Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Inside, Outside, and You Won’t Be Upside Down

In last month’s post, I shared my light bulb writing moment. Thanks to a novel planning course I took, I went from a floundering pantser to a flourishing plotter. And I’m still pinching myself that the agent and book deal swiftly followed. The concepts from that class are so instrumental to my novel planning and writing that I wanted to share them and hopefully give someone else that “aha!” moment.

Last month I discussed the importance of writing exercises. As I teased in that post, writing exercises have a way of tossing the most unexpected of things into your writing stew. I know because it happened to me. While creating a character profile, a single question sparked an answer that now forms the backbone of my book, BECOMING JINN. I know I promised to tell you more this month, but I realized I can’t. Not yet. Because first, we need to have a little chat about a key component of story planning: inside and outside story. 
If I had to pick one concept that had the greatest overall effect on my writing, it would be this one. Unfamiliar with the terms? Let me explain.

The outside story is the plot. The what and the when. The inside story is more subtle but arguably more important. Because the inside story is the why. Think of it as the motive for the crime. 

Your outside story question is the goal your character is outwardly striving to achieve. It is something tangible. It is not “to be happy.” It is “to win a World Series.” The plot will revolve around this story question. All the obstacles you toss your character’s way will try to thwart him from achieving his goal.

The inside story question asks why your character wants to achieve this particular goal. It is the emotional side of the story. Your character has a need she inwardly yearns for, a need she may not be fully aware of until your outside story kicks into gear. If the character is aware of the need, he is not actively striving to fulfill it until the inciting incident bops him over the head. 

In order to hook your readers and keep them with you and your characters until the very last page, your characters must be real. We must be able to sympathize with them. For that to occur, your characters must have an inside story. We must know the emotional question your plot is serving to answer. 

You cannot plan a novel without knowing both your outside story and your inside story. From the start. This is key. No, it’s more than key. It’s essential. Understanding this truth is the turning point in my writing career. You cannot add the inside story after the fact. I tried. It doesn’t work. This is because the direction your novel goes depends upon, and changes, based on your character’s need. 

Maybe the character wants to win a World Series game because his need is to make his father proud. But maybe it’s to finally give him the self-esteem that years of schoolyard bullying stripped from him. The past and present events in your character’s life, the relationships, and all the supporting players depend on the direction the need takes you. Take the same plot and the same character and shift his or her inside story question and you’ll have an entirely different novel on your hands.

Often writers think the inside story must be veiled, some mysterious thing the reader has to work to discern, but that’s not the case. You can state it frankly, plainly, and hopefully right at the start of your novel. Knowing the emotional question is like giving your readers a blueprint, a guide for how to read your book. It’s a measuring stick against which both you as the writer as well as your readers can compare your character to see if and how the actions (the plot) in the story are changing your character (or not). 

Your inside story question, like the disasters in your outside story, must change, must ratchet up, must keep upping the stakes and refining itself. Keep in mind that your character doesn’t have to achieve his or her need. Often the best stories leave characters yearning. The character doesn’t have to change, he or she just needs to be presented with the opportunity to change.

A balance between the inside and outside story is what makes a good novel great. All plot and the story is too surface. All character and the story will drag. The combination of the two is what makes a novel work. It gives us events that happen to characters we care about. 

When you plan your novel, you must plot both the events in the outside story as well as those in the inside story. When you come up with the obstacles you throw at your characters, consider the inside story question and see how the emotional component of the story is served as a result of those obstacles. Often the “disasters” in each timeline will match up. Sneaky how that works . . .

The following overly simplistic example distinguishes the inside and the outside story and illustrates the drastic difference having an inside story makes:

A man and a woman are shopping in a grocery store. The man pulls a box of sugary cereal off the shelf and tosses it in the cart. The woman not so subtly suggests oatmeal might be a better, more nutritious choice. The man rolls his eyes and stacks a second box of chocolate-coated cereal on top.

What I’ve just given you is a very short story that is all plot. It tells you what happens. But as a reader, if you’re not bored, you are quite generous. Why do we care that these two people disagree over what constitutes a healthy breakfast? We don’t. At least not yet. Not until we have the inside story. Take two:

A man and a woman are shopping in a grocery store. The man’s hand shakes as he pushes the cart down the cereal aisle. The couple’s best friends are not only getting married the following week but just that morning at brunch announced they are having a baby. He speeds up as they roll past the jars of baby food. He reaches for a box of sugary cereal and casually tosses it in the cart. The woman watches her boyfriend of eight years not even hesitate as he chooses food meant for a child. How is he supposed to raise a child if he still is one himself? She breezily suggests he try oatmeal instead. The chocolate cereal he deposits in the cart answers her question. 

We have the same plot: a couple grocery shopping in the cereal aisle. But with the addition of the inside story, the plot now has context. We understand why each character acts the way they do. We understand their motivations. And keep in mind, I said “each character.” Because every main character and even most of your supporting characters should have an inside story. These characters must need something. They must want something.

Which brings me to the concept that changed BECOMING JINN: the wound and the want. Unfortunately we are out of space! I promise to tackle the idea of the wound and the want, character profiles, and how they shaped my book next month!

Contest Announcement!

My 2015 YA debut author group, the Freshman Fifteens, wants to help make your holiday season shine. Our giveaway, The Twelve Days of the Freshman Fifteens, will open on 12/12 and run through 12/23. Critiques, ARCs, gift cards, and more up for grabs! Be sure to follow us on our Web site and Twitter (@Freshman15s) for details and keep an eye out for the official announcement!


  1. Fantastic post! I attended a writing workshop led by Linda Sue Park in which she discussed the importance of knowing your main character's external conflict(what he wants) and internal conflict (what he needs). She explained these two conflicts are never the same, and the MC is usually unaware of his internal conflict, although it is a driving force in his actions. Having both conflicts in your story builds the tension. Whether the character gets both, one, or neither dictates the type of story ending. Learning about this concept changed how I write, read, and teach. Brilliant post, Lori! Thanks for sharing and best of luck with Pitch Wars and BECOMING JINN.

  2. Fabulous post, Lori! The best stories are the multi-layered ones, every layer increasing the potency.