Using psychic distance

Psychic distance is a term coined by John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction. It relates to the distance the reader feels between themselves and events in the story. He uses five sentences to illustrate this: 

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of the 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. 

These show how words can be used rather like a zoom lens: from a longshot (1) the remote in time and space including formality to a close-up (5) stream of consciousness. 

When I taught this in class, I got students to work in pairs as writer and reader to experience the sensation of physical movement and its correlation to distance observed in the stories they developed. Why not use this idea to review a story or write something new? The zoom lens can be adjusted within a single piece of writing, for example, drawing the reader in when revealing new information or pushing them away during conflict.

If you’re interested in learning more about psychic distance, there’s some useful information on Emma Darwin’s blog:


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