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How to use Interiority to write a compelling novel

craft Oct 24, 2019

Is there any better feeling than reading a book which completely transports you into another person's mind?  As you read the closing pages you feel like by finishing the novel you are losing a friend, a lover or even a part of yourself, an identity that will always be a little part of you.

Personally, I am a little bit Jane Eyre, a little bit Elizabeth Bennet and a little bit Holden Caulfield, with a smattering of Stephen Daedalus.

There isn't a movie that's been made that can come close to it. That's why the film is always a poor replica of the book.

The most common mistake writers make because of films

I believe that one of the things that makes the novel irreplaceable rather than interchangeable with film, is this quality of stepping into a character's head.

And yet, because a lot of writing advice out there originates with teachers of screenwriting, many, many writers are scared to include the one thing that could help them achieve this effect in their own writing. And the well-worn dictum 'show don't tell' seems to suggest we should imagine ourselves as a camera lens, capturing all the visual elements of the scene we are writing. Even the word 'scene' is a visual metaphor.

This is such a shame and holds so many writers back from really engaging and immersing their readers in their stories, from truly letting them into what is happening. 

Because one of the secrets to a compelling novel is interiority

If you want to write the kind of book where readers fall in love with and identify with your characters, where they advocate for them at their book club as passionately as if they were talking about their own deepest character traits, or where they explore shadowy, suppressed aspects of themselves through your characters, look again at how you handle and convey interiority.

Because interiority is what novels do better than film, and always will. Interiority is what makes us feel that we know these characters so intimately that when the book is over we feel like we've lost a friend.

What is interiority?

When I talk about interiority I mean the thoughts, associations, intentions, desires of a point of view character, put on the page through reported thoughts, memories and flashbacks. Interiority witnesses characters making meanings of situations by relating it to what they know, what they'd expected, what they'd hoped.

In an effort to obey the advice to "show don't tell", many writers lean heavily on describing the physical manifestation of interiority; crying, sighing, clenching a fist. While these have a place, they are often more opaque than you realise. Body language without interiority can leave a reader feeling like they're on the outside looking in, begging to be let into what is going on. 

Since the invention of the novel, techniques to convey interiority have become more and more sophisticated. Jane Austen is known for innovating with free indirect discourse, where she used the omniscient voice but freely inhabited a particular character to show what they were thinking, how they were interpreting a scene. A century later, the modernists deployed and invented the stream of consciousness, where the chaotic ways we think are captured.

Some academics have suggested that in this way the novel has literally changed the way we think about our identities, the way we understand ourselves as individuals, the way we conceive of reality.

Use of interiority is a stylistic choice

I must acknowledge that writers publishing today are on a spectrum between the exterior mode of Hemingway's literary progeny and the extreme interiority of Virginia Woolf's. 

So, it is in part a stylistic choice whether to use interiority in your fiction. However, too many writers use this as a get out clause so that they don't have to engage with strong emotions or let their readers into difficult, uncomfortable feelings (or because they themselves don't really know what the character is thinking or feeling).

I would argue that one of the most transformative things you can do as a writer is to think about whether you are really letting the reader into the strong, deep emotions and meanings in a text. And if not, could interiority be the missing tool to help you make your story more powerful and compelling?

In commercial women's fiction. readers expect third or first person narratives with a high degree of interiority, but partnered with a strong narrative shaping, clarity and focus that keeps it from veering into the form defying experimentation of postmodernist literary fiction.

And with the rise of domestic suspense and the psychological thriller, there's a natural home for writers using interiority in the crime genre, which you might think of as more plot driven. 

Interiority in Practice; Brooklyn by Colm Toíbín

This passage from Brooklyn by Colm Toíbín is an example of literary / upmarket fiction that leans into interiority, what it is like to be in someone else's head, thinking their thoughts, feeling their emotions.

She got up and used the bathroom very quietly; she thought that she would have breakfast in one of the diners on Fulton Street, as she had seen people do on her way to work. Once she was dressed and ready, she tiptoed out of the house. She did not want to meet any of the others. It was only half past seven. She would, she thought, sit somewhere for an hour, having a coffee and a sandwich, and then go to work early.

Did you notice that the interiority begins quite superficially, by informing us of a simple intention to leave the house quietly. Did you notice that the author uses telling to summarize that intention? "She did not want to meet any of the others". In the first paragraph, I can imagine this being easily converted to screenplay. We could put the intention together from the visual clues of her moving around quietly. 

In the next paragraph things go a level deeper.

