Liminal Space, and The Tension Between Our Inner and Outer Selves

I wanted to blog quickly about something that’s come up a few times in the last few weeks with two freelance client manuscripts and with a CP’s manuscript.

I think sometimes when we’re struggling with a character’s inner tension and rising tension in a character driven novel (though this can also occur in a plot-driven novel), what’s happened is that there isn’t a big enough distance between a character’s external life and internal life. 

This is the distance between what they want out in a tangible sense and how far they are from getting it (see, Harry Potter & Everything He Ever Tried in Those Books) and that causes tension. Can’t find Horcruxes? Inner turmoil increases, which results in lashing out, friendships breaking off temporarily, etc. Find a clue or a Horcrux, healing happens, friendships come back together.

But it is also the distance between what a character believes they want to be, or perceives they should be, and what they really want. So for a character who perceives a great responsibility in being a Good Girl, and what they really want to do in life is not in the path of being a Good Girl, then the external pressure to be a Good Girl and the internal pressure to Follow Dreams become your source of rising tension. The farther apart the internal and external lives of that single character, the higher the tension.

And the process of bridging these two spaces? That’s crossing liminal space. Adolescents cross liminal space as tweens and then at the beginning of college. It’s the process of moving from one state of being to another. And some people use it to describe the middle of a book or the age of a character, but a key characteristic of liminality is chaos and change. And moving from an external life that feels increasingly like a farce to an inner life that becomes an external life in pursuit of authenticity is crossing a liminal space.

And like I just said, that’s chaos, and that’s change. Have you ever known chaos and change not to be full of tension? They are inherently tense. They inherently cause friction between two states, between two or more choices, and absolutely between two or more people.

So whenever you’re struggling with a character’s tension, with the tension in a book and you know you have your motivations and your stakes hammered out, look at the distance between the character’s external life and internal life. That distance should get larger, cause more tension over the course of the novel, stretching like a rubber band until it snaps. And while this isn’t always true to real life, in fiction, the inner, more authentic life usually wins the war. When in doubt, when struggling with tension, do something that forces a character to confront how differently they’re living their external and internal lives. 

Questions? Drop them on Twitter or leave them in the comments!

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One thought on “Liminal Space, and The Tension Between Our Inner and Outer Selves

  1. Have you ever known chaos and change not to be full of tension?
    What a brilliant way to say what you practice. I am learning so much while working with you. And I can say for sure, you truly practice what you wrote in this blog. Emotions are physical sensation. They can never be, I am angry or sad. What is angry? What is sad? It has to be, I feel like my fingertips are set on fire. That is the only way emotions manifests, and that is the only way they must appear in writing.
    I feel grateful that I got an opportunity to work with you. You are stunning. And I am sure you know that.

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