Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 3: Writing From the Inside or the Outside?

There’s a lot of advice for writers on how to structure a piece of fiction from inciting incident to crisis and conclusion. How to create conflict and build up tension. How to make relatable characters. To me, that advice often sounds like the writer is looking at their work from the outside, standing apart from it, assembling pieces and fastening them together.

I prefer to write from the inside.

It’s like I’m creating the structure from within and living in it with my characters. I’m right there with them as they interact, experiencing their conflicts and struggles. It’s like making a burrow, digging into the substance of the story and shaping its hollows and passages with my hands and body.

Looking out of hollow space
Image by Juanetito from Pixabay

Writing from the inside is writing in first person or using what’s called “deep POV.” That is an extremely close third person point of view, just one remove from first person. The narrator doesn’t speak as one of the characters, but is pretty much joined at the hip with them, close enough to hear their inner thoughts. It’s as though that character, the writer, and the reader are one. A drawback of this device is that other characters’ thoughts must be conveyed in dialogue or by some other means.

This inside/outside thing reminds me of Emic vs Etic — a concept in anthropology that distinguishes between ways of describing a culture. An outside observer’s account (“etic”) is scientifically detached but possibly coloured by his or her own culture. That written by a member of the culture (“emic”), while richer and more detailed, may be obscured by assumptions not available to all readers. For example: “The group demonstrates an animistic religion,” vs. “I honour the spirits of sky, water, and stone.”

I won’t say that one approach is better than the other, but working from the inside feels right to me. All my novels and many of my short stories are in first person. Of the fourteen stories in Tales from the Annexe, nine are in first person. Those with a third person point of view are, in my opinion, a bit less intense and immersive.

With my eyes useless, I explored my darkness. Like a trapped insect, I crawled inside the walls of my skull, revisiting memories of sight. … I remembered the weight of the glass cylinder filled with the drug, the small resistance as the needle punctured living tissue, the faint grating of glass on glass as I dispensed death.
(From “The Night Journey of Francis Dexter”)

Writing from the outside may be the preferred method for writers who do detailed outlines and other preliminary work before they begin to write. Working from the inside may be favoured by those who plunge in and splash out a messy first draft with the intent to shape it later, in effect writing first from the inside and then from the outside. And maybe those who start from the outside need to do some work from the inside after they’ve created the framework.

Image source unknown

Or maybe it’s about Thinking (inside) and Doing (outside). Introspective works may be best served by first person or extremely close third person. For action-packed thrillers, close third person may be effective, possibly switching between or among characters. Epic fantasy, on the other hand, with its intricate plots and many characters, demands third person omniscient. And first person or deep POV may be used for specific scenes to add intensity.

Whichever approach a writer takes, it’s helpful to do it consciously and methodically, so as to maximize the impact and avoid confusing the reader.

All this reminds me of something I read about how beavers build their lodges. First they pile up a huge mass of sticks, and then burrow inside it to shape their living spaces from within. Then they plaster the outside with mud to make it weathertight. There is something beaverish about us writers, isn’t there?

Beaver lodge
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fellow writers, do you distinguish between writing from the inside and the outside? Which approach works best for you?

