Using Donald Maass’s Inner, Outer, and Other Modes Will Help You Crack the Code on Writing about Emotions

Using Donald Maass’s Inner, Outer, and Other Modes Will Help You Crack the Code on Writing about Emotions

Last Saturday, I spent an hour in a sensory deprivation tank filled with body temperature water and 800 pounds of Epsom salts. 

After my session, someone asked, “Did you spend some time on the astral plane?”

Grinning, I replied, “Why yes I most certainly did.” 

If you’d like a comic look at the range of experiences people have while in these tanks, check out this clip from the Big Bang Theory

For the record, all of my sensory deprivation tank experiences have thankfully been like Sheldon’s. 

Separating myself from the world’s constant sensory assault gave me a chance to recharge. Afterward, I was keenly aware of the ways inward feelings, outer expressions, and our exchanges with others impact the way we experience the world.

All of this aligned perfectly with the inner, outer, and other modes of writing Donald Maass talks about in The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface.

When using the outer mode, we show emotions through our characters’ actions and the subtext embedded in their interactions.

Donald says, “Action is an opportunity for us to feel something, not a cause of feeling something.”

To illustrate this point, he uses an example from The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Upon release from a psychiatric facility, our protagonist, Pat, must meet with his outpatient psychiatrist. As he waits for someone to call his name, Kenny G plays on the office sound system. Unable to take one more note from that “evil bright soprano saxophone,” he topples the waiting-room furniture. 

Maass encourages writers to keep their stories within the reader’s zone of tolerance. He believes “the best way to deal with characters who are dark, tormented, suffering, or insane” is to show what’s happening externally rather than trapping readers in a character’s tortured internal monologue.

His advice: “When characters’ emotions are highly painful, pull back.”  

Quick maintains the zone of tolerance through humorous scenes that temper his characters’ pain. 

Writers can also show internal conditions and states of being. To do this, Maass shares Hemmingway’s advice: “Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down and make it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had.” 

The inner mode is where we tell feelings. This equally important part of storytelling must be skillfully executed; however, feelings are often overwritten. Maass says to watch out for overwrought phrases like “his guts twisted with fear” or “her eyes shot daggers at him.” 

Instead, focus on unexpected emotions your characters could have. Often, these emotions exist underneath the surface or beyond the safety of what you typically write. 

Ray Bradbury explores this in Fahrenheit 451, a novel about a futuristic fireman named Guy Montag who makes a living by burning books. A recent experience causes Guy to question his profession. During the next scheduled burn, he takes a book from the house just before it’s doused with kerosene. The owner is told to leave but she refuses. 

As the house burns, we would expect Guy to fear for the homeowner or become overwhelmed by the horror he’s witnessing. But Bradbury gives Guy an unexpected emotion—excitement. 

Unexpected emotions can be used to create reversals from what readers expect. To do this well, familiarize yourself with both primary and secondary emotions and how they play out in human experiences. 

Writers bring their skills to Maass’s inner and outer modes. His other mode belongs to the reader. It includes their unique emotional reactions. 

Readers expect to have a positive experience when reading, but they also want to be challenged. 

So how do you effectively challenge the reader? 

Create novel situations that make readers confront their assumptions and beliefs in such a way that they need to chew on the story to work out its meaning. 

Maass calls this the chewing effect and says, “it makes stories more memorable because readers who chew on stories spend more time with them.”

Another way to create the chewing effect is to go cold during an emotionally intense scene. To go cold, you show your characters’ actions without sharing their emotional responses. You can also do this by sharing emotional responses that conflict with readers’ expectations. 

Jeanette Walls achieves this early in The Glass Castle when she shows her father’s hot-headed behavior while expressing total admiration for him. The incongruence between how the characters behave and how young Jeanette feels makes readers fear for her safety.

To learn more about the power of going cold, check out this essay by Dylan Landis.

So, what helps you understand your character’s emotions? 

What strategies do you use for exploring their inner and outer modes of expression? 

