Psychic Distance


Nothing to be afraid of!

When I first heard the phrase ‘Psychic distance’, (from Andrew Cowan’s excellent book The Art of Writing Fiction) I thought it sounded rather spooky. But all it means is the distance the reader is from the central consciousness (psyche) of the story. In nineteenth century novels, with their all-knowing, all-seeing narrators, we are usually a long way from being inside the characters’ heads whereas modern novels tend to have a lot more interiority.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, in his modernist work The Great Gatsby embodies the transition from older to newer forms of writing, gives us some excellent examples of psychic distance. In chapter three, the narrator, Nick, declares: The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Clearly the psychic distance is great here – it as though the narrator is visiting the scene from outer space.

By chapter four, the distance has narrowed slightly: On Sunday morning while church bells rang in the villages alongshore, the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn. But Nick is still on the outside looking in – more of an omniscient narrator. The tone is impersonal and objective.

At the start of the novel, Nick confides in us: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Here the distance is narrower – he is taking us into his confidence and relating an experience, but the experience is still remote as it comes from the past.

Again in chapter four, we have the closest psychic distance: Suddenly I wasn’t thinking of Daisy and Gatsby any more, but of this clean, hard, limited person, who dealt in universal scepticism, and who leaned back jauntily just within the circle of my arm. A phrase began to beat in my ears with a sort of heady excitement: “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.” Now we are right inside Nick’s head – even the phrase is ‘in [his] ears.’

So within one novel, Fitzgerald has taken us from outside the world, to the interior of his narrator’s mind: quite a journey.

It is perfectly possible to have a variety of psychic distances in our writing. As long as we take our readers with us, and there is a rationale behind each. It’s certainly worth experimenting!