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Writer's Respite

Advice, tips and helpful hints to help you on your publishing journey.


In storytelling, be it fact or fiction, one of the most potent yet often overlooked tools is psychic distance. This subtle, transformative concept is not about telepathy or paranormal phenomena but refers to the narrative distance between a reader and a story's characters or events. It's the invisible thread that connects or separates us from the consciousness of the characters we read about. Understanding and manipulating psychic distance can profoundly shape the reader's experience and immersion in the story.

What is Psychic Distance? Coined by author John Gardner, psychic distance is a literary device that manipulates the closeness or distance between the reader and the character's thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This can range from a broad, distant viewpoint (like an omniscient narrator) to a close, intimate view (like a first-person narrative).

Imagine a camera lens focusing on a scene. From a wide-angle view, you capture the grand landscape, the big picture, but individual details are lost. As you zoom in, you start to see the trees, then the leaves, and finally, the veins on a single leaf. That’s psychic distance.

Why is Psychic Distance Important? Psychic distance is a crucial tool because it directly influences the reader's emotional engagement with the story. At a great distance, we offer readers a panoramic view of the events, a calm and objective perspective, but at the cost of emotional investment. As we zoom in, we sacrifice that broad perspective, but we gain a deeper emotional connection.

Varying psychic distances can serve as a rhythm in your writing, creating moments of intensity and moments of rest, making your narrative more dynamic and engaging.

Psychic Distance in Fiction In fiction, mastering psychic distance can create a profound sense of character and plot development. A character seen from a distance at the beginning of a story can be gradually brought closer, allowing readers to understand their inner workings and motivations slowly. For example, consider a detective novel. Initially, we might see the detective as an almost mythical figure, solving cases with incredible intuition. But as we zoom in, we start to see their doubts, their painstaking analysis of evidence, and the toll their work takes on their personal life. This deepens our understanding and empathy for the character, making the story more engaging.

Psychic Distance in Non-fiction In non-fiction, psychic distance plays an equally pivotal role. Here, it can be a tool to guide the reader's understanding and opinion. For example, in a historical account, a distant perspective might provide an overview of the events, allowing the reader to grasp the bigger picture. Then, by zooming in on individual experiences, the author can make the reader feel the human impact of these events, making the account more powerful and memorable.

Manipulating Psychic Distance Modulating psychic distance is primarily done through narrative perspective and choice of details. For example, 'She was upset' places us at a distance. We are told about her emotions. On the other hand, 'Her hands trembled as she fought back tears' brings us closer, showing us her emotions.

Playing with psychic distance can also be done through dialogue. Direct internal dialogue ('Why can’t I get this right?') is more intimate than indirect dialogue ('She wondered why she couldn’t get it right.').

Final Thoughts Understanding and utilizing psychic distance is a powerful tool in a writer's toolbox, often distinguishing between a good story and a great one. By mindfully zooming in and out of your narrative, you can guide your reader's engagement and emotional journey, making your story an unforgettable experience, whether it's a work of fiction or a factual account. So,

If anyone is familiar with Ekhart Tolle, you will have heard about the theme of presence. Presence is the arising of a dimension of consciousness from which you can become aware that there is a voice in your head. This awareness is beyond thinking. It's a space of consciousness from where you can become the observer of your own mind - the awareness behind the thought processes. As writers, I believe this is the space we need to aim for continually, for it is here that the idea of Tolle and the psychoanalyst Carl Jung can intimately interact. Jung believed that human beings are connected to each other and their ancestors through a shared set of experiences and that we use this collective consciousness to give meaning to the world. The sweet spot for a writer must therefore be to access a state of presence to better tap into the collective consciousness. It is only then that the writer will gain a good grasp of the human experience.

