the character as flushed out as possible.  As Rob Roberge wrote in my mid-project review notes:  “The reader should know more about characters than their lovers, their family, their therapist, and so on.” 
                 
Think of psychic distance as the zoom button on your camera.  At times you can zoom back and get a lot of the background.  This is when there’s a lot of distance from the reader, as if there’s an omniscient storyteller hovering above the character, reporting.  Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, when the camera zooms into a close-up of a person or an object.  In writing, this would be the equivalent of inhabiting the character so much that the reader feels right there, as if they are the character.  Then there are all of the spots in between the two extremes.  John Gardener delves further into this in The Art of Fiction
                 
To help keep the psychic distance consistent, I found it helpful to examine the spots where Antoine, Marissa, or Eric pointed out any sort of change or jump in voice.  More often than not, I realized that it wasn’t merely a minor error.  A lot of times these slight changes proved to be times when I was changing the psychic distance, usually unconsciously, in order to avoid going further into a character or to avoid a side issue.  It was a type of glossing over, a line that needed to be examined.  Narrative distance is something I need to watch out for when revising. I need to watch the distance so that character comes through.