Tug of war.

In my post to live without cliché I wrote: ” My novel has a lot of internal tension, but there needs to be some external tension – a driving force for this internal struggle and development.”

I’m at a point where I am more interested in learning about writing than actually writing. For me right now it is about development rather than creation. Odd, I never to separate them in such a way, after all practice makes perfect, but this is what’s happening so I’m going along with it. I’m reading a few books on the craft and one that I keep returning to is A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, by Elizabeth Lyon.

A few days ago I came across this passage in her book: Sequels show the way that characters process their emotion and seek solutions for problems raised at the end of a scene. Sequels show how a character sorts out strategies and chooses a next step…..The decision made in the sequel will also propel the inner story, which leads to a character fulfilling his or her story yearning. Remember, the protagonist’s inner story propels the outer story and not vice versa.

I added the italics because I thought this was the complete opposite of what I wrote. I’ve been thinking about this since reading it, wondering if I have it backwards.

I looked at life, even though to me fiction is not really comparable to life, and thought ok, each action of ours leads to the next. But, are there external driving forces that can alter that path? Yes, personally I think so. Our DNA tells us how long we potentially can live yet, there are many external forces that affect this. Our lifestyle habits and choices, how many contaminants and toxins we’ve been exposed to, our response to stresses, accidents, and so on.

But, how does this apply to fiction?

I can’t have a meteor fall out of the blue just to enhance drama. I can’t have a serial killer appear from nowhere to enhance tension. It wouldn’t be credible, and I think many people would close the book at that point. But, I can have someone suffer food poisoning after they choose to buy a particular meat.

In the end, I realize these two statements are not the opposite, they are co-dependent. The decisions our characters make will lead to the next external action, which will in turn cause them to make another decision, etc, until we’ve reached a point past the climax and our characters have had their life enhancing moment, and we are satisfied with character growth.

I would love to know what you think on the matter.


23 thoughts on “Tug of war.

  1. A person’s inner story informs everything they do. Even when external forces exert pressure on a person, their decisions are based on everything they’ve experienced to that point. A person’s goals sprout from past experience, from exposure to things or situations that appeal to them, but those goals morph throughout a person’s quest for them. The achievement of those goals becomes yet another part of the inner story through which future experiences will be viewed.

    Or something like that.

    Great post. It really gets the wheels turning. I’m getting ready to do character interviews after two drafts and I’m delving into this very issue. Should be fun! Thanks.

    1. Your comment, Jonathan, has me thinking of nature vs nurture. Perhaps something I think about a little too much…
      I wonder if we are predisposed to certain reactions, and if genetic memory is a factor…anw, just my mussing.

      Thanks for your comment and enjoy your endeavor!

  2. What Jonathan said, but I guess I’ll give my own answer too. 🙂

    This post really did get me thinking and I especially liked your DNA comparison paragraph and your summation paragraph. Very layered. Very true. It’s almost like the chicken and the egg question, isn’t it? It’s hard to tell what comes first in real life, especially–an “inciting incident” or something within us that would’ve had us end up acting how we do anyway, because we have something we need or want to resolve because of something prior that happened to us . . .

    1. It is a lot like the chicken and egg question, Ev – you are right! I didn’t see it.
      I think great fiction should touch on precisely what you say: because we have something we need or want to resolve because of something prior that happened to us . . .

  3. Focusing on craft as something that can be analysed, taught and perfected has its attractions; but as the years go by I become more and more convinced that the main thing is to have a strong urge to write about your world and the people in it. Fiction isn’t a foreign language. You don’t have to learn the grammar. It’s an instinct we’re all born with and most of us already have all the technical skills we’ll ever need. Most aspiring novelists fail because they don’t trust their instincts and try instead to impose on themselves a discipline they don’t understand.

    1. Hi Joseph. When I wrote my first novel I wrote it completely by instinct. I had no plan, none at all. I just wrote. I still write that way. If I think about it, it becomes something unconquerable. I have only been writing on and off again for 5 or so years now, steadily for the last year or so, yet I have learned a lot through reading books about writing, and also through critiquing the work of other writers. For me personally, the story, the emotion, the people, are created purely by the subconscious. But I have learned a lot since day one on how to successfully portray these things and hopefully have someone else share them.

    2. Just to add, Joseph, I too think that trusting oneself is most important when writing, and even more so when editing. At least for me, the editing stage is when the doubt creeps in.

