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December 10, 2013

Maryrose Wood Tells Kidsreads.com There are Two Stories to Every Book

Like the literary equivalent of Star Trek’s Vulcan mind-meld, fiction offers us the uncanny experience of inhabiting another person’s point of view. Isn’t it amazing? It’s like we get to live a thousand lives, just by picking up a book to read.

As writers, how do we create that experience for our readers, so that they’re not just turning the pages of a book but living the story right along with our characters? One concept I find helpful is to seek a balance between what I call the “inside story” and the “outside story.” 

The inside story is what is some folks call the character arc: the journey of emotional, psychological and spiritual transformation that the character takes over the course of the entire tale.

The outside story is the action that’s visible to the eye. It’s the sequence of events that leads us from page one to the end. It’s what we usually think of as the plot: One thing happens, then another, then another, like a row of dominoes, each one causing the next one to fall.

Books that have well developed outside stories often make good movies, because there’s lots of action that can be shown on screen. But an outside story that’s all chases and fight scenes and explosions gets boring fast if there are no characters we care about, or nothing important at stake on an emotional level.

Books that dwell mostly on the inside story are sometimes called “quiet” books, or “character-driven” books.  Alas, some people just call them “boring books in which nothing happens.” This isn’t quite fair, because often a lot of emotional and psychological activity happens in these types of books. But to many readers, hearing about the interior struggles of a character is not nearly as vivid as experiencing that emotional journey in a more active way. In life, people reveal their true natures by what they do, rather than what they say. For our fictional friends too, actions tend to speak louder than words.

Which is more important: the inside story or the outside story? I think the best books have both. They offer an event-filled plot with high stakes and lots of dramatic questions that keep us wondering what will happen next. Will Bilbo survive his dangerous journey to the Lonely Mountain? Will he outwit the dragon Smaug and make it home to the Shire in one piece? Strong outside stories give characters a chance to reveal themselves by how they behave under pressure. What hard choices do they make? What fears do they confront? How much are they willing to risk?

As I work on the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place books, I often think about this inside/outside aspect of the story. On the outside: three children who were raised by wolves have to be tamed and educated, while Miss Penelope Lumley, their governess, struggles to keep them safe from the strange goings-on at Ashton Place. As we learn in Book 4, The Interrupted Tale, there’s a mysterious curse on the Ashton family that seems to put them all in danger. One more mystery for Penelope to solve!

As for the inside story: well, every child needs a family. If your parents happened to abandon you in the woods to be raised by wolves, or delivered you to the doorstep of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, never to return— that’s bound to leave a lonely sort of ache in your heart, and a longing to know why, and a need to find or create a family in whatever way you can.

The Incorrigible Children books are filled with daring schemes and clever sleuthing, comically wolfish hijinks and plenty of howling, too. But all the while, as they share adventure after adventure, Penelope and the three Incorrigible children are slowly but surely becoming a family. That’s the inside/outside dynamic at work.

Next time you sit down to write, play the inside/outside game with your story. Ask yourself: what’s happening on the outside? What’s happening on the inside? And how are the two strands connected? 

 


Maryrose Wood is the author of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, for kids aged 8 and up. Book 4, THE INTERRUPTED TALE, will be published on December 17th. To learn more about the books, take quizzes and play games, go to www.booksandgames.com/incorrigible. To visit Maryrose online, go to www.maryrosewood.com.