by Brad Whittington
(Originally published 10/6/12)
In most modern novels, the main character undergoes some sort of transformation or enlightenment, which we call the character arc. Huckleberry renounces slavery, for example. There are exceptions. In farcical novels (P.G. Wodehouse, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Buckley) and series novels (adventure, mystery, thriller) the character is often essentially the same at the end of the book as when it started.
But the majority of novels do employ a character arc, sometimes called the inner journey, as opposed to the outer journey, which the action of the story. Huckleberry escapes down the river with Jim, for example. The outer journey gives narrative momentum to the story to keep people turning pages. The inner journey is what makes it matter, the thing that lifts it above an action story. You can have the outer only and end up with pulp fiction, or the inner only and end up with some kind of literary miasma. Or you can make the inner and outer journeys dependent on each other, thereby reinforcing the significance of both.
Here’s an example from Muffin Man to clarify. I dreamed about a sheriff who hears voices from a muffin. Although warned against it by dozens of people, I was certain this brilliant idea was my next novel. But I needed a reason why an otherwise normal guy would begin hearing voices. Over the space of several months I created a history for the sheriff, a bipolar father who abandoned the family and then suddenly makes an unwelcome return 24 years later. As it developed, in my mind this became the main story line–the father/son relationship going both ways from the sheriff, up to his father, down to his son, and his fears that he is actually bipolar as well.
This is all meaty, visceral stuff, but it’s all inner journey. I knew that this part alone wasn’t enough to carry a novel for 300 pages. So I created the whole disappearing arsonist case as an outer journey, the story engine, the thing that pulls the reader to the next page to see what happens. How did those guys disappear out of a locked room? Why were they in there? Why did they set it on fire?
And there is the question of what is going on with the muffin (Is it really talking or is it all in John’s head?) does pull the reader forward, but I don’t think anyone would care enough about that question to stay with me for 300 pages.
So I found ways to bring these three elements together, to create multiple links between the father/son conflict and the arson case and have the muffin sitting in the middle of the whole mess. Without both the outer and inner journey, and the connections between them, the novel would not be as compelling.
In your current work in progress, pay attention to both story lines, the inner and the outer, and find ways to interlace them to strengthen the spine of your story. It could bring a new depth to your work.