The Ingenium Books Podcast: Author. Publisher. Changemaker.

Point of View and Narrator's Psychological Distance

October 20, 2021 Ingenium Books Season 1 Episode 39
The Ingenium Books Podcast: Author. Publisher. Changemaker.
Point of View and Narrator's Psychological Distance
Show Notes Transcript

We are here today to talk about something that might trip one or two authors up every now and again, certainly at the beginning of their journey into being an author and that is point of view or POV. And related to that is the narrator's psychological distance. I am joined by Amie McCracken. And Amie is one of the fabulous people that we have working with us behind the scenes at Ingenium Books. She's an author. She's an author coach. She's an editor, proofreader, and typesetter.

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We are here today to talk about something that might trip one or two authors up every now and again, certainly at the beginning of their journey into being an author and that is point of view or POV. And related to that is the narrator's psychological distance. I am joined by Amy McCracken. And Amy is one of the fabulous people that we have working with us behind the scenes at Ingenium Books. She's an author. She's an author coach. She's an editor, proofreader and typesetter. And she joins us from Germany. Welcome, Amy.

Hi, thanks for having me.

You're welcome. Okay, so let's start with some definitions. And these two things POV and psychological difference distance are related, but they are also distinct. So let's let's start by having you define for me what POV or point of view is,

yeah, let's do that. So point of view is essentially straightforward. You have first person, second person, third person, that means you are speaking in I, you or he, she. But it can get a bit more difficult beyond that, because particularly when you get into third person, you can have a narrator who is omniscient, someone who is able to dip in and out of the heads of all the characters, or you have third person close, where you have the thoughts of the characters, but it's only specific characters that you can see what they're actually feeling. And then there's third from far away, which is kind of like second,  where it you all you see is the surface level, you don't know what's actually going on in people's heads.

And why is it important?

It's important because it's the filter that you experience the book through. So even in nonfiction and typically nonfiction will go with second person— because you're speaking directly to the reader, you're saying you feel this and you do this, and you take these steps. And that is the the way that the reader experiences the book is via this filter. And so if you don't keep it consistent, you chance losing your reader, you chance that suspension of disbelief being broken.

Okay, I want to come back. Okay. So

one thing there is don't do Yeah, yeah, that's right.

Don't do that, don't have the reader saying what I don't, I don't understand what you're doing or the spirit suspension of belief. Because I'm wanting to say we'll come back to this because it's starting to dig into that. And I want to just before we do that, really important digging in that we talked about the psychological distance piece. So tell me what that is what you mean by that.

So it's actually a term coined by John Gardner in the 80s in his book, The Art of Fiction. And it describes—this is a quote from his book—distance that the reader feels between himself and the events of the story. So it's looking at what level if you think of it as a movie, where you start the movie and you can see the city and then it zooms in a little bit and you can see an apartment, and then it zooms in even more, and you can see the people inside that apartment, and then it zooms right in on the main character and you start to see how angry his face looks. It's those levels of zooming in and out. And obviously using that with your language and your writing, to create all kinds of dynamic and all kinds of different pacing different That voice and it kind of, when you think of all the vague terms, when it comes to writing of like, voice and pace, and Narrator And all of these things, psychic distance actually encompasses all of those. So if you pay attention to it, you can potentially fix any issues you might have with those more vague concepts.

So the psychological distance piece will come into play, regardless of which of the three plus variations of point of view that an author is choosing.

Yes, there are, according to Gardner, there's five levels. And the fifth is stream of consciousness, which you wouldn't technically get from a third person point of view. It's really a first person point of view. But those first four you can use, in any point of view, including second person. Yeah, definitely. So also in nonfiction, but we'll get deeper into that.

Yeah, so let's go back now to the point of view thing. So in my experience, this is one of those kind of basic yet can be difficult to grasp. For authors who are beginning their journey. And it can play out in it. Let's take a hypothetical paragraph. Jane saw the dog jump and felt her heart bleed out of her chest as the dog ran across the road. And Robert was terrified as he thought that Jane was going to run across the road and get hit by a car. So that's a classic, single paragraph split point of view. How do you help people recognize when they are making that split? Let's pause for a moment for a message from our sponsor.