      1. I’m sure most people who spend a long time writing are always thinking about how to improve. I also like to read books about writing from time to time but nowadays mainly out of curiosity rather than for guidance. Not that I don’t still need guidance, it’s just that not every guru is a good guide. I used to read biographies of great writers looking for a vital clue. When you’re young there’s still a vague hope that you might pick up some tips on how to live a notable life. But these days when I read biographies it’s just for entertainment. Some of these people were completely batty! Not you, of course, Jennifer. Not only are you quite sane (in a quirkily creative way, of course) but I’m sure your craft and your instincts are also in fine fettle.

      2. Haha, but thank you, Joseph. I hope to just keep learning and getting better….


        (I’m reading an author who seems to be getting progressively worse with each novel. How bizarre. And I recently re-read her first novel which I still thought was quite good, so it’s not me whose interpretation has changed. I asked myself this morning if the novel I liked was just fluke?? don’t think I buy that though.)

      3. Hi, good post. Novels are always more about characters than about plot I think deep conflict drives a story forwards….what the viewpoint character most wants and what she (or he) most fears. The character’s emotional journey is crucial too, but quite difficult to always pull off right.

        Hope all is well with your writing.

  4. >>>>as the years go by I become more and more convinced that the main thing is to have a strong urge to write about your world and the people in it. Fiction isn’t a foreign language . . . Most aspiring novelists fail because they don’t trust their instincts <<<<

    That's a great, inspired (and true) observation, I think. Thanks, Joseph!

  5. Briefly – yes, they are codependent. I often write about situations I’ve thought about, with characters and their motivations that aren’t initially fully worked out (or sometimes vice versa). But as they get worked out, I go back and change stuff in the situation so it fits those characters more plausibly. And keep going back and forth between the inner and outer worlds until I have them consistent, or at least explicably linked.

  6. I’m with Ev – it’s a chicken and egg situation. I don’t think the statement you italicised is necessarily true; I think it is possible to have an outer story drive the inner story. An unexpected thing might happen to the character and they will have to respond to that.
    I haven’t read A Writer’s Guide to Fiction though, so I may have misunderstood something.

    1. No Helen, I don’t think you misunderstood. I have taken it to mean that the outer story changes the inner story. It is forever moving.
      It’s a good book, yet one of the things about it is that her form of writing is very structured, while mine is not. And I glad I did not read it early on as a writer because she is very certain of her way, and has said that this is the only way to become a good writer, which I completely disagree with – I think each of us really has our own unique way. What I like about it, and why I return to it, is that she has me asking myself questions that pull me deeper into my story.

  7. I do think of the inner and outer life of a character as a moving circle rather than a linear equation.

    As an example of a story with a lot of action but where each action arises directly from a decision made by the protagonist, you might want to take a look at Ron Carlson’s short novel The Signal.

    Finally I do sometimes find myself in “thinking about it” mode, reading craft books, rereading old notes. Then I seem to put them down and leap forward with my writing. Writing is a fascinating, and individual, process.

    1. Hi Cynthia, sorry to hear that Rome was not its usual charming self!

      Thanks for the recommendation, and pls don’t worry about where your comment inserts itself, I certainly don’t 🙂

  8. I’ve also heard about what you’ve discovered, but I can’t help but wonder about the randomness of life in relation to the character. So many incidents of life don’t depend on the choice of the character. Often they’re reacting to the decisions of unknown others or impersonal forces. The relationship between my characters and those ‘unguided forces’ attract much of my attention as a writer.

    1. “the randomness of life in relation to the character”. I really like that sentence, Vanyieck. All those unknonws to factor in. In fiction I find this tricky at times, as we have to make certain these unknowns are logical and do not fall from the sky. But, wow, can be a powerful tool.

  9. I completely agree. In a self-help book I read about the equation E + R = O. Event plus response equals outcome. Everything we ‘experience’ in life is shaped by our perception, that’s how the same event (say, being laid off) can lead to such different results (depression from the feeling of ‘failing’ or a vibrant new career after seeing this as an opportunity for a new direction). It’s the same thing with characters. Their unique perception of the world means that internal factors just as much as external which drive their actions.
    – Sophia.

    1. Hi Sophia, and thanks for the comment! I wonder about that as well often enoug. How the same event can shape individuals in so many different ways. There are so many elements in writing that make it a continous process. Psychology for me is one of the great ones! Learning about people. Sometimes I feel so naive, and I ask people around me how they suppose the mass of the population would respond to certain exchanges. I am always surprised by the nastiness in people, and one of the criticisms I have received in regards to my writing is that I am too nice!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s