Next time: Reasons to Write and Reasons to Publish

34 comments

  1. I found this post very interesting, Audrey. A lot of writers seem to write “from the inside” as you have described here and I often wonder if I am a real writer because I don’t write like this. Writing for me is more of a chess game where I plan all the moves and my characters do what I want them too.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I don’t think there’s any question but that you’re a real writer, Robbie. I hope I haven’t sounded like I was saying my approach to writing is better than any other. I just feel it works better for me. When I wrote my first novel, I happened to adopt a kind of confessional, secret-telling voice for my narrator. I became attached to that style but I’ve tried to get away from it, mainly in short stories. I think it’s good for us writers to try different approaches, even though specific ones may feel more natural than others.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Audrey, you didn’t sound like that at all, it’s just that most of the writers seem to write through the eyes of their characters and, often, without any detailed planning. I don’t write like that as I said above. I have an outline for my stories and I always have the ending which is my writing goal. My characters are not “real” to me although I become very involved with them. I direct them, as I mentioned above.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Each of us finds techniques that help us write what we have envisioned. I always have an ending in mind too, but I find writing most rewarding when I feel like I’m living inside or closely beside my main character.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I pretty much go by instinct. An interesting example of how to determine whether to use 1st person or 3rd person occurs at the beginning of the sequel to the Ki’shto’ba series. The narrator of the first six volumes has died, and his scribe Chi’mo’a’tu, who has never written or told a story on his own before, has to decide how to go about finishing the tale. He didn’t take part in the events he is trying to describe. I tried writing the tale in the third person, but it didn’t feel right either to me or to Chi’mo’a’tu. But who would be the 1st person narrator? Chi’mo’a’tu decides to pick one of the participants in the events and pretend that character is narrating what happened. And who to do that but Da’sask’ni’a, the Twice-Cursed Seer, who has seen everything that will happen but can’t remember what it is until it happens. Then Chi’mo’a’tu uses his mentor’s method of inserting third person sections to describe events that Da’sask’ni’a didn’t witness first hand. I think that method worked – I was quite happy with the way it turned out.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It must have worked for me too, because I enjoyed that book as much as the others. I do recall instances in all those books where Chi’mo’a’tu and Di’fa’kro’mi discuss narrative techniques–reminded me of real life writers’ discussions.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m totally with you, Audrey, on this topic. We live our lives in first person, so it seems natural, and more engaging, to experience a story along with a first person narrator. We don’t know what other people are thinking, or what they know, or don’t know, so that limitation seems natural, as well. So a first person point of view is my personal preference, both as a reader and a writer. While most of my favorite books are first person narratives, third person narratives can work for me. Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series springs to mind. However, when the third person is a remote god on high, looking down on the characters and into their heads, I’m out of the story. Still, with so many books written, read, and enjoyed in third person, it’s clearly just my personal preference.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I gravitate naturally to first person narration, to the point that I made myself change to third person for some stories. I remember that in at least one I drifted into first person while writing the first draft and had to fix that. Point of view is another one of those elements of writing that’s almost impossible to put into rules. It’s learned by doing. In third person, the writer can “zoom” in and out in the course of the narrative, sometimes getting close to a specific character, and at other times adopting a more distant perspective. (Think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for instance.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That was a great article! I am very much in favor of your method of writing from the inside. I do it almost always (the exception being an occasional short story). I use first person or very close third person and I live the story along with the characters. The action is like a movie in my head and I’m right in the middle. It’s why I don’t make outlines that are more than 3 or 4 short paragraphs. I know where the story will end up, but the characters dictate how the middle goes. Sometimes they surprise me!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. A useful perspective. Thanks, Audrey.

    I certainly believe, now that I’ve learned better, that we as readers need to be attached to somebody’s inner thoughts. Whether through first person, or third deep, we need connection to some emotive character.

    I once tried to write completely as third person observer. The writing came out like a news report. Every event, every scene, every word was viewed only scientifically; what was said, what they did, where they went how they acted. It came out wooden. In fact you read that story and before I went back and added some emotion, it was worse. Like a white paper of some fictionalized story.

    I guess you’re point, ultimately, is balance. How intimate should we be with a POV character? Surely some inner dialog is necessary. I tend to favor a light touch. “Boy, she sure is mad,” I said to myself, “I guess she doesn’t like fried rat.” And then come back to that character’s thoughts after maybe 100 or 300 words.

    Good stuff. Thanks for making me think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. However we handle this aspect, I think we need to do it consciously, especially shifts from deep POV to omniscient. That can be effective or just messy and confusing. I’m always glad when someone says one of my posts makes them think. (Not about fried rat, though.)

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I enjoyed reading your article about handling point of view in fiction. I, too, write from the inside. Deep third person is my go-to point of view, with first person being next. I’ve never written anything in third-person omniscient. I believe that the story we want to tell will determine what point of view lends itself best to telling that story.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Some of my novels work with first person, some and most of my short stories, omniscient third. My characters always do what the writer plans for them, too. They are the right ones to make the story happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hmm…this goes beyond pantster or plotter, doesn’t it? I do like the change of perspective to inside vs outside. Makes more sense to me.
    I write in close 3rd person pov with multiple povs so the reader can see the main characters from the outside as well as the inside. I also prefer to build the story from the inside as I believe that motivation is the single most important ingredient in making fiction believable. But… for me, there always comes a time when I have to step outside and work on the events triggered by my characters, or imposed on them. I guess that makes me a hybrid. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I consider myself an inside out writer too, Audrey. Though I do plot the plot, it changes as the characters become themselves. I give them an overarching goal, but how they get there is true to their personalities and natures. For me, that’s the true joy and excitement of writing. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

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