In this universe, there are only two ways to tell a story: cause and effect, or what I call: Internal and External. These two story types are the focus or perspective from which the story is told, and there really are no others. Even Aristotle, the Philosopher understood this way back when, and many authors since have concurred.
Do you remember the story JAWS? It was about a shark, an External story about a monster in the deep, and the characters struggled to deal with this threat to swimmers, everywhere. But what if the story JAWS was about a man’s suffering and inability to deal with his mother-in-law? What if his wife left him, and he spent a chapter in agony, and then designed plans to win her back? This would be an Internal story. Let me explain:
External stories focus on action, what happens, and the reader’s primary question is “What is going to happen next?” The bookstores are full of external stories: Science fiction, Fantasy, Thrillers, Mysteries, many of the books called “mainstream,” and romance (not love stories necessarily, which like Romeo and Juliet may well be internally focused). People love a good read, a “beach read,” and are naturally drawn to stories of effect, where one action, event or situation leads to the next in a building kind of tension that finally comes to a climax.
Consider the movies. The blockbusters are all External: event, (action oriented) films like Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Transformers, Avatar, Indiana Jones… Jaws.
Internal stories, by contrast, focus on the mind and heart of the main character (or characters) and the action, events or situations only give an opportunity to look inside and see the internal dynamics. These are stories that academia calls “literature,” as they profess to speak not about what happens (happenings may be incidental, mere triggers) but about human nature, ideas, ideals, and ultimately the search for meaning, The primary question the reader asks here is “Why?”
Remember JAWS, the mother-in-law. We look for the mother’s reason for manipulating the break-up of the marriage and the man’s motivation for wanting to win back his wife. In movieland, these stories make up the so-called “artsy” films which never do very well at the box office, but which often win awards… Go figure!
Balance: Hopefully, no story will be entirely one way or the other. To be successful, a story needs some balance between these two perspectives, between the entertaining External and the understanding Internal.
A purely external story would invariably have cardboard, stereotypical characters and after the third explosion or car chase would dull us to death. Hollywood has come close, at times, but even the most blatant action-adventure story has traditionally included the “love interest” in order to at least move the characters a little.
A purely internal story, on the other hand, would be little more than a philosophical essay; contemplating the naval in the extreme. Some authors have tried this, and some works have even been called “great works of art” by the academics. (I won’t name any to avoid arguments, but I will say, most of us know better). Such stories are dull, dull, Dull!
Having said a word about balance, however, I must also say that any story (told, written, novel, screenplay or whatever) will primarily focus on one perspective, approach or the other. It will be for the most part an External story or an Internal story.
Now the question: Which perspective is best for your story? To make that decision, it may help to look at your purpose in telling/writing the story. You may think you simply have a good story idea, but I will argue that every story has a purpose in being told. “Ripley’s” I say (believe it or not), but that will have to wait until my next post…