Vivian Gornick talks about “the situation and the story”—the two elements of good prose. What happens and why it happens. Because of her simplicity in describing this complex idea, The Situation and the Story became one of the first truly influential writing books in my life. Carol Bly’s The Passionate, Accurate Writer came next, teaching me about writing of consequence and how to stay unembittered while working with difficult material. Finally, I found Kenneth Atchity’s innovative A Writer’s Time, which transformed the last five manuscripts I completed and published.
I teach online classes and workshops on how to structure your book in any genre. In the workshops, writers learn about and explore the two levels of story that Gornick describes: (1) the situation presented in outer events (“outer story”) and (2) the real story, or the inner changes that come from these events (“inner story”). For most, a successful outer story is the easiest to write; it does not require opening a vein, being as vulnerable on the page, staying at risk.
I tried this idea first on my own work and then in my workshops. I worked for weeks with the techniques in Butler’s From Where You Dream. Slowly, I discovered what Butler was suggesting: that by fully dwelling in a sensory moment, space is created that the reader can enter. Emotion emerges, almost organically.
Most writers believe the reader needs some interpretation (the “telling” that often precedes “showing”) but Butler warms against this. He counsels the writer to just stay in the sensory moment—a very difficult task, especially in early drafts of a book. The rational mind loves interpretation. We want to make meaning of everything. Few readers need that in their literature—it actually can be an irritant. Readers want to be drawn into the “dream” of the experience, as John Gardner wrote about. Interpretation may be needed later, once the emotion is transmitted, but rarely is it needed early on. An inner story (meaning) must evolve organically to be believed.
I recommend adding From Where You Dream to your writerly reading list this spring. And try this simple exercise whenever you want to enliven your own inner story.
- You’ll be describing an event during your childhood, one that evoked strong emotion. Write about this event, using the sense of sound as much as possible. Your writing may encompass the other senses, but really focus on how things sounded, as much as you can recall.
- Add the sense of smell. Continue writing about the event, keeping the emphasis on these two senses. The writing may feel artificial or forced, but don’t let that critic stop you. Try not to interpret, just create as strong a sensory experience as possible.
- Now ask yourself, How is my body feeling as I write this? Close your eyes and perceive your breathing, heart rate, tightness of muscles, any fatigue. Do you feel irritated, bored with your writing, sad, angry? Write about your inner state and your physical sensations—add this information to the writing you’re doing, as you remember this past event.
- Next ask yourself, What don’t I remember hearing during this event I am writing about? Asking yourself this question often brings back memories you may have forgotten—or wanted to forget.
- Then ask yourself, What was I afraid of smelling during this event I am writing about?
- Finish the exercise by writing how you feel now, looking back on this event.