"As she walked, she began to dread the day. Later, as she sat at the counter of a diner looking at a menu, snatches of another dream that she had only half remembered when she woke came to her. She was flying, as though in a balloon, over the calm sea on a calm day. Below, she could see the cliffs at Cush Gap and the soft sand at Ballyconnigar. The wind was propelling her towards Blackwater, then the Ballagh, then Monageer, then Vinegar Hill and Enniscorthy. She was lost so much in the memory of this dream that the waiter behind the counter asked her if she was alright.    

'I'm fine,' she said.   
'You look sad,' he replied.   
She shook her hair and tried to smile and ordered a coffee and a sandwich.   
'Cheer up,' he said in a louder voice.
'Come on, cheer up. It'll never happen. Give us a smile.'    A few of the other customers at the counter looked at her. She knew that she would not be able to hold back the tears. She did not wait for her order to arrive but ran out of the diner before anyone could say anything else to her.   
During the day she felt that Miss Fortini was looking at her more than usual and this made her acutely conscious of how she appeared when she was not dealing directly with a customer. She tried to look towards the door and the front windows and the street, she tried to seem busy, but she found that she could, if she did not stop herself, move easily into a sort of trance, thinking over and over the same things, about everything she had lost, and wondering how she would face going back to the evening meal with the others and the long night alone in a room that had nothing to do with her. Then she would find Miss Fortini staring at her across the shop floor and she would try once again to seem cheerful and helpful to customers as though it were a normal day at work.

The point of view character longs to be inconspicuous. But this is thwarted when her tumultuous inner life makes it impossible to blend in. Actions are freighted with meaning through interiority. 

 We are told (yes, told) of her growing dread, "as she walked, she began to dread the day". We might wonder why, since we have only been told this, not shown why. The dread has not been evoked in us, we have just been informed of it. In some ways, there was a hint of triumph in her clever escape from the house. But the reason for her anxiety is soon shown to us more vividly in the memory of a dream that intrudes upon her thoughts in the diner. Here, we have gone into the life of her mind.

The dream is of flying, in a gentle, yet swift, way. This is not a frightening flight, but a welcome, calm one. And it is taking her swiftly home, via the landmarks she knows so well by name (unlike the landmarks of this new country and city). She becomes "lost" in those thoughts, so much so that they cause her not to be able to function normally, drawing attention to her, the last thing she wanted.

In dialogue that shows she wants to deny her unhappiness, at least to others, she says she is fine and tries to smile to prove it (note she didn't smile, she "tried" to smile; this is not a description that remains external, the intent, the thought, the interiority is also conveyed).

The waiter testifies that she looks sad and he becomes more demanding, "louder", lazily trotting out a phrase that most women will have had directed at them at some point, "Come on cheer up. It'll never happen". (As a woman whose resting face is miserable, I sympathize. You are not even allowed to appear thoughtful without it drawing attention and demands to perform, to make other people, especially men, feel comfortable.)
Now the emotions that only we have been privy to, threaten to spill over into the awareness of the other characters in her world.  And we are not simply told that she started to cry, we are told she is worried she will start to cry. We are not looking at a woman crying, we are in the head of a woman trying not to cry.

We know what the waiter's attention means to this woman because of interiority. This attention is precisely what she was trying to avoid; the need to perform an emotion she cannot feel. We know already she has tried to do so. She simply can't. She wanted to go unnoticed, to be anonymous. Instead, this man is demanding she perform the act she left the house so early to avoid, drawing the attention of a few other customers who "looked at her" in a way that is then echoed by Miss Fortini at work, who "was looking at her more than usual" and "staring at her".

She was trying to be anonymous, small, inconspicuous, but that dream where she was carried home would not allow it. Instead, her troubled inner life intrudes on her actions, makes her conspicuous, stops her from being able to "seem cheerful, and helpful" to "seem busy", to seem "as though it were a normal day at work". The truth is, it is a normal day at work, except for her unhappiness, except for this interiority that we have been shown.

Her homesickness is captured in the rumination that she can't suppress, its self-sustaining momentum conveyed in the run-on sentence:

"thinking over and over the same things, about everything she had lost, and wondering how she would face going back to the evening meal with the others and the long night alone in a room that had nothing to do with her".

The description of her room as one that "had nothing to do with her" captures the essence of her cognitive dissonance; she is physically here, but that does not make sense because this place has nothing to do with her, she is an imposter trying to assimilate. This place is not her; she has no connection to it, so the wind carries her home in her dreams.

I recognise this feeling of homesickness from my time living in Ottawa as a post-doc. This passage brings that emotion back, even while I have almost forgotten I was ever homesick while I was there, preferring to remember it as one long uninterrupted adventure. 

A powerful performance of the use of interiority in fiction.



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