What challenges do you face? Send me an email

Your answers might lead to a future blog post. 

Answering This One Weird Question Will Help You Build Better Characters

Answering This One Weird Question Will Help You Build Better Characters

Two weeks ago, I started a class where the instructor asked the following question:

What if you were The One?

Like many people, I squirmed in my chair. The One? Seriously? 

Sensing our discomfort, he asked us each to list the ways we’re already the ones making a difference in another person’s life.

The one who feeds the cats. 
The one who tucks the kids into bed. 
The one who visits a mother in a nursing home. 
The one who writes stories that make people feel less alone.

After we created our lists, he returned to his original question.

If you were The One, and nothing and no one was against you, how would you live your life?

What would you allow yourself to do?

Maybe these questions sound arrogant or absurd. But he’s not the first person to entertain these ideas.

American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham is famously quoted as saying the following to her students:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” 

If you were The One, would you feel more alive?

Would you allow yourself to be a channel not just for your stories but for the emotions that enrich them?

In the Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, Maass says, “how characters experience their story determines how readers experience a novel (or memoir).”  Like it or not, “you reveal your inner self right away.”

He says a writer’s positivity—or lack of it—gets transmitted into their work. Slush piles are filled with misery-laden manuscripts that only go from bad to worse—if they go anywhere at all.

“Cynical writing tries too hard.”

To write well, Maass encourages writers to cultivate a sense of positivity or indomitable resilience that provides a life force for your character’s journey.  This positivity encompasses the best of you—your nerve, your drive, your sense of hope.

This isn’t about writing Pollyanna characters and cheerful plotlines.

Maass uses Ben H. Winter’s novel The Last Policeman to illustrate the kind of positivity he’s referring to. This novel is about an asteroid named Maia that’s six months away from colliding with the earth. Society is collapsing. There are bankruptcies and price controls. Guns have been outlawed. Religious mania and suicides are up. But even as life unravels, one gritty cop, Hank Pike, tries to solve the latest crime. His colleagues think he’s crazy. Who cares if the most recent death is a suicide or a murder? Hank does, and he’s determined to find out what really happened.

That desire to get the job done in the face of worldwide calamity is the positivity Maass is talking about.

And doesn’t this definition fit for the writing life too?

Writing well requires us to muscle through countless drafts, rejections, and near-constant ambiguity and uncertainty.

Yet, we continue to write.

To keep doing this, some small part of us must believe we’re The One with the positivity required to write something important.

If this is true, what would it take to believe that no one and nothing is against you?

What would you need to believe or do to see every hardship as a lesson, every setback as a gift, every loss as the beginning of something new?

Does it sound like I’ve hopped on board the bullshit train and started to blow its horn?

Do you wish you were onboard too?

All I ask is that you figure out what you believe and then ask yourself the following questions:

How are my answers working for me?
Do they give me courage?
Are they helping me create characters that persevere, even when their worlds collapse around them?

And, if these questions feel too big, try this one:

When are you the one who makes a difference in someone’s life? 

Don’t be afraid to recognize your contributions to the world.

Instead, use them to sustain your writing life, and as always, keep writing on.

Two Ways to Strengthen the Cause-and-Effect Chain in Your Manuscript

Two Ways to Strengthen the Cause-and-Effect Chain in Your Manuscript

Over the weekend I dreamt I was caulking my bathtub with toothpaste while delivering a speech to the UN. 

After the speech, I ended up at a resort that flooded every afternoon. 

Fearing a mold infestation, I suggested hotel staff build a gate to prevent the high tide from soaking the first-floor rooms. 

My suggestion worked, but it also trapped everyone in the resort until low tide. As we waited for the water to recede, a few disgruntled vacationers dipped their toes in the alligator-infested water. 

Because this was my dream, I wanted to understand it. So after waking up I spent a few hours trying to find the dream’s hidden meaning. 

But if this hot mess of disconnected ideas showed up in a published story, I might stop reading mid-paragraph. 

Good stories make sense and help me understand something about myself. 

