Balancing interior & empirical experience (tip 61) Reply

Some writers can become trapped in their protagonist’s minds. Everything is heavily filtered through the protagonist’s consciousness, to the extent that we can lose our bearings in the external world. In this video, we consider how JM Coetzee finds the right balance between interior and empirical experience.


One of the reasons why literature remains important in a videological era is that where film and television deal almost exclusively in external reality, literature can explore how people think and what they feel. So exploring subjective experience is one of the main tasks of literature.

Nevertheless, one of the most common problems I encounter in the work of aspiring authors is that they are telling the story through the protagonist’s thoughts and paying too little attention to the external world. Think about it: in many prison systems the ultimate punishment is to be locked alone with your thoughts while being denied external stimulus. Thought without external stimulus is a kind of torture.

Consider this paragraph:

He was sitting in the front room, watching soccer on television. Why don’t they try to score? David asked himself. The game was not holding his attention at all and after a while he fell asleep. He was awoken by that surly guy who lived nearby, Petrus. God, thought David, as Petrus watched the game, why does he have to turn it up so loud? Petrus started talking away and David wished he’d be quiet; it’s so annoying when someone comes into your front room and natters away. It’s one of those things like when you run for a bus and it pulls away at the last second – just really annoying. David’s mind started to wander and he thought about maybe getting up and doing the dishes. He had always liked football and had played it when he was younger but now he wasn’t enjoying it as much as he used to; he started to day dream about a time when he scored a great goal when he was younger.

Reading that is the literary equivalent of being locked in solitary confinement. The balance is all wrong – it’s all in the protagonist’s mind and there’s very little concrete detail. Now, compare that version to this extract from J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Although Coetzee is writing in the 3rd person subjective point of view and has access to David Lurie’s thoughts, you’ll notice that he concentrates on concrete descriptions of the world that Lurie is experiencing.

He is sitting in the front room, watching soccer on television. The score is nil-all; neither team seems interested in winning.

The commentary alternates between Sotho and Xhosa, languages of which he understands not a word. He turns the sound down to a murmur. Saturday afternoon in South Africa: a time consecrated to men and their pleasures: he nods off.

When he awakes, Petrus is beside him on the sofa with a bottle of beer in his hand. He has turned the volume higher.

‘Bushbucks,’ says Petrus. ‘My team. Bushbucks and Sundowns.’

Sundowns take a corner. There is a mêlée in the goalmouth. Petrus groans and clasps his head. When the dust clears, the Bushbucks goalkeeper is lying on the ground with the ball under his chest. ‘He is good! He is good!’ says Petrus. ‘He is a good goalkeeper. They must keep him.’

Much better, right?

Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by J Miller. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/people/jimjanuary/

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