Monday, May 30, 2011

A Way to Study Outer and Inner Story in Your Favorite Books

Weaving the pathway of outer and inner story (what happens and what's the meaning of it) through a book requires knowing the different effect of each on the reader.  The best way to train yourself is to study outer and inner story in published books.

If you study books in different genres, you discover that each kind of book leans toward a different ratio of outer to inner story.  You can learn a lot about how to balance the two in your particular book.

For instance, nonfiction writers use a lot of outer story; but their anecdotes (inner story for nonfiction is usually illustrative anecdotes) bring the potentially dry material alive. Anecdotes humanize information.  They show how a theory or a method can be applied in real life, which brings interest to the facts. Nonfiction writing grabs a reader via these inner story anecdotes.

Two excellent writers of nonfiction who use inner story this way are Atul Gawande and Malcolm Gladwell.
They work with about a 70/30 ratio; maybe 70 percent of their manuscripts delivers facts, information, theory, or method (outer story), and 30 percent is illustrative anecdotes (inner story).  But that inner story is what makes the information engaging.

Another ratio is found in the genre called "creative nonfiction."  Creative nonfiction, such as essay collections or memoir, needs more illustrative material (inner story), about 40 percent. That makes sense—creative nonfiction includes slightly more human stories. Essayists use anecdote and personal reflection on a topic to bring in the inner story and balance the facts with emotional truth.  

What about entertainment fiction, those wonderful plot-driven novels, such as mysteries or romance?  These have a slightly different ratio, about a 50/50 balance of outer story and inner story.  Plot is the outer story in fiction, which inner story is the meaning, conveyed via setting, shown emotions, and some internal thoughts or feelings.

In some literary fiction, such inner story comprises much of the book--think of those novels that have a lot of lyrical details of setting, sensory images, inner landscape of characters. This level of meaning is hard to manage but it when done well it creates characters we think about for weeks. It’s only effective if it’s woven seamlessly into every outer action, or if events happen naturally and we naturally derive meaning from them.

How do you find these balances and translate them into your own work?  It's hard to count the pages or words and determine an average.  The best way I've found is by studying a published book in your genre, highlighting what is external and internal, or onstage and invisible to us, and comparing what you get with what you are writing.  This teaches the general rules of outer and inner story balance.

As you begin to recognize the ratios in other writers’ work, you’ll see them more clearly in your own.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Get two highlighting markers, one yellow, one blue.
2. Choose a chapter of a published book you’ve read in your genre. Photocopy two pages.
3. Highlight any outer story on these pages in yellow.  This would be anything that could be seen, heard, or witnessed if the pages were being acted in front of you onstage. 
4. Highlight any inner story in blue.  This would be anything that would be invisible to you if acted onstage, such as thoughts or feelings that are not based in images, sounds, or other external senses.
5. See what you get. What's the ratio this writer is working with?
6. Now do the same with two pages of your own writing.  How close are you to the ratio in published work in your genre?