Great stories have an invisible magnetic river that pulls me toward an ending so powerful I have to read it again to see how the author pulled it off. 

To develop an invisible magnetic river you need a strong narrative arc, a powerful universal, and a continuous cause-and-effect chain that runs through your manuscript.

Master the cause-and-event chain and each item will propel your story forward.

Break the chain or fail to create one and you’ll lose, confuse, or bore your readers. 

So how do you guarantee there’s a powerful cause-and-effect chain in your manuscript? 

If you’re a plotter who likes to plan your entire book before writing the first word, Bret Anthony Johnston recommends you start with the end and then outline backward until you reach the beginning of your story. 

This technique works well if you know your ending. 

But if you don’t have an ending in mind or you’re a pantser who likes to discover the story as you draft, simply use this technique after you’ve completed a traditional outline or written a first draft.  

If you’re not a fan of outlining, you can write a synopsis for your project after you’ve completed a strong third or fourth draft. If you’ve written a book, your synopsis should be between two to four pages in length. If you’ve written an essay or short story, shoot for a paragraph. 

While this might seem like extra work, it isn’t. If you plan to publish your book, you’ll need a synopsis for the querying process. Plus, it’s easier to see the flaws in a two- to four-page document than it is in a two-hundred-fifty-page manuscript. Revising at the synopsis level can help you find targeted ways to improve your story’s cause-and-effect chain that might be impossible to see if you’re trying to complete a chapter-by-chapter revision of your manuscript. 

Once you’ve written your synopsis, ask the following questions: 

  1. How does your main character change from beginning to end? If the main character doesn’t change, your story has a serious problem. 
  2. Do you know what the main character wants at every point listed in your synopsis? If you don’t, you need to figure out why these events matter. Once you’ve solved that problem, ask yourself whether the character’s need in each situation is related to the change you identified in question one. If it’s not related, consider cutting that item. 
  3. Have you created an interlocking sequence of events?  If you can insert the words “and then” between your events, it’s likely you’ve created a series of interesting yet unrelated situations. To remedy this, employ the principle of “but” and “therefore” used by the creators of South Park. You can read about this principle here, but let me share a few basics. The words “and then” suggest your events are not connected. For example, you can caulk your tub with toothpaste “and then” for unrelated reasons present to the UN. The words “but” and “therefore,” suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between your events. Here’s what my dream might look like if I applied the principle of “but” and “therefore.” 

I was scheduled to give a Zoom lecture to the UN. 

But two minutes before the event, I discovered the only place in my house with good WIFI was the bathroom. 

Therefore I set up my laptop in front of the shower. 

But the grout was in terrible shape. 

Therefore I used some toothpaste to fill in the cracks right before my speech. 

The speech was successful therefore we celebrated with an island getaway. 

The hotel was great but it flooded every afternoon. Therefore I suggested they build a gate to stop the water. 

Okay, it’s still not a great story, but do you see how inserting “but” and “therefore” improved it? 

Once you’ve applied the principle of “but” and “therefore” to your synopsis, you can apply it to your chapter or scene summaries. If this interests you, check out the following blog post.

After you’ve shaped your scene or chapter summaries, it will be easier to refine your manuscript’s invisible magnetic river. 

Don’t get discouraged if your early or even mid-stage drafts look a little like my dream. Most writers fail to see the problems in their cause-and-effect chains, especially when they’re working on book-length manuscripts. If you get frustrated, put your project away and work on something else. When you’re ready to revise, you’ll find the connection points that shape your idea into a praiseworthy story. 
 What strategies have you used to build your cause-and-effect chains? 

How have these strategies helped you improve your drafts? 

One Exercise that Can Boost Your Creative Intuition

One Exercise that Can Boost Your Creative Intuition

Over the weekend, I celebrated my forty-seventh birthday with a cake, a silly Facebook post, and a dinner party with actual humans. 

I planned everything myself. 

This might not seem like a big deal to you, but I grew up in a home where having opinions, wants, or needs could lead to a crisis that ended with your favorite belongings smashed against the floor. 

