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The Inner/Outer Balance

Do you talk a lot about yourself, or are you the bottled-up type?  Which is better?  Which type of person do you suppose is easier for others to know?

Talking a lot about yourself doesn’t necessarily mean that we know the real you.  By the same token, being tight-lipped could well make you easy to read.  Neither personality type is better, ask me, it is only a matter of how easily, and how well, we sense who you are.  What you’re feeling.  How you see things.

Thing is, we want to know you.  Share your experience.  Connect.  Find out what we have in common.  Know that we are not alone.  Are you willing to let us in?  Do you feel safe doing so?  If you’re an open book, that’s great.  If you need time to reveal yourself, that’s fine too.  The point today is to understand yourself because how comfortable, and how quickly, you open up is connected to how you handle your characters on the page.

When reading a story, what we want above all things is to connect.  Exciting plots and lofty prose are nice in a novel, but the deepest involvement we feel comes from those moments when our hearts fuse with your protagonist’s, and when something happening in the story feels like it is happening to us.

What happens in a story is not happening to us, of course.  What characters are going through can seem like it is magically transferred to us but, actually, it’s not.  What we read stimulates in us recognition.  We associate story experiences with our own real lives and the wealth of feelings that we’ve banked.  When an association is strong, we naturally—although incorrectly—ascribe what we feel to the story.  Readers make comments such as, “It’s like the author was writing about me!”

Obviously not, but let’s focus on what produces that “as-if” feeling in readers.  Back in November here on WU, Dave King gave us a terrific post on immersive POV [1], in which he edited a scene in which a wedding photographer is coaxing spicier shots from her bride-and-groom subjects.  Dave shaped the passage to emphasize the photographer’s thought process, thereby immersing us more completely in her POV.

Today, my question is: How much immersion is effective?  What’s the right balance of interior thoughts and feelings versus outward action?  This question is often posed as show versus tell.  That’s an accurate way to pose it, to a point, but framing the issue as show versus tell leads us to a false value judgment.  Either showing or telling must be inherently better, right?  (Mostly show gets the nod.)

The truth is that neither is superior, what matters is the effect you are having on your reader; whether your reader is experiencing recognition.  Spelling out interior thoughts and feelings can do that, but so can implying those through outward action.  However, not just any thoughts and feelings or action will work.  There is a trick.  Let’s turn to a couple of examples to examine both the benefits and pitfalls of either approach.

The Case for Telling

Charlie Jane Anders’s upcoming The City in the Middle of the Night [2] is a science fiction novel in which humankind has fled Earth and now struggles to survive on a planet called January, the rotation of which means that it always (like our Moon) faces its star.  The only habitable area for humans is the penumbra between dark and light, where two crumbling cities vie.  The story’s protagonist is timid girl named Sophie who, as we meet her, has run away from an expected marriage and is enrolled at the Gymnasium, an elite college.  Sophie is crushing on her glamorous friend Bianca, who has a privileged background but is a student revolutionary.   Sophie’s infatuation is conveyed in intimate terms:

How long have Bianca and I been roommates?  Sometimes it feels like forever, sometimes just an interlude.  Long enough that I know her habits, what each look or gesture probably signifies, but recent enough that she still surprises me all the time.  According to the calendar, it’s Marian after Red, which means the first term is half over.  When I’m not talking to Bianca in person, I’m thinking of what I’ll say to her the next time we’re together and imagining what she’ll say back.

Lately, when Bianca talks to me illegally after curfew, I crawl onto her shelf so I can hear her whisper.  Her breath warms my cheek as she murmurs about school and art and what would it even means to be free.  Our skins, hers cloud-pale and mine the same shade as wild strawflowers, almost touch.  I almost forget not to tremble.

Charlie Jane Anders clearly values the inner experience of her protagonist.  Sophie’s feelings are as important—maybe more important—than anything happening on the planet called January.  Did the passage above draw you in?  Did you feel Sophie’s adolescent aching for so-close-yet-out-of-reach Bianca?  If so, then Anders’s use of immersive POV is working for you.  Writing found on this end of the inner/outer spectrum is, for you, effective.

On the other hand, did you find the intimacy of this passage cloying?  What did you think of the line, I almost forget not to tremble?  Did that, for you, artfully capture a girl’s struggle with her own longing, or did it strike you as pretentious and self-consciously arty?  If you found that flourish off-putting, then immersive POV in this case has gone a step too far, or at least the author’s prose is, for you, straining too hard for effect.

Anders’s immersive POV passage is neither right nor wrong, good nor bad.  It is either effective for you or not.  You are the audience for this writing or you are walking out of the theatre.  Which way you feel isn’t the point.  What matters, first of all, is that you know whether interiority beckons you in or pushes you out.  Second, it matters that we all understand why interiority works when it does.  It works when there is not only intimacy but inner conflict.

Have another look at Anders’s passage.  Sophie’s longing for Bianca is tremulous, palpable—and unrequited.  Bianca is so very close yet so out of reach.  That is how our recognition is achieved.  We’ve all been there, wanting something—or someone—that we cannot have.  In this passage, Anders doesn’t ask us to go along with any arbitrary, adolescent musing on Sophie’s part.  Anders focuses on Sophie’s ache.  Call it strong feeling, even pain, but ask me emotional pain—when we feel it—is the result of inner conflict.