My number one tip, for honestly, fixing anything but fixing point of view in particular, is reading it out loud, I think it's a lot easier to see what you may have missed. When you read it out loud, you can catch a lot of those mistakes, simply by slowing down because your brain will fill in holes. But also, by realizing that your sentence went from Jane to Robert and it went into his head and you won't, you wouldn't necessarily see that when you're reading it because you're filling in those holes. But when you slow down and read it out loud, you're able to see it a bit better. But this is also one of those things. If you have issues with it, having someone else point it out over and over and over again, will really help you realize when you do it and analyzing your writing sometimes takes that outside person telling you what needs to be fixed.

Yeah. And what is this a case where, yes, there are rules. But when you understand the rules, and you get good at following the rules, then you can decide to break them.

You could potentially if you are a more skilled writer, and you want to tackle a full cast of characters, I would say most beginning writers are going to write from one perspective, they're going to have one character who they are deeply connected with. This is also genre specific;  sometimes like YA tends to be one character because you want your reader to really connect. So I think you could tackle it in different ways. And, quote, break the rules. But you're still not going to break the rule to the point that you are going to head hop that is never the right way to break this rule, per se.

Okay, head hopping. You just brought it up, it popped into my head. It hopped into my head just a few minutes ago. Head hopping. What's the definition of that?

Is what the paragraph that you just stated is when you are in someone's perspective, and you jump to someone else's, which you can do with a scene break or a narrator who is omniscient you could do that head hopping works with an omniscient narrator but that has to be established. At the beginning of the story or the beginning of the book, so that the reader knows what to expect.

And is there ever a circumstance where you think it would be permissible to change the narrator’s psychological distance partway through, let's say, you start out as omniscient. That's a POV thing. But you know, you start out farther back, and you come in and then you come back farther out,  is that is that a strategy that might work?

For psychic distance, definitely. That's actually something you want to be moving in and out of. That creates that dynamic and that pace that really works, because you can pull back and just look at settings and introduce things. But then you can also dig deeper into the character. I think the main thing with point of view, if you're looking at it from an omniscient perspective, is to remember that the narrator is a character themselves, they are not you. They are a character. So even if we're talking nonfiction, and you are that omniscient person giving the direction to the readers, it's you and it is your expertise. But you are speaking directly to that reader. And so the reader is who needs to be at the forefront, you need to make sure that they are who you're speaking to, and you know who your audience is. And that's where point of view becomes that filter, it allows readers to experience your book. And so as long as you know who those readers are, you can place the correct filter on the book.

When is the right time for an author to make POV and narrator distance decisions?

I would say it's actually something you can fix. If you want to change it after having written a manuscript, it's not that difficult to change. It's tedious. But it's doable to change it after having written a manuscript. But I think in the planning stages, you should play with different options and see what works the best. So in a nonfiction sense, do you really want to be talking directly to your audience? Do you want to say you? Or do you want to speak in the third and say we are? In a fiction sense? Do you need the inner thoughts of your characters, therefore, like, like direct, direct thoughts? Then do you need first person? Do you really need those? Probably not. So then you might also try third. But I think trying all of them and playing with them, to see what fits your story is doable in the planning stages. But it's also not a big stress to change it afterwards. If it's not the right one.

And changing it and fixing it afterwards. With the manuscripts that you look at and that you work on, would you say that these issues are are something that you find issues with commonly?

The manuscripts are the ones I've worked on in the last few years, I would say no, I'm getting a bit higher caliber of writing, which means people have already taken a look at their work before sending it to me. Yay. Yes, exactly, exactly. Because they think things like tense and point of view are so fundamental. And if you just don't look at your writing before sending it to someone else, they're pretty easy to catch once you recognize how to catch them. So yeah, I've not seen it as much lately. I did recently read one that was trying to be omniscient, and it just wasn't quite working. It worked properly. Like it was written properly. But that filter wasn't right. I wasn't connecting to the characters. I didn't feel that emotional connection. And so, you know, if you're speaking directly to your audience and saying you versus saying we are you getting less of a connection by saying we Then, if you were saying, you

write, and that connection question, it strikes me that regardless of the genre that you're writing, but that connection with your reader is a fundamental question and how deeply you want both to connect to your reader and how deeply you want your reader to connect with the content or two questions that might give you the answers about what your choices are.

Yes, and, and understanding that the way you keep them reading is by making them feel connected, which is why if you have a POV problem, and they stop, because they don't understand what they just read, you risk losing them. So making sure not only that it's consistent, but also that it is the right filter for that book, to create the right connection for the readers is really the most important. Yeah.