So how might one do this? First of all, and this is not too tall an order for most writers, there is a need to slow down, practice mindfulness, to become intimate with the present moment. For it is only in the present moment that life truly comes alive. Not only does slowing down help the brain become better placed for observation, but it is also through mindfulness that the mind becomes more attuned to detail. As every writer knows, God - and therefore the very heart of your novel - lies within such detail. To enhance the practice of mindfulness, which is a practice of continually bringing yourself back to the here and now every time your mind begins to wander, meditation provides a means.

Meditation changes the brain by leading to an increase in Theta and Alpha waves which in turn promote learning, relaxation and a sense of well-being. The faster Alpha waves - generated at around 10 per second, are also associated with daydreaming and creativity. People report that meditation has helped them find their mojo and purpose, deepened their sense of awareness and that there emerges a sense of spaciousness within the body in which new seeds can be germinated and watered. Patience improves as well as a general acceptance of the self, of where you are in life and of your creative endeavours. But more than this...

With meditation, the voice of presence becomes more distinct. It is, to my mind, the voice described well in the hymn, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind: the still, small voice of calm. It is this voice, beyond all others that our frenzied brains might generate that seems to be the closest to the soul. This voice is our wisest part. Our unchanging part. The part that knows, within the present moment, more than we do. Listen to this voice. It is your intuition. Your higher self. It will guide but only if you listen patiently. So how do you know which voice that is? How does one separate the ego - more often than not the negative, nagging voice in our brain, from something more profound? Practising meditation over time will increase your awareness so that eventually this will be the part you come to recognise with a deep sense of simply knowing. Its guidance will elevate your life; help to carry you in the best direction of travel, which means as a writer you can begin to write more intuitively, with less self-doubt and restriction.

There will be other pay-offs to tapping into your essence, into your soul. You will be able to prioritise what's more important to you. A day of writing can't so easily be pushed aside in favour of social media trivia or general procrastination. The groundedness that you feel will empower you to make wiser decisions both to encourage you to write and in turn follow the true heart of your story. If all stories have already been told before, effectively all that you are doing is tapping into the collective unconscious to download the archetypes and the structure that best suits your characters and your story's theme, and you will be doing so with a greater connection to your true essence, in other words, your uniqueness. Unique you, unique story.

Another way meditation can be of benefit to writers is when there is a block or an unsureness as to where your story is to go. Enter your morning meditation practice, which should be at least fifteen minutes, with a question about your writing. Leave this aside as you enter the realm of no mind and following see if a vision begins to emerge. Also, pay closer attention to your dreams. These can become more cryptic when meditation commences and can shed light on the deeper themes within your novel. Essentially, as a novelist, we are aiming for this depth consistently. Dig as deep as you can, and you might just be surprised what your soul manages to retrieve from the very depths of your being and thus the very depths of what it means to be human.

What do novels such as Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein and Heart of Darkness, to name but a few, have in common besides fantastic writing? They are all known as framed novels. To be a frame narrative, the story must act primarily as an occasion for the telling of other stories, forming novels with a narrative surrounding the core story at both ends. This style of story seems to represent the origin of all stories. Stories evolved from an oral tradition within a tribe, with an old and, no doubt, wise person assigned the task of entertaining and of passing on information in a palatable way. An introduction of sorts would have been needed before listeners could momentarily step into another’s shoes and experience their world. Hence the frame. Therefore, to be a frame narrative, the story must act primarily as an occasion for the telling of other stories. One thing to note here is that usually, though there are always exceptions, the frame narration carries little plot.

Some of the earliest frame stories came from ancient Egypt, such as in the Papyrus Westca. Indian literature has many examples too, including the epics: Mahabharata and Ramayana and the fable collections such as Vikram and the Vampire. As this method of telling story became more popular, it gave rise to One Thousand and One (Arabian Nights), The Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in which each pilgrim tells his own tale, the beginning section of Homer’s Odyssey in which, Odysseus narrates much of the Odyssey to the Phaeacians, but, even though this recollection forms a great part of the poem, the events after and before the interpolated recollection are of greater interest than the memory. It can be seen that a frame story in which a single narrative is set in the context of the telling of a story is a technique with a long history.

