by Sandy Vaile
Every story has a beating heart that gives it purpose. It’s the vision that keeps all the working parts of a novel focused on what really matters, enabling the author to outline more easily and write a purposeful story.
But how can you be sure your story has one (and if it hasn’t, grab the defibrillator and shock it into being)?
What is the heart of a story?
Plots are the mechanism for moving characters through a series of events towards a goal. The heart of a story is its very reason for existing. The reason a specific author wants to tell a particular story. It turns a common idea into a unique journey, based on what interests the author and why.
At the heart of every story is a theme that runs throughout, which colours the characters and flavours the narrative and conveys the author’s message in a way that affects readers deep in their souls.
Why novels need a heart
When we have a clear story purpose, it defines the type of story we are telling, the audience who will read it, the subject matter it will explore and the direction of each plot thread.
Wow, all that packed into one beating heart!
When an author isn’t clear about the story’s purpose, they end up with too many elements competing for attention and readers who aren’t fully invested because there isn’t a clear pathway from start to finish.
The benefits of identifying story purpose
The heart of a story provides a compass to guide you from conception to completion.
When you know what you want to say and why it enables you to:
- Choose which ideas fit with the story purpose;
- Keep all of the plot threads cohesive;
- Unify the desires and actions of the characters; and
- Stop the anguish of losing your way, which invariably leads to disjointed or unfinished manuscripts.
How to find a story’s core purpose
Identifying a story’s purpose is about exploring what story we want to tell, why we want to tell it and whose story it is.
All of the decisions you make while developing a plot and character arcs, stem from this purpose.
Taking the time to work through this upfront, will help you develop a rich and intense story you feel compelled to tell. It also ensures the story is unique because your representation of the subject will be based on your own experiences and beliefs.
So, what questions should you ask yourself to figure all this out?
- What kind of story do you want to tell?
- What topic(s) do you want to include?
- What theme(s) do you want to explore?
- What deep-seated beliefs do you hold about this theme?
What genre are you writing?
The types of stories we’re drawn to can be discerned from what we tend to read and watch. Think about the genre and recurring themes in books and movies you most enjoy because the genre will determine the tone and style of the prose. (This is the perfect excuse for rereading favourite books and rewatching favourite movies.)
It should be fairly easy to make a list of the various topics included in your story, e.g. horses, environmental degradation, cars or friendship. Then narrow the subject matter down to one or two main topics. (This doesn’t mean you can’t include all the others, but you need to know which is the main focus of this story.)
For example, my current WIP is about solving a murder, a woman living in a new town and a man dealing with his sister’s cancer, but all of these things revolve around horses. Horses is my main topic.
The theme of a book is an underlying, universal message. Take a step back to view the big picture of your idea and main conflict. What life-affecting aspects resonate with you, like lust, jealousy, greed, self-preservation, hatred, love, redemption, resilience or revenge?
Theme shows what we want to say about life, the universe, society or relationships and will focus your story on the message you most want to leave readers with at the end of the book.
- Love is blind.
- Money is the root of all evil.
- Loyalty can’t be bought.
- Good always triumphs over evil.
- One person can make a difference.
Choose themes that evoke a strong emotional response within you and harness them during the writing process.
To do this, dig deep into your psyche to explore why you want to tell this story. (Why you want need to write it.)
Think about your own beliefs and passions. Why does this topic interest you and what are your personal views about it? You will most likely find answers to questions like these, surrounding the theme, in your past (yes, exactly the way characters are motivated by their backstory).
Your personal beliefs behind the story’s topic and theme are what solidify vague ideas into something purposeful you can use to shape the plot. Something that raises questions and invokes debate, so it will capture not only your interest to write it but ultimately readers’ interests.
This is the beating heart of your story!
What you believe about a topic changes the story
Let’s use the movie Gran Torino as an example. The heart of this story could be:
- Justice trumps intolerance; or
- Unlikely friendships can forge unbreakable alliances.
Although both of these themes are explored during the movie, do you see how choosing the main one (the heart of story) alters the focus of the plot?
- If ‘justice trumps intolerance’ was the purpose for this movie (which incidentally it is), the main plot thread would explore the main character’s reasons for being intolerant, put him in situations where his beliefs about this topic are challenged (like living next door to a family of Hmong refugees), and then show his emotional growth by having the outcome revolve around him choose justice for this family above his beliefs.
- Whereas, if ‘unlikely friendships can forge unbreakable alliances’ was the purpose for this movie, the main plot thread would explore why the main character is so unlikely to form this friendship, put him in situations where