The Case for Showing

On the other end of the spectrum we find the school of tight-lipped, hands-off, just-show-me-the-evidence writing that most values showing.  Associated closely with both pulp storytelling and high literary style, this approach eschews inner gushing in favor of outward, demonstrative action—or its absence.  Purists in this approach are not plentiful, but one such author was the great short story writer Raymond Carver [3].

Carver’s credits are swoon-worthy for literary aficionados: The New Yorker, Antaeus, The Antioch Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, The Iowa Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares and on down the alphabet of prestige publication.  Open up a Carver collection, flip to any random page and you’ll find yourself in a place of plain prose and gritty, blue-collar stories reported with almost wholly objective detachment—or so it might seem.

Carver’s story “So Much Water So Close to Home” is narrated by Claire, the wife of a man, Stuart, who on a wilderness fishing trip with three buddies discovered the nude body of a murdered teenaged girl floating face down in a stream.  Because it was late and they were far from their car, and drunk, the men waited overnight before reporting their discovery.  Although Stuart emphatically maintains that he did nothing wrong, the lurid nature of the crime and Stuart’s callous delay of duty have an unsettling effect on their town.  People will not leave it alone.  Stuart grows ever more agitated and ever more insistent on his blamelessness.

Claire tries to maintain a sense of normalcy.  She and Stuart buy some beer (a Carver nutritional staple) and go for a drive, but the day goes wrong.

So much water so close to home, why did he have to go miles away to fish?

“Why did you have to go there of all places?” I say.

“The Naches?  We always go there.  Every year, at least once.”  We sit on a bench in the sun and he opens two cans of beer and gives one to me. “How the hell was I to know anything like that would happen?” He shakes his head and shrugs, as if it had all happened years ago, or to someone else.  “Enjoy the afternoon, Claire.  Look at this weather.”

“They said they were innocent.”

“Who?  What are you talking about?”

“The Maddox brothers.  They killed a girl named Arlene Hubly near the town where I grew up, and then cut off her head and threw her into the Cle Elum River.  She and I went to the same high school.  It happened when I was a girl.”

“What a hell of a thing to be thinking about,” he says.  “Come on, get off it.  You’re going to get me riled in a minute.  How about it now?  Claire?”

I look at the creek.  I float toward the pond, eyes open, face down, staring at the rocks and moss on the creek bottom until I am carried into the lake where I am pushed by the breeze.  Nothing will be any different.  We will go on and on and on and on.  We will go on even now, as if nothing had happened.  I look at him across the picnic table with such intensity that his face drains.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” he said.  “I don’t—”

I slap him before I realize.  I raise my hand, wait a fraction of a second, then slap his cheek hard.  This is crazy, I think as I slap him.  We need to lock our fingers together.  We need to help one another.  This is crazy.

The first thing you may notice is that this passage is not entirely devoid of interiority.  We will go on and on and on and on.  Even so, it is lean.  Much is left unstated.  Like the river, there is a strong undercurrent, what we call subtext.  What could be spelled out is instead implied.  What could be said aloud is suppressed.

Claire is haunted by a teenage trauma; Stuart is burdened by guilt.  Do you get the feeling that they could have avoided the slap by talking openly with one another?  Instead, they drink beer in the classic way of Carver characters whose tragedy comes not from change but from their inability to change.

My point here is that subtext works when under the surface there is something, and that something is an unresolved inner, or interpersonal, conflict.

Incidentally, what did you think of the cutaway action, We sit on a bench in the sun and he opens two cans of beer and gives one to me.  Did that line, for you, simmer with tension or did it seem a pointless delay, merely marking a beat, a reflexive emphasis of the story’s realism?  If that line heightened the effect of the story moment for you, then Carver’s showing is working.  If it felt like empty words, then “seeing” the scene doesn’t matter to you so much.

Whether or not you are the audience for Carver’s writing doesn’t concern me; what matters is that you are aware of the relative effect of showing as opposed to telling, and how that effect is achieved.  I say it that way that because in your awareness lies the answer to the issue of inner/outer balance.

The Case for You

Blabbing a lot sometimes says little; saying little can sometimes tell us a lot.  It all depends.  Laying out a character’s interior life can be richly involving.  Implying it can be equally powerful.  What makes either approach effective is, as we’ve seen, not inherent in the inner or outer method itself but in the conflicts that each approach captures.

In manuscripts, the choice of inner or outer mostly is not a conscious choice but an easy default to what the author finds comfortable.  The default depends on the author’s personality, on genre expectations, on audience and on how the author would like to be perceived.

While generally speaking it’s good to write in a way that feels natural, the default mode isn’t always going to work.  I almost forget not to tremble is going to feel, to some readers, like cheap showing off.  Opening a beer will, for other readers, come across as easy, empty words inserted because the author couldn’t think of anything better.

No matter how you write, sooner or later you will fall prey to mannerisms.  You can’t entirely avoid that, but you can be aware of your predilection, evaluate what you write and adjust.  If you heighten conflict or tension, then whether you spell out your characters’ thoughts and feelings or plant them in subtext your pages will be effective.

So, what is the right balance between inner and outer?  “Right” is the wrong way to look at it.  A better way is understanding what works no matter who you are as an author.

Which mode comes more naturally to you, inner or outer?  Do you mix?  What are your favorite examples of each mode from your own work or that of others?

About Donald Maass [4]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [5]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [6], The Fire in Fiction [7], Writing the Breakout Novel [8]and The Career Novelist [9].