There’s a concept in writing called psychological distance, and good writers know how to use it. For those of you who studied psychology, you may remember the construal level theory in social psychology, which classifies your thoughts as either abstract or concrete.
It’s a bit of a slippery concept and not that easy to define. It’s like trying to describe the word “intimacy.” Hard to pin down, but you know it when you feel it, don’t you? Or better yet, you know it when you DON’T feel it.
If something feels very close to you, you tend to think about it in concrete terms. If something feels far, you usually think about it in a more abstract way. And that’s what we’re talking about here – whether something or someone in your writing feels close or far away.
Your readers must feel close enough to trust you. So how do you bring your readers close, how do you decrease the psychological distance between you and them? You simply make sure that your readers see the person or object in concrete terms.
Take strawberries, for example. If you had a bowl of fresh strawberries in front of you, you’d see their color, size and texture. You’d notice their ruby red flesh imprinted with tiny golden seeds, their bright green crown, and perhaps a stem. You might smell the sweetness of the ripe fruit and start salivating at the thought of eating one.
These are all concrete observations.
On the other hand, if you thought about strawberries in an abstract manner, you might picture a tiny part of the produce section of a massive grocery store, stacked with a few rows of something red in cardboard containers.
To decrease psychological distance, you pull your reader in, you zoom in on your scene like a photographer would when staging a close-up shot.
Here are some tools you can use to decrease psychological distance:
- Sensory language – use more than one sense in describing a scene
- Use common language that doesn’t call attention to itself, mainly short, everyday words, and uncomplicated sentences
- Showing the viewpoint character’s feelings (SHOW don’t tell)
- Show the character react in a less-than-perfect, human way
(eg s/he can get annoyed, feel cranky, act selfish… s/he’s not always a Hero, any more than real heroes are)
- Use quick paced dialog. Dialog makes you feel part of the conversation and lets you get close enough to participate in the action
When you pull the reader in close and let them see the details, you have closed that psychological distance and will hold the reader’s rapt attention. In turn, they will want to keep reading!