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  • Writer's pictureStuart Wakefield

What Is Narrative Duality and How Can We Use It?


What's the relationship between the outer narrative (let's call this the plot) and the inner narrative (what lies beneath what the characters are saying and doing) - and how can we weave them together when telling stories?


The relationship between the outer and inner narrative is one of symbiosis, the outer narrative providing context, structure, and a framework for the inner narrative to exist within. Both narratives need to work together to create a story that the reader can connect with and understand. The key is to weave the two narratives together so that the inner story is revealed gradually while still keeping the outer narrative compelling. By doing so, the reader will be able to experience the story on multiple levels and appreciate the complexities of your story.


Masterful examples of weaving the inner and outer narratives together include books like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and movies like Christopher Nolan's Inception. In Lolita, the outer narrative follows the protagonist's journey to be with the young girl he's fallen in love with, while the inner narrative explores the protagonist's twisted psyche and his unhealthy obsession with the girl. The two stories are woven together seamlessly, with the inner narrative slowly revealing itself to the reader through the protagonist's thoughts and actions.


Similarly, Inception follows a team of dream thieves as they attempt to plant an idea in someone's subconscious. The outer narrative is a thrilling heist story, while the inner narrative explores the protagonist's grief and guilt over his wife's death. The two stories are intertwined, with the inner narrative influencing the outer narrative and vice versa.


When weaving the inner and outer narratives together, it's important to strike a balance between the two. The outer narrative should be engaging and exciting enough to keep the reader invested, while the inner narrative should add depth and complexity to the story. The inner narrative should also be revealed gradually, building tension and intrigue as the reader learns more about the characters' motivations and desires.


Useful techniques to help storytellers weave the inner and outer narratives together include flashbacks, foreshadowing, symbolism, and metaphor. These techniques can help to create connections between the outer and inner narratives, providing clues and context for the reader to piece together. For example, a flashback could reveal a traumatic event from a character's past that is influencing their actions in the present, while a symbol or metaphor could represent a character's inner emotional state.


Another effective technique is to use dialogue and subtext to reveal the inner narrative. By having characters say one thing while meaning something else, the reader can begin to understand the characters' true motivations and desires. This can create tension and conflict within the story, as the outer narrative may be leading the characters in one direction while their inner narrative is pulling them in another.


Ultimately, weaving the inner and outer narratives together requires a deep understanding of storytelling and character development. By crafting a compelling outer narrative and a layered inner narrative, writers can create stories that resonate with readers on multiple levels and leave a lasting impact.


I use the Inside Outline with my clients. It looks easy enough on the surface, but I've yet to see one client nail it on their first try. The Inside Outline teases out what each scene means to the main character and how that meaning drives the character into the next scene. If you'd like to try it, take a look at my Story Development packages for fiction and memoir.


Yes, I now coach memoir!

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