In a framed novel, the narration can intercept the story at any point and therefore, as with Frankenstein, there can exist various frames, but generally it appears at the beginning and end of a story, to bookend the plot. So what is the point of this literary technique today? Well, the frame can have various benefits in that it can introduce the story, give context to the story, judge the story from an opposing viewpoint, add momentum, add factual information which the main characters are unable to do, connect the present to the past in some format and engage with other points of view.

As with most subjects, once you delve beneath the surface, the frame novel can be further broken down. There are nested stories, in which one or more characters within a frame story act as a storyteller; an epistolary frame in which the story is either communicated through or interspersed with fictional media (traditionally with letters and journal entries from the perspective of one or more fictional characters) and an epigraphic frame where the frame is separated from the core of the story and usually appears as chapter, section epigraphs or as footnotes throughout the text. A bookended frame narrative is perhaps the most popular, however, setting the stage for the story with a character recounting past events. In a film this narration is often in the form of a voice over, which will sometimes involve the telling of the beginning at the end and the end at the beginning. It is important to remember that each of these frame narrative methods can be paired with a particular purpose. These purposes can be to blend the meta fictional world with the fictional world or to strengthen, disprove, or redirect any of the conclusions made from the encapsulated story. Each purpose in turn has its own label: meta-fictional exploration, refutation, reinforcement and redirection which are all quite explanatory. A story can be seen as an object too, observed, for example, in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. These objectified stories are created when the frame character reads a book or watches a movie and either the reality of the frame intrudes upon the fictional world or the fictional world extrudes into the reality of the frame.

Another common reason to frame a single story is to draw attention to the narrator’s unreliability; by explicitly making the narrator a character within the frame story, the writer distances him or herself from the narrator. The technique maybe used to cast doubt on the narrator's truthfulness or version of events, as in Wuthering Heights and also in P.G Wodehoues’s stories of Mr Mulliner. Another use is a form of procatalepsis, where the writer puts the readers' possible reactions to the story into the story’s characters. We see an example of this in the Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. Often this method is employed when a story lacks a strong narrative hook, helping to create greater intrigue.

A specialized form of the frame is a dream vision in which the narrator claims to have gone to sleep, dreamed the events of the story, and then awoken to tell the tale. In medieval Europe, this was a common device, used to indicate that events were fictional; Geoffrey Chaucer used it in The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, Parlement of Foules, and The Legend of Good Women (the last also containing a multi-story frame story within the dream). In modern usage, it is sometimes used in works of fantasy to create suspension or disbelief about the story. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay On Fairy-Stories complained of such devices as unwillingness to treat the genre seriously; he used frame stories of different kinds in his Middle-earth writings. Lewis Carroll's Alice stories (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) include such a frame so that the stories themselves use dream-like logic and sequences. The writer John Bunyan used a dream device in the Christian allegory Pilgrim's Progress and its sequel, explaining that they were dreams he had while he was in prison and felt God wanted him to write down. This worked because it made what might have been seen as a fantasy more like a divine revelation to others who also believed it. Still, even when the story proceeds realistically, the dream frame casts doubt on the events. In the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the events really occur, whereas the dream frame added for the movie detracts from the validity of the fantasy.

In essence though, a frame novel can add structure and help strengthen your story, while also allowing you to create the context for how the narrative should be interrupted. Overall, frame narratives are used to provide the reader with multiple levels of meaning. The frame narrative may contain one embedded narrative or a series of related stories, so that the opportunity for multiple levels of interpretation occurs. The result maybe that the frame may expand or shrink the distance between the reader and the story. It can also change the reader’s sense of what is and what is not important, or imply certain sociological, political or ethical consequences that reach beyond the text into the real world. All of these effects of frame narratives can alter the meaning as well as, most importantly of all, provide an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

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