By early adulthood, I’d mastered the ability to suppress my desires for even simple things. If someone asked what I wanted for dinner I said, “I don’t know. What do you want?”  

Whatever the response, I replied, “Me too.” 

Once, this strategy led to a celebration dinner for a promotion I’d received at Red Lobster. Just so you know, I can’t stand seafood. My stomach churned as I inhaled clouds of fish-flavored air and gnawed on a corn cob while my partner scarfed down Cheddar Bay Biscuits and bites of lobster tail.  

Ever chewed on a corn cob? 

It’s a lousy way to pass the time. 

But dinner isn’t the only place where we suppress our desires.

Sometimes, we treat our writing lives the same way. 

How many times have you poopooed an idea that felt too outrageous? 

Or revised a story to please the person in your writing group or class who seemed to know best, even though their feedback fundamentally changed your story? 

Ever abandoned a manuscript because someone said it wasn’t marketable? 
Your ideas are your currency. 

Unlike money in a bank account that earns interest, unused creative ideas lose their value. 

So how do you turn the spark of an idea into an actual story?

You write a shitty first draft. 

But it’s not that simple. To write that shitty first draft, you have to trust yourself and the process. 

Here’s an exercise to help you build a little trust. 
Make sure to set aside between thirty minutes to one hour so you can complete items 1 – 4 during one writing session.

  1. Meditate for five minutes. If you’re new to meditation or want to expand your meditation repertoire, check out this blog post
  2. After your meditation, set a timer for three minutes then begin with the following line: I want to write about Don’t stop until the timer sounds.  
  3. When time is up, star the most interesting item. This is your desire. 
  4. Set a timer for twenty minutes and begin the shitty first draft of that story. If the first twenty minutes energizes you, you can write for another twenty minutes. Try to keep going until the idea begins to feel like a project. 
  5. If you’ve just completed your first draft, continue with this step. But, if you’ve taken a break, reread your piece. Once you’re ready, ask yourself which organ in your body houses this story.Don’t think about it. Just write down your first answer. 
  6. If your mind blanks, write the following line in your journal. If I had to guess where the story lives it would be…Using your nondominant handwrite down the first organ that comes to mind. 
  7. Once you have an answer, click here to discover how your organs and emotions are connected.  As you read through this blog post, did you notice any connections? Which emotion resonated with you? Use this information to strengthen your story’s conflict.  
  8. Next, write down everything you know about this emotion. For example, what do you know about anger?


  • Where does it come from?
  • Who’s allowed to be angry?   
  • How have you healed (or not healed) your anger? 
  • How does anger influence the story idea you came up with? 
  • How does the character’s understanding of anger evolve over the course of the story? 

     Answering these questions can help you build a narrative arc. 

     Keep it up and you might even find a theme. 

  1. Now, return to your shitty first draft and keep writing

Trust that the story is teaching you something important. All you need to do is show up and listen to what it has to say. 

Trusting in your creative process helps build the creative intuition each writer must develop. 

If you want to truly understand its power, join me this Thursday, 4/15/21, from 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM EDT for my pay-it-forward generative writing class where we’ll put these principles into practice. 

All I ask in return is that you either donate to your favorite writing organization ($10 minimum) or find a way to support another writer. Buy a book. Share an essay on social media. Write a review then post it on Amazon and Good Reads. 

That’s it. 

To join the class, send me an email by Wednesday 4/14/21 at 5:00 PM EDT. Be sure to send me a screenshot of your donation or effort to support another author. 

Completing this exercise and showing up to this class are opportunities to claim your creative space. 

It’s a little like saying this is what I want for dinner. 

It’s such a simple thing, and yet it can have powerful results. 

I hope to see you this Thursday.

And when you finish this exercise let me know what it taught you about the writing process.

Birthday Month Giveaway Number One: Two Ways You Can Turbocharge Your Writing Life

Birthday Month Giveaway Number One: Two Ways You Can Turbocharge Your Writing Life

On Saturday, April 3, 2021,  I received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Over the past twelve months, I’ve rarely ventured outside my neighborhood.  

