Yesterday, I read a Lit Hub essay by Lan Samantha Chang about the importance of protecting our inner worlds. We create from our inner worlds and promote through our outer world. As writers, we tend to focus on one or the other. The essay has inspired next month’s newsletter topic. This week, let’s explore another set of inner and outer experiences as we delve deeper into Donald Maass’s book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface.
In last week’s newsletter, we explored Donald Maass’s thoughts on the inner and outer modes for writing your characters’ emotions. This week, we’ll look at your protagonist’s inner and outer journey.
The outer journey is represented by the plot, which “holds up the novel’s structure like columns hold up a skyscraper.” But you need more than a series of columns to tell a great story. To give your plot a sense of depth and perspective, you need the “crosswise beams of the protagonist’s inner journey.” Plots reveal what happened. Inward journeys, or character arcs, give your plots their meaning.
It’s likely your stories tend more toward plot or character arc, but telling a powerful story requires you to master both. Focus too much on plot, and your story will feel superficial. Hang everything on the inward journey, and we’ll wonder what’s causing your character’s turmoil.
Great stories swing from both poles. Characters do things that create inner struggles and then use those inner struggles to form actions that move the story forward.
According to Maass, “human beings can be divided into two broad psychological categories or polarities: those who store tension and those who store energy…. People who store tension turn inward. They ponder, reflect, think, and feel. Those who store energy turn outward and prefer to go for a run or smack a ball with a stick.”
Knowing your tendency toward energy or tension will help you understand what parts of a story are easy for you to create and what parts you must intentionally build.
Between drafts, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I a person who tends to store tension or energy?
- Which polarity have I written for my character?
- After reading my draft, what do I need to include to balance the poles of the story’s inner and outer journey?
- If I’m writing more about energy (action), what internal resources will help me explore the emotions behind my character’s actions?
- If I’m stuck in my protagonist’s head, can I figure out what actions reveal my character’s angst and their reactions to the story’s conflict?
If your draft is heavy on plot and light on introspection, it’s likely you’re failing to identify and capitalize on your scenes’ emotional beats—those pivotal moments where your protagonist ponders then responds to the conflict between what they want and what’s possible. If this is happening, step back and ask yourself what the story is about. For example, is this a story about loss, connection, or loneliness?
Once you know your story, consider what part of this conflict your scene reveals. For example, maybe your character desperately wants to be seen as legitimate, and therefore worthy of love, just as Bone does in Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina.
In Allison’s novel, Bone is so hungry for her mother’s love, she’s willing to do anything to keep from upsetting her, even if it means enduring her stepfather Glen’s horrific abuse.
After one beating, Bone is taken to see a doctor. An x-ray reveals her collar bone has fused into a lump, and her tailbone has broken. The doctor insists she tell him what happened. He slaps the headboard of her bed, demanding answers, as Bone watches her mother’s fingers grip the palm of her free hand. When Bone feels her mother’s “icy, but comforting fingers” on her back, she asks to be taken home, somehow knowing that to be loved she must keep her mother’s secrets.
If you’ve set up shop in the narrator’s head, make something happen in the outer world. Maass says this is especially important if your characters are psychologically tormented.
But, when exploring your inward journey, don’t just think about swinging from action to emotion. Think about how you can take the emotion you’re exploring and swing it to one of its poles. For example, “is there a point when self-awareness turns into self-confidence, or goodness hardens into self-righteousness?”
Maass says, “Characters are most interesting when they’re inconvenient.” Characters filled with righteous anger might be easy to cheer for, but what if that righteous anger narrows to revenge? And what if that revenge morphs into torture?
Writing inconvenient characters can be uncomfortable because they require you to step beyond the bounds of what you normally write. But the payoff in terms of story is huge. Inconvenient characters explore territory we’re all hungry to examine. They say the uncomfortable yet true things lurking in our hearts and let us explore the forbidden.
As you prepare for bigger story payoffs, send me your answers to the following questions:
Do you typically write about energy or tension?
What would help you write about the opposite polarity?
Which inconvenient characters are the hardest to write about?