So let's dig into some other hypothetical examples. And we'll start on the fiction side and then roll over to excuse me, start on the nonfiction side and roll over to the fiction side. So on the nonfiction side, let's say it's a self help, whether it's self help or business book. So in one instance, you can say okay, that would be the second person you would be saying you because you have advice and information you're sharing with the reader. But is there a problem then with reverting to first person as you're relaying a personal story that demonstrates a point.

As long as that expectation is understood, near the beginning of the book, there are a lot of rules out there that you should establish things like point of view and tense in the first few paragraphs, I would say definitely in the first chapter, so if you're going to have something like I just worked on a nonfiction that actually had stories from other people, and it was direct from their voices. So that was told in a first person perspective, though it wasn't the author. So I think it's definitely doable, you just need to understand that the reader needs to have expectations set so that they don't lose track of what's going on.

And I've had experiences where in nonfiction and the discussion is, well, am I not being more inclusive by saying we instead of you and on one hand, you can say, Well, yeah, you're being more inclusive. But there's a cost.

Yeah, definitely I, the, the reader is not a royal, they are also not reading in a plural sense. Unless they're in a book club, reading it out loud. But even then, that that's still a bit strange. I think we is best used when the author is including themselves in that when it becomes You and I are the team here. And I'm the expert guiding you through this. Not necessarily we as in the group of people who need this book, more, we you and I and that creates the connection between the author and the reader. On the other hand, I think you can be a bit more authoritative in I know what I'm talking about, and I'm going to tell you what to do. So it just gives a little bit of a different feel. And you just have to decide what feel you're going for and what connection you're trying to make with the author. So let's talk about what the reader

yeah with it with right exactly connection with the reader. Let's talk about memoir now. And memoir being one is one of my favorite genres because it's kind of straddles you know, all the worlds but so it is nonfiction and you would think because it's memoir that it's automatically in first person. Is that necessarily the case?

I was as we were talking I was trying to think of a memoir that would be in third person and I don't think I've actually read one that is in third person maybe you have

well I have an example that's almost, so Yvonne Caputo one of Ingenium Books’ authors in her book Flying with Dad, and there are three sections in the book. The first and third sections are in first person. They're about her.  Section one is her first person experience of growing up In the relationship with her father, and the second section goes to third person, not quite omniscient, but definitely third person with some distance because it is talking about her father, becoming an early airplane repair mechanic and then getting flying and becoming a navigator in World War Two, and how he came home with PTSD. And then he started to have children. And so it explains some of the things we learned about difficulty in the relationship in section one. And then section three reverts back to first person again, where she now talks about her adult life and getting closer to her father. So that is one example where I've seen the switch actually work.

Yeah, and I've, that reminded me of another one that is that memoir, but includes family history, and a lot of the family history because she wasn't present for it. Same thing, she turned it into a third person story, which also helps with the believability because if the reader were to read a memoir, from when the memoirist was not alive yet, and it was written in first person, it would feel inauthentic. I think it adds to the authenticity that they are retelling these stories from a third person perspective. So yeah, I think that's definitely a case where more is not necessarily always in first person.

Yeah, and would depend on the way the story is being presented. And all that kind of thing. I was just trying to think, you know, is there an example when second person would be used in memoir? I don't know, nothing pops to mind immediately. But I would never say never, I guess.

Uh, yeah, I think I've seen you know, the random last paragraph of a chapter that's giving a directive style, which sounds like head hopping. But when you do it smoothly, it can work. That's, that's an instance of breaking the rules, because right, technically, you should not change your POV at all. But in that case, was it done with enough finesse? Yeah, that she kind of broke the fourth wall and, you know, brought the people in the theater into the room. Yeah.

So moving into fiction, then there are going to be, you know, a whole bunch, and we're not going to go down each sub genre of fiction. But let's talk about what kinds of stories in the fiction realm might work best, under what POV and psychological distance scenarios?

Well, okay, so POV, genre specific, go look at the books that are like yours. Why is almost exclusively first person, middle grade, exclusively first person, romance, sometimes first, sometimes third, depends how old you're looking at. And that that's another thing is the trends change. Also, if you're looking at standard Western fiction versus Eastern fiction, there's a lot of differences out there. And there's a lot of choices to be made. And I think as the author, that's kind of the beauty of it, you get to pick how to tell the story, because your story could be told 1000 different ways. And you get to pick what shows it off the best. Especially because if you look at something like crime fiction, if you're telling it from first person, you're hiding things from the reader that are also hidden from the protagonist, whereas if you tell it in third person, the reader knows more than the protagonist does. That's a really good example of using the point of view. Right?

