I’m sorry, guys. I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with something either deep and insightful about the last weekend at WisCon (Ellen Klages’ speech about finding her community really struck a chord with me) or something light and entertaining about the same. Unfortunately, while I’ve recovered from the sleep deprivation — staying up late talking with amazing people is no less awesome than it was when I was young, but I no longer have the fortitude for it — my blogging brain hasn’t yet caught up. And my writing brain, though it has created a way to get unstuck since last week (I’ve made a bridge out of gravel, charred timbers, and spit! So to speak), is more concerned with writing that next section. So it’s out of commission as well.

Therefore, in the grand tradition of the Internet, I’m going to make a completely unfounded assertion and see what happens. Disprove me, world!

My theory about brontosauruses is this: stories have an internal and an external arc. The external arc is, simply, what happens during the story: aliens invade Yonkers; Lord Evil Von Nasty plots to kidnap Princess Asskicker; a mild-mannered astronomer becomes Mighty Guy; the Thistle Fairy must recover the Twinklestone; etc. The internal arc is how the characters change: the aliens discover the natural beauty of Yonkers; Princess Asskicker learns that her status as hostage has little effect on her daily life and therefore works to find a new path; Mighty Guy finds love on the far side of the moon; the Thistle Fairy decides that the Twinklestone’s power is best used to overturn the Fairyland monarchy; etc.  Together these two arcs make a plot.

Stories can lack an internal arc and still function. (It’s hard to say that Sherlock Holmes changes much from one mystery to the next, for example.) But these stories run the risk of being all surface, with nothing for a reader to connect to once the explosions stop.

Stories can lack an external arc and still function.  (A lot of experimental stories in particular do this, and sometimes to good effect.)  But these stories run the risk of becoming so introspective that they turn into extended navel-gazing sessions.

Stories that have both can be excellent — and can still screw up. Think of the five minutes of “character development” shoehorned in between action scenes, or the huge, world-shattering events that somehow leave all the characters back in the same unchanged love triangle as before. Fireworks in the background are no substitute for an external arc, and occasional melodrama is no substitute for an internal arc.

Given all that (and assuming that I’m not just talking out of my hinder, which is quite an assumption), how do you decide what kind of story you’re reading?  Reading one with expectations for the other is an exercise in frustration, but discovering an arc you hadn’t expected can be fascinating and illuminating.  And, for writers, how do you decide which to focus on?

8 Responses to “internal/external”

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    May 28, 2009 at 7:01 am

    First, I have to set the record straight–the natural beauty of Yonkers? You MUST be writing fantasy. 🙂

    Excellent points. It brought to mind what I find so aggravating about most movies these days. All boom, no internal plotting–or very little. And it also what brought to mind what I find so irritating about too many mainstream books nowadays–all internal, no, or little, external. Yet these are the novels that seem to win the awards. Hmm…I suppose the powers that be enjoy ‘navel-gazing.’

    For me, perhaps because I write 200K tomes, I tend to have a braiding of sorts where internal/external are concerned. To keep a reader interested, the different storylines have to intersect with the BIG CONFLICT every so often. I’m thinking of Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, and how he weaves all those character arcs into the big picture. At this point, the scope is so big that it’s often hard to actually remember WHAT the external arc is and where we are in it. His method is like a tango–swirl, kick, clutch and only once in a while, that big dip–but when he dips, he DIPS. Gotta love the man’s technique, even if you don’t like his actual story.

  2. May 28, 2009 at 9:45 am

    As a writer, I definitely focus on the Internal Arc, because that’s what fascinates me about myself and fellow human beings. It’s why creating plot is like pulling teeth for me — but I do it, because my BS meter is too strong for me to want to put something out there that doesn’t have depth, and the lack of a fascinating External Arc — or lack of complexity and depth in general — leaves too many readers (including myself) unsatisfied.

  3. 3 mlronald
    May 28, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Well, they’re aliens. Maybe they see Yonkers in a new way.

    It’s easy to say that all mainstream fiction ignores the external arc, but I suspect it’s about as true as saying that all science fiction ignores the internal arc. (I haven’t read enough mainstream fiction of late to really say that with any authority, though.) And I really do like when it’s used well in science fiction — some of my favorite Connie Willis short stories are ones in which very little happens in an external plot sense, but the internal change is dramatic and stunning. It’s the stories that shoehorn character development or motivation speeches into clumsy action scenes that really irritate me.

    Rachel, the BS meter is indispensable. I keep finding myself veering one way or another in the first draft, skidding all over the place and never quite hitting the right mark. (And it’s late enough that I want to compare that to how I play Mario Kart, which is a sure sign that I’m not really that over the sleep deprivation.)

  4. May 28, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    I keep finding myself veering one way or another in the first draft, skidding all over the place and never quite hitting the right mark.

    Exactly — as much as I love having written, there are times when the writing process itself drives me crazy, because I keep thinking, “No, that’s not it…. No, that’s not it, either…. How about this? Nope. Still sucks.” 😛

  5. 5 mentatjack
    May 29, 2009 at 7:57 am

    The last story I ingested was N-words over at Escape Pod. That was science fiction that used an internal arc to paint a larger external arc. Great story.

    Also I wanted to toss into the mix, that I like when something OTHER than a character, in the traditional sense, has an internal arc. Like in Spiral Hunt, “magic in Boston” or even more generally “Boston” has its internal arc, driven by the external “fireworks and rain.” It’s perfectly possible to write a story where the characters and their situation is the only thing that changes, but the politics or the magic system or the fabric of the universe is largely unaffected. I get a real kick when a story manages to REALLY change the playing field.

  6. 6 Emily
    May 30, 2009 at 8:01 am

    I think that without external arc, I get bored while reading. But without internal arc, I don’t reread the story–in fact, I’m likely to forget it entirely and return later, trying to remember if I’ve read this yet.

  7. 7 mlronald
    May 30, 2009 at 11:02 am

    The one good thing about veering all over the place is that once the first draft is done, it’s a little clearer what the arc should be, so it takes a little less work to wrench it back into place.

    mentatjack, that’s a good point. I wonder if there’s a term beyond internal/external arcs for that — for the game-changing, titanic shifts that can take place in a story. I’ll have to check out N-words as well; I don’t listen to nearly enough audio fiction. (And thanks! I hadn’t thought of it in the context of Spiral Hunt. Hope you enjoyed it!)

    Emily, I like that distinction; immediacy versus memory. (Although this may be why I can go back and reread old mysteries where there was little internal arc; I can enjoy it in a similar way the second time through.)

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