Getting to the Heart of the Story

 In Blog

Critics and scholars will sometimes make reference to the heart of a story when they talk about writing. They may observe that: the writer failed to get to the heart of the story; or the real heart of the story is unclear. Such commentary is guaranteed to make any writer shiver. Because what this invariably means is that the author’s core purpose, their intention within the finished piece of writing is somehow flawed or problematic. Writing workshops can teach the structure and the mechanics of writing — we are all familiar with key terms such as plot, climax, denouement and invoking closure. However what is less commonly highlighted, in my experience at least, is an emphasis on getting to the heart of the matter, or the heart of the story. And the heart of the story is what gives your writing a touch of a fairy-dust. It is the part of your writing that speaks to the reader’s own heart. It is the difference between a good book and a great book. It is why writing resonates and lingers long after someone has finished reading it.

What presents a challenge for writers in getting to the heart of the story is that it is inextricably linked to plot and theme, and the three need to complement and align with each other in order to create a fluid and satisfying piece.

The plot of a story encompasses the storyline or chain of events as well as the action of the characters as the story unfolds. Plot should be woven consistently throughout the writing and maintain interest. A plot for a story might unfold like this: the character is cast adrift on a remote island; the castaway is frightened and becomes lonely; the castaway encounters wildlife and builds a shelter; the castaway searches for food and meets another castaway; the castaways clash and then become partners; the castaways plan survival strategies together; together the castaways build a bonfire, a passing plane sees them and they are finally rescued. In this way, the key elements in the action have been simply identified so that together they form the plotline.

The theme of the story is an idea that is pervasive throughout the writing. The theme can give a story its energy. The theme for our castaway story might be survival or humanity versus nature. This may be seen when the main character struggled to keep his small sailboat afloat during a storm, or when he swam for miles under terrible conditions in order to survive; we might also see this when the character navigates the island and attempts to build shelter and find food. The theme will be gently reinforced throughout the character’s struggles, and may also be suggested by setting detail.   In this instance, for example, the deserted island quickly indicates the major conflict. Once you have established your theme, many other aspects of writing are given the opportunity to unfold and somehow be resolved.

The heart of the story for our tale about the castaway and his friend needs to align with the plot points and the theme, bringing both together so that emotional energy and life can be infused into the work, beyond concerns of plot and theme. This is where we must dig down into the “reservoir” of own human emotion and experience, in order to reveal something about our character (or the human condition) that elevates the story.  Our original castaway, for instance, may have had an abusive childhood that left him with low self-esteem. He may view himself as an incompetent failure.  As the story unfolds, he is forced to face the challenges presented and may be able to overcome them, all while we learn more about his damaging childhood and its effects on his self-concept through his engagement with the other character and his environment. We witness a transformation of sorts, as he continues to navigate through his context and emerge more fully whole. The reader feels satisfied because they have developed sympathy for the central character and have perhaps even personalized an aspect of the struggle in a way that resonates within their own experience. If this has been accomplished for the reader, it is a good indication that all of the elements of plot and theme have worked together, in one direction, along with the best that the writer can offer from their “reservoir”, so that the heart of the story becomes the readers’ predominant and lasting impression.

The following checklist has been developed to help you find the heart of the story in your writing:

  • What is the passion or motivation behind this writing project?
  • What message do you want to communicate?
  • Have you identified an emotional undercurrent?
  • Is the theme of the story enduring, and something easily understood?
  • What part of the story pleases or energizes you?
  • Will the story uplift your readers? Will it resonate?
  • What does your character care about?
  • Does the main character have a need or a flaw that will be challenged and then resolved?
  • Does your character evolve?
  • Does the ending satisfy? Has closure been invoked?

I hope this is helpful to your writing. Let me know!