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. 

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