I have a friend whose comfort zone during a conversation seems to be two inches from my nose. I recently met her at a party and did a little experiment. As she talked, I stepped back. She stepped closer. I stepped back, and she stepped closer. I think I could have led her all around the room.
In film, camera work sometimes calls for a close-up. The scene is tight, in-the-moment, and intimate. Not always comfortable. At other times, a medium shot works better. Or a long shot. Directors choose different shots intentionally for their effect. Novelists do the same, but with words. John Gardner, in his classic book, The Art of Fiction, calls this aspect of writing “psychic distance.” The distance the novelist chooses depends on how far he wants the reader to be from the character’s mind. To explain, I’ve taken one passage from Eye of the Sword and focused it at different distances:
“In the forest east of the castle, the wind swept through the treetops, whispering to the young man below.”
“The newest comain of Camrithia heard a mysterious whisper in the wind.”
“Trevin heard a whisper in the wind and froze in fear.”
“He froze at the wind’s whisper and wondered why now?”
“The hiss of a whisper shot fear up his spine. Blasted voice! Confounded cowardice!”
The first, of course, is the long shot. The rewrites zoom in closer and closer until the last, an extreme close-up, takes the reader into the character’s mind. If you dissect the examples, you’ll see several reasons why. One is character description. In the long shot, he’s only a “young man.” Naming him takes us closer. Once we know his name, if we call him he, we move even closer.
A second factor is language. The long shot is more formal. The extreme close-up is casual and uses Trevin’s thought patterns.
A third factor is point of view. The long shot gives us a narrator’s broad view, which encompasses more of the setting. The extreme close-up comes only from Trevin’s point of view – what he sees, hears, feels, thinks.
You may have noticed other factors as well. I’ll point out some more in my next blog. For now, just know that psychic distance is a valuable addition to a writer’s toolbox. So as you read this week, watch how good writers make the lens zoom in and out. Next week we’ll explore why a writer might use long shots, and when close-ups might be the better choice.
Happy Reading and Writing!
© 2012 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com