Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Inner Logic in Fiction

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 18•14

Does this happen to you? You’re reading along in a novel written by one of your favorite authors and you feelspeed run swirl colors blue and yellow yourself somehow slipping out of the story. Maybe the pace is too slow, or you’re losing interest, or maybe you’re realizing that things aren’t making sense. Or, you’re stopped, puzzled or bothered by an action or dialogue exchange that just doesn’t feel right based on the characters you’ve come to know. The odd thing about fiction, even if characters are wildly original and wicked, they’re more consistent than real people. And when they behave inconsistently or seemingly on a whim, it can sink the storyline.

These are general illustrations, but usually faulty inner logic  happens on a larger scale. For example, it could be the hero (as in good guy) kills off another character not because this death is necessary to the plot, but just because the hero just didn’t like the guy. If the hero is supposed to rescue the world, or solve the case, or win the day, readers need to trust him. If he’s going to break bad, then the whole story should be about his downward arc or uncovering his true values and motives.

Wait just a darn minute. You say your wisecracking, rough-and-tumble protagonist is an antihero? These types can star in any story and use unusual and even illegal means to solve problems, but they still need a moral compass that readers understand. And buy into.

Other problems that fall under inner logic: There isn’t a truly dramatic conflict at the center. The protagonist’s goal isn’t story worthy or it changes so much as the story goes along that readers cannot track what the protagonist wants and fears. Too much of the story is not spent on answering the central dramatic question. A subplot or secondary character takes over the story. The story turns into the author’s soapbox. Or the real story doesn’t start until page 150 after a lot of back story and stasis so then never develops as needed.

One of the biggest problems with weak inner logic is lack of  motivation. Why did the protagonist take down his ex’s new husband if the action comes out of the blue?  Was the guy a danger? Or was it desperation? Jealousy? Revenge? The solution is to know the morality of your main characters—their values, moral dilemmas and decisions are the plot’s backbone. In this case, the reader also needs to know the threat the new husband plays. Now, if the protagonist and his former wife have children together and the new guy likes kids, but not in a wholesome way, then things start to jell.

Inner logic problems can also come from the world of your story. The further your story veers from the real world, the firmer the foundation needs to be. In the Hunger Games series readers soon learn that every year an authoritarian regime demands literal tributes from each of its districts. Now if these games just took place because it’s bloodthirsty government, the inner logic wouldn’t hold up. However, when readers and movie viewers see the proofs of this new world–the grinding poverty, the military presence, the relentless terror the citizens live under–then we start to believe. As the first novel progresses readers learn that these yearly fight-to-the-death contests are a punishment for a massive rebellion/uprising. They create more fear, prove with hideous certainty that the government is in charge.  And how little they care about citizens’ lives, even children.

Readers want the whys of life answered when reading fiction. Readers have internalized story structure from a lifetime of reading. They know that Act Two—things growing more complicated and surprises popping up—is followed by Act Three where matters come to a head, then a resolution follows. Fiction is a way to transfer nontransferable knowledge—that is knowledge a person cannot learn from his or her own experiences. This means readers learn and experience through fictional characters. And what they learn needs to make sense.

Humans are the only creatures that believe in worlds inside their imaginations. Worlds found between the covers of books or on screens. But all imaginary worlds are built from cause and effect; conflict coming to a boil; scarred, vulnerable characters going up against huge odds. For a  damn good reason.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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  1. Sharon says:

    Nicely said – Love your work!

  2. Jana says:

    Thank you! Just what I needed, right when I needed it.

    • jessicap says:

      thanks for reading. Been trying to blog more–last few months have been challenging, but I suspect fall is going chase me into the kitchen and to this spot. Cheers, Jessica

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