Monday, January 17, 2011

Writing Inside Out

I think that the hardest part of writing is unlearning everything you know and then relearning it with a completely different perspective.

For example, when I first started writing stories, I wrote them exactly the way I would verbally tell them to someone. As a result, my writing was riddled with telling phrases like ‘he felt/saw/heard/knew,’ or ‘she noticed/realized/thought/etc.’ When verbally telling someone a story, the person you’re telling just wants to know the basics of what happened so he can get to the climax as quickly as possible. So, when we verbally tell a story, we tend to focus on what’s happening on the surface.

New writers tend to take this practice and apply it to their writing. I did. It’s what I knew, and, verbally, it worked. But it doesn’t completely work on the page, and it took me several years to figure out why.

When we write with the intent to show the reader what is happening to the main character, we are focusing on what’s happening outside the character. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's good to see what's happening very clearly, otherwise the reader will be confused as to what's going on. But we can't leave it at that. To get a fully rounded experience, we need to know how everything affects our characters. In order to know this, we need to see what goes on inside the character. In other words, we need to write from the inside out.

This is something that *must* be done in first person, because that’s its nature. First person is inside the head of the main character, so everything the reader sees must be from the perceptions, biases, misconceptions, and assumptions of the character. Everything I see gets interpreted through my own experiences and perceptions—as a result, there is an inherent bias, whether I intend it or not, simply because I have to process information based on the things I know. The same is true for characters written in first person.

So, when writing a character in first person, it’s best not to focus on the main character’s exterior, especially facial expressions, when exterior events affect him in big ways. These observations are fine for minor characters because we're not supposed to be in their heads. But, for main characters, this doesn't work well because it takes us out of his head and makes us observers rather than letting us experience her situation for ourselves. Instead, focus on what’s happening inside his head. What emotions are going through him? What thoughts do those emotions trigger? Then, how will he act as a result? In other words, write him from the inside out.

Third person is slightly different because its nature is on the outside looking in. However, limited third still needs some of the closeness that first person gives the reader, but it's often not there. There is a way to get it, though, and the process is exactly the same as first person. As you're writing your story's events, insert some of your character's thoughts here and there. Not necessarily separated out in italics with s/he thought tags, but woven into the narrative itself.

For example:
Uh-oh. Mom was fuming. Cassie had really messed up. Would she be grounded for a month? Or more? If she was, then how was she going to meet up with Jason like she'd promised? If she didn't help him, then he was going to fail his midterms and suffer the beating of a lifetime from his father. She had to think of something.

The above paragraph is written from Cassie's perspective. We are given her particular perceptions, assumptions, and thoughts about the world around her and what might happen to her as a result of her actions. Essentially, we are in her head and the focus is on her from the inside instead of what she's doing on the outside.

If we experience the emotions and thoughts of the character, then we’ll understand his resulting actions and form a close connection to him. This creates a stronger and more enjoyable reading experience, which we all strive for. :)


Michelle Flick said...

Wonderful post...and so true and very difficult to do!!!

Anonymous said...

Good info. Just dropping a note to say that I enjoyed the read!

cleemckenzie said...

You did a great job with this information. Very clear and excellent example.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I couldn't agree with you more. I tend to write in first person, but third person should definitely stay close to the MC and almost read like first person.

Tabitha said...

Thanks, all. This is something that, I think, all writers learn to do eventually, and it rarely comes naturally. When we verbally tell a story, we focus on the events, not what's happening to the people involved. With a written story, that's just the beginning. :)

Darby Karchut said...

Very helpful advice and timely, too! You must be a mind reader!

Anonymous said...

Great insight!

Whenever I feel my 3POV is missing something, I'll go back and write the scene in first person. Sometimes, it reveals info I couldn't pick up in 3POV and ends up giving that closeness that you wrote about.

Johnny said...

Great article, but I would like to give a word of caution: do this with moderation. I've seen work that contains pages of rambling thoughts and barely any forward momentum. It could make the piece sound indecisive, lack of authority. This usually works great for writers/characters with strong, clear voices. Average writers though should limit to 2-3 sentences of internal thoughts at a time, and avoid backtracking your thoughts, such as "I should do this. On the other hand, that would be better, but then again, this would be more fun," and so this could go on forever.

Tabitha said...

I wholeheartedly agree, Johnny. Everything in writing must be done with moderation (balance is one of my mantras :) ).

My point regarding this article is that the story must be told from the perceptions of the main character so we see through his eyes, not to get every single stray thought that crosses his mind. That's boring. :)

When a person experiences emotion, it almost always triggers a thought. *That's* what we need to see, especially in first person. Focusing on the character's exterior distances the reader. We need to know how he feels inside, not what he looks like outside. Then the reader can connect with those feelings, and can understand the resulting actions.