Saturday, May 21, 2011

Balancing Outer and Inner Story in Your Book

Outer story is the foundation for all good books. Outer story grounds the reader in your material, whether you are writing about people, politics, or potatoes. It creates structure, a logical sequence of information or events, a believable time and place. It lets the story track for a reader like a
train smoothly traveling from one city to another.

How does a writer find the outer story? With outer specifics: where the story is happening, what is occurring, who is doing what, what theories and techniques are most important, what obstacles or conflicts are encountered, how an idea is tested or used.

Outer story explores the questions: Who? What? When? Where? How?

Outer Story in the Different Genres
In nonfiction, outer story is information, facts, opinions, and ideas. What your book is about, what information it will pass along to the reader, what method you are teaching.

In memoir and fiction, outer story is presented via plot: the outer events or action. These events must always be externally realized. It doesn’t count as outer story when a person thinks or dreams or writes or emails about an event, since these actions are internally based. Outer story is always external, outside of a narrator’s head or emotions.

Why? Because we believe first what’s shown, or demonstrated, before we believe what a narrator is trying to tell us. Compare “My brother was a loser” to “My brother came home with a ripped shirt, muddy sneakers, and a black eye.” Which version lets you into the story faster?

Externally realized, dramatic events speak louder than words. Outer story is truth revealed in action.

Learning to Write Inner Story
The inner story answers the question Why? Inner story contributes discovery to your book. You’re taking the reader along on your journey. Good inner story surprises the writer as well as the reader when it emerges on the page. Telling too much defeats the delicate nature of inner story because writing effective inner story means not knowing everything. So how do you write the meaning of your book in a natural way?

By discovering as you go.

When I began learning to write inner story, it was a huge mystery. Then I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which details how nonfiction writers build meaning seamlessly into outer events. More than just pairing anecdotes with information, Gornick showed how skilled writers used theme, repetition, pacing, and setting to provide inner meaning to external event. It required craft and risk, vulnerability and awareness.

No longer just reporting facts or opinions, such writing was truly creative.
Reading Gornick, I began asking deeper questions of myself and my material. I began writing not just the situation but also the story behind it.

I really learned to tackle inner story in my book How to Master Change in Your Life. This was my first non-cookbook. In it I wanted to explore why change, for some, is an impossible feat. Why do some people bloom from life’s upsets, happier and healthier than before, and others lose their way?

Answering these questions taught me a lot about the balance of outer and inner story because I realized I needed to explore how I handled change. And I had endured a lot of external changes: divorce, business failure, cancer diagnosis. As dramatic as these changes were, I needed to reveal the inner impact of each.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1. Make a list of ten words that interest you. They can be favorite foods, colors, a city with a strange name that intrigues you.

2. Spend a few minutes quickly jotting down what comes to mind for each word.

3. Do any connect with your book in some unexpected way? Choose one and follow it in a twenty-minute freewriting (no editing) session.

Look for sidetracks that surprise you. This may reveal inner story.

Excerpted from Your Book Starts Here: Create, Craft, and Sell Your First Novel, Memoir, or Nonfiction Book, Copyright 2011 by Mary Carroll Moore.


  1. Reading this post just helped me put my finger on something that was bothering me about a couple chapters in my WIP. Sometimes there isn't anything specific wrong with the writing--it's the balance between inner and outer that has pegged too far in one direction or the other. Thanks so much for the assist!


  2. Thanks, Martina, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Balance is indeed the key. (Lots more about inner and outer story in my book, if you're interested!)

  3. Miss. Mary
    i have novel exam tomorrow and i was confused about inner and outer story.. you helped, thank you.
    the books that are included in the examination are Moll Flanders and The Vicar Of Wakefield.