Writing: External World vs. Internal World

As is my wont, I’ve been thinking martiandeeply about this whole business of writing – again.
As a result of this I’m ready to make a Big Statement.

<Clears throat> All narrative writing is a balance between describing the External World and the Internal World.

Obviously, more explanation is needed … By ‘External World’ I mean the surroundings, the environment, and the interactions the Point of View character has with these things. The ‘Internal World’ is the arena of the thoughts and feelings of the Point of View character.

Now, this may not sound like a revelation. Some of you may be thinking that I’m just stating the bleeding obvious, but bear with me.

If we think about writing fiction in this way it explains much about the differences in style and approach that authors have. Imagine narrative writing as a continuum. Right up one end we have those writers whose stories are totally, one hundred percent focused on the External World. They describe people, buildings, landscapes. They describe actions, happenings, and events. They have no time for musings, meditation, or reactions to events. Right up the other end, we have the writers whose only concern is the Internal World. They do well on emotions, feelings, and internal monologues. They love an extended flashback into a character’s past. They have no truck with action or events.

Naturally, these are caricatures. No one writes a successful story from either of these positions. All stories, though, can be located somewhere on this continuum. Some stories tend more to one end, some stories tend more to the other. Many, many stories are somewhere in the middle. But what is prized, or considered ‘good writing’, tends to be toward one end of the continuum or the other, depending on fashion.

This has been highlighted for me lately by the reaction to Andy Weir’s The Martian. This book – and the film, which seems to preserve much of the approach of the book – has received a fascinating range of responses from readers, viewers and critics. Hyper-enthusiasts have been ringing the bell with a ‘Whoa! Best thing ever!’ while the opposing view is more like ‘I don’t get it. It feels like there’s something missing here.’

In the light of my opening remarks, I hope you can see that these two camps fall reasonably neatly into those who appreciate stories that concentrate more on the External World and those who prefer stories that concentrate more on the Internal World.

Internal Worlders appear to be, at best, puzzled at the approach of author Andy Weir, and the enthusiasm with which The Martian has been greeted by many readers. At worst, they have been hostile, belligerent, and sneering, quickly assigning the book to the Popular Trash bin. This contempt has flowed over into some of the film reviews of Ridley Scott’s adaptation.

External Worlders have loved The Martian, its detailed descriptions of disasters, solutions, and the relentless struggle to stay alive. They haven’t worried that Mark Watney doesn’t sit around endlessly brooding over his fate, examining his soul, sharing his innermost misgivings, and/or contemplating key, formative incidents from his past.

Note that I’m not venturing an opinion on the worth of The Martian. What I’m saying here is that it is simply representative of an approach and can be valued as such. It is a story that tends towards focusing on the External World. Other stories tend to concentrate more on the Internal World and the rewards for reading such are to be found therein.

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of personal temperament which approach a reader favours.