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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Outer and the Inner

How does one design a story, whether a novel or a screenplay? I like to think of each story as actually TWO stories, an outer and an inner. The outer story shows the actions that occur in the story, just as if a camera were following them: first the hero goes to this place, he talks with so-and-so, then he hops on his motorcycle, and so forth. The inner story, on the other hand, describes an emotional problem within the hero, and how this problem is solved.

Yes, it is possible to write a story with only an outer narrative, but no matter how flashy this story might be, it will melt away as soon as it's finished. Agatha Christie Books come to mind; so does the terribly expensive movie Cat in the Hat or (for the most part; it had a rudimentary inner story) Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull --> these stories evaporate as soon as they are finished.

I do some coaching with writers for creating and developing their stories. One way to develop a story is first to figure out the THEME you want to explore, and put it in one succinct sentence. Some examples might be:

Great love overcomes even death: Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Longing for something outside the self leads to the realization that the answer has been within the self all along: Baum's The Wizard of Oz

Willingness to relinquish absolute power leads to preservation: Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring

Perpetration of a great wrong leads to a great revenge taken by the victim: Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo

The story then grows from this theme. Find a line of comparison that highlights the theme (such as rich/poor), and think of scenarios through which the theme might be played. Then, imagine characters who might act in these scenarios.

Designing a story is an enormously complex process, and there is no *A-->B-->C* type of rule book. However, the theme is in many ways the engine of your story. After all, movies and novels are today's myths, and people tell myths to relay truths about the human animal. It's great to have a *shock and awe* plot, but it will fall flat if you don't have an underlying change in the character, reflecting the theme!


Anonymous said...

Great post! Very helpful!!

gzusfreek said...

Amy, As always you post is educational and a thought provoking. Hmm. . .this one sentence thing is going to be difficult. But I can imagine the freedom it could give me to know just what the engine of the story is. . .but one sentence?? ok. I think I'll do it! Thank you! I'll let you know how it turns out! (I'd probably stand on my head if you told me to. . . hee hee jk!)

Amy Deardon said...

Hope it's helpful! Thank you for your nice comments :-)

I have a small tutorial for organizing story on my website at It's under *resources*

gzusfreek said...

Thank you for the tutorial! After a busy day at school -- and before work -- I'm going there now. (I'm collecting those verification letters. this one is piencost pretty weird, huh? hee hee)