And I was going to ask and maybe this is kind of related to that but I was going to ask you whether, when and whether some of the elements in the story and the emotional impact you want the reader to have informed  your choice of POV and narrative distance? 

I think narrator distance definitely POV because it needs to stay consistent. I think that is more a larger structural choice. Whereas narrative distance, it's fluid, it changes throughout the book, it lets you dive in closer and out further. One example we tend to use in my novel course, we use Pride and Prejudice because everybody knows it. And there are only a few instances where you actually get so deep in Elizabeth's head that you know what she's thinking. And it's when Darcy proposes to her, and when Darcy proposes to her, so it's, it's, it's those super, super emotional moments that you get deep into Elizabeth's head. Whereas normally, it's this because it's told in third person, so it's, it's a bit further distanced. But you do get in those emotional moments, you get a lot deeper, and that's what you want. That's the beauty of psychic distance is you can use it to make scenes heavier, or lighter, depending on what's really necessary.

How would you suggest that a writer exercise their POV and narrator distance muscles? Um, I love the keep writing, but

yeah, yeah, right? No, I love to tell people to do things like write the same scene from multiple POVs, or write a diary from a character or write a letter to your character. Just kind of playing things, not necessarily what's going to go in the book, but it's playing with it. And the same can be done for nonfiction because if you're deciding on that way versus you, you can write them and see how it affects the words. Does it make it feel more directive? Does it make you feel authoritative? Or does it make it feel warm and welcoming? And what different things does it do to the same exact thing. So the beauty of writing the same scene, the same concept with different POV ease, lets you see how it would change it.

And you can feel what that difference will be as opposed to trying to have it all gel in your brain.

Yeah, and sitting there trying to say like, I want this feeling to get across, but I don't know how to do it. You knowing what your POV is, will help you get that feeling across to begin with. And then you can spend time finessing the psychic distance. In zooming in and out of the most important things, because even in nonfiction, you can use psychic distance in the sense that especially in the beginning of your chapter, you may be giving some sort of summary about what the reader will be getting. But then you dive deeper into the details and then you dive deeper into what they need to do and then you dive deep, even deeper into how they're going to feel after they do these things. So it's certainly something all writers can pay attention to.

And we can also, just as we were chatting about this, it occurred to me that we can also pay attention to how this mirrors real life experience. You know, I can be driving home and I get home and I realized I wasn't paying any attention to what route I took or I don't remember anything between leaving the office and getting home. Well, where did my head go? That's kind of where we're mimicking what happens in our heads naturally through living life. Yeah,

yeah. And like I said before, psychic distance addresses all of those vague concepts. The idea of voice is just so like, oh, it has voice and you're like, what does that mean? What right? What does that even mean? But when you start to pay attention to the level of the psychic distance, you can see like all I actually can start to get this concept or or the other one that's very obvious is pacing. I think when you're on the very top psychic distance, and you're just stating what the setting looks like, What the people look like? The pace is quick, and it's informative. And that's it. No Frills, it's not deep, it's not heavy, it doesn't make your reader feel anything, they are just getting to know what's going on. So it's, it also allows you to spend time with the characters and get to know them on every different level, which, as humans, as you say, we're not one dimensional. So looking at it from this perspective of five levels, of how deep Can I get from the man is cold to the showing versus telling concepts of he was shivering to, he couldn't believe that he had ever felt this cold ever before. Those are those differences you're getting, and you're covering all the topics of showing versus telling, and pace and voice and character and setting, all with this one thing. If you pay attention to it, and make sure that it varies as you're reading and is used properly to control that pacing and the emotion then you're golden.

What a beautiful way to wrap up this segment. Excellent. Any last thought that was so good, by the way, but any last thoughts before we wrap it up for another week?

No, other than play with it. Don't feel like it has to be perfect right away.

Yeah. And there might be a number of different options that might work and it'll come down to choice. Yes, yeah. Awesome. Amy, thank you so much. And we look forward to having you back another time. We'll figure out what we talk about next. Sounds good. Thank you. Okay, bye. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this episode of The Empowered Author Podcast, please feel free to share it on social media. We'd also be very grateful if you could rate review and subscribe to the Empowered Author on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you access your podcasts. That's helpful for us. But more importantly, it's helpful for other indie authors who are looking for resources to help them on their continuous learning journey.