As vaccination day approached, I realized I would spend at least an hour inside a mass vaccination site that held more people than I’d seen all year. 

That alone scared me.

But I believed the jab was my ticket to freedom, so I kept the appointment. 

The vaccination site had been set up inside an old department store. A medical team had decorated the chipped floor with tape lines that resembled runways. Volunteers in bright orange shirts smiled with their eyes as they directed traffic. 

The closer I got to the needle the more my heart pounded. 

I wanted to get the vaccine, but as a person with autoimmune issues, life has shown me there are far worse things than COVID isolation. 

After answering the required questions, a warning appeared on my file. Damn, I thought, wondering if they were going to send me away. But I was told they’d give me the shot in exchange for a thirty-minute wait.  

I said a quick prayer, accepted my shot, then plunked down in the chair so I could scroll through my email. 

To my right, a gentleman named Leroy chatted with anyone who looked in his direction. Like me, he had an extended post-vaccine wait. When he laughed, his whole body shook with a force that made his wheelchair squeak. He was happy to be around other people and so eager to share plans for his post-vaccine life that others shared their plans too.  Eventually, I struck up a conversation with Leroy about weekend plans. He told me a friend had invited him over for Easter dinner, which was a gift since he didn’t have family in the area. 

In a few days, I’ll turn forty-seven.

The vaccine and my conversation with Leroy were my first two birthday gifts. 

Long ago, I learned that the fullness of our lives resides not in the gifts given to us, but those we bestow on others. They create a chain reaction inside us that increases our openness, receptivity, and happiness.

In an open and receptive state, we’re more likely to hear our muse, show up to our writing lives, and work on the stories we care about. 

During the month of April, I want to give a few gifts of my own. In this month’s newsletter, I’m going to talk about how you can use chain reactions to turbocharge your stories while also giving you some opportunities to create those chain reactions in your writing life. 

This week I have two opportunities for you. 

If you’ve recently finished (or have almost finished) your novel, I’m giving away one spot in Lindz McLeod’s Query Writing Seminar which takes place this Thursday, 4/8/21, from 2:00 PM EDT – 4:00 PM EDT. 

I met Lindz in New York City while we were both attending the Writer’s Hotel Conference. Her talent and skills are off the charts. Over the past two years, I’ve been blown away by her productivity, determination, and publishing prowess. You can find a full description of the session below. 

Here’s what I can guarantee to the lucky recipient. You’ll have a fabulous time during the session, and you’ll leave with an arsenal of tips and tricks that will help you land an agent. 

I’m giving this away to the first person who sends me an email. 


UPDATE: The free spot has already been taken, but you can still sign up for her course by clicking here
I ask that you pay this gift forward in two ways:  

  1. Follow Lindz on Twitter: @lindzmcleod
  2. If you love her course, write a review and share it with her and on social media. 

And, for those of you who are somewhere between your first word and the finish line, I’ve got a special gift for you. 

On Thursday, 4/15/21, from 1:00 PM EDT – 2:30 PM EDT, I will offer a ninety-minute pay-it-forward generative writing class. It’s an opportunity to give back, get mindful, draft something new, and ask questions about the writing process. 

To reserve your spot, I ask that you send me an email that includes one of the following: 

  1. A screenshot of a donation to a charity or writing organization of your choice (minimum $10). 
  2. A screenshot that shows your support for a fellow writer. This could be anything from reading and sharing their essay or short story on social media to writing a 5-sentence review of their book on Good Reads and Amazon, to telling others to follow them. 

To receive your spot, send me an email with a screenshot of your act of generosity. That’s it.

Doors for this opportunity will close on Wednesday, 4/14/21,  at 5:00 PM EDT. 

I hope to see you on 4/15.

Until then, tell me about a time when doing something for others improved your life. I’d love to hear your story. 

 Happy writing and happy spring! 

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