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.
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.
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?
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