Balancing Inner and Outer Story: How Image Leads to Unexpected Depth in a Book Manuscript
Editors know about inner and outer story. But most writers don’t. They don’t realize the balance is essential to crafting page-turning fiction, memoir, even nonfiction.
Case in point: A student in my classes was writing a serious memoir about an accident that almost caused his death and changed his life. He wrote to gain insight and closure on his own experience. But he also volunteers with similarly injured young people, and he hoped his book would help others going through the same trauma.
When we worked together on his storyboard, tracking the outer dramatic events, he listed them without flinching. I felt writerly envy! Not because I wanted to experience what he went through, but because of the endless selection of dramatic outer events to build a book around. Some were so intense, they read like tabloid headlines.
Outer story are events, the who, what, where, and when of your story. What readers can see onstage if your story were a play: movement, sounds and dialogue, setting details like light and temperature. Outer story anchors a book’s trajectory. It makes it easy for a reader to track one event to the next. It creates momentum, tension, and speed.
He nailed outer story. So we began to assess his book’s inner story. For memoir, the ratio should be around 60 percent outer story to 40 percent inner story. Exceptions exist, of course. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls leans even more toward outer story—hers is about 80:20.
Inner story is shown meaning. It sometimes is told meaning, but modern memoir depends more on showing. For my student, it would answer the question, How have I changed because of this accident? Without it, as one of my colleagues once joked, you could just present a cast roster and a list of events.
Inner story is what readers take away. They may remember what happened but most readers remember why, what impact the events had, how the narrator or character changed.
Finding Your Inner Story
I asked this writer to list his changes, his turning points from the accident. Aside from physical changes, what changed in his view of the world, in his personality, in his identity?
He sat for a long time in front of the computer, thinking about this. "I'm different," he finally told me. "But I don't really know how."
He had no idea of his inner story, much less how to write it.
I sent him on a special assignment to read medical memoirs that had been published in the past two years. I asked him to highlight the passages that showed changes in the narrator. He realized these were his favorite parts of the books—the most inspiring to him, as a reader. He got so much from hearing the vulnerable discoveries. “The trauma is one thing, but my trauma is equally dramatic,” he said. “I remember how they changed.”
Writers who are strong in outer story may know their outer events so well, they are already digested and there’s no surprise left. If they can look at their interior worlds, before and after, discover who they are compared to who they’d been, they will come up with an inner story.
Some writers—my student was this way at first—hesitate to go there. It’s painful, for one. It’s also potentially boring to the reader. I reminded this writer that his favorite books drew him with their inner story. Finding his would mean going beyond the outer drama—the story most familiar to him. It would mean being open to surprise.
The Surprise of Inner Story
The Half-Known World, by author and teacher Robert Boswell, is all about the willingness to be surprised. Boswell focuses on the process of surprise in fiction writing, but it’s true in all genres. If we assume we only know half of the world we are describing, we automatically mine the story. We become curious, rather than knowledgeable. We ask what makes our characters tick rather than automatically assume. We let go of familiarity to welcome what’s unexpected.
Inner story often surprises us. If the writer isn't surprised, the reader won't be either.
How do you begin researching inner story? Via image. Inner story is shown more often than told, and an image can lead us to it. Write toward an image. What are you obsessed with, what can’t you forget or forgive? What does your character carry around in his pocket or her bag, not even knowing why? Inner story requires a gradual unraveling, peeling away assumption and automatic interpretation to get to what’s beneath it all.
Joan Didion's short story, “In Bed,” is about migraines—at least on the surface. Migraine is her outer story, and its dramatic visits, low-key compared to murder and mayhem, debilitate her. Didion follows the image of her bed, the atmosphere of the air, temperature, textures, and light around that bed, to take us to a completely unexpected conclusion—that she colludes with her illness to get a rare moment of peace in an otherwise responsible life.
To craft this amazing piece of writing, Didion asked deeper questions. She went beyond the obvious pain and life-erasing days of migraine into her role in the process. This kind of self-inquiry can scare us or bore us. So the image-writing allows us to write “outside the story" in an almost unrelated way, bringing the deeper meaning gradually to the surface.
I asked my student to list images from before and after his accident, pick one a week, and write two pages exploring that image. What came out surprised him. Some of these freewrites had to do with his childhood: his father’s early death, the grieving that happened back then and still continued. This writer slowly noticed important links between this childhood loss and the recent loss from his near-fatal accident. He began to weave the inner story into his narrative.
Image, as it taps into the nonlinear part of our creative selves, takes the writer into the unexpected land of the inner story. If we are willing to be surprised, if we embrace the unexpected, inner story will help you create a manuscript greater than the sum of plot, character, and setting. That’s when the magical happens in literature.
Mary Carroll Moore
Mary Carroll Moore’s thirteen published books include the award-winning Your Book Starts Here: Create, Craft and Sell Your First Novel, Memoir or Nonfiction Book, based on her How to Plan, Write and Develop a Book writing workshops; PEN/Faulkner nominated novel Qualities of Light (Bella Books); How to Master Change in Your Life: Sixty-seven Ways to Handle Life’s Toughest Moments (Eckankar Books); Cholesterol Cures (Rodale Press), and the award-winning Healthy Cooking (Ortho Publications). A former nationally syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times, over 300 of Mary’s essays, short stories, articles, and poetry have appeared in literary journals, magazines, and newspapers around the U.S. and have won awards with the McKnight Awards for Creative Prose, Glimmer Train Press, the Loft Mentor Series, and other writing competitions. She teaches creative writing in New York, Boston, New Hampshire, and Minnesota and writes a weekly blog for book writers at http://howtoplanwriteanddevelopabook.blogspot.com.See other articles by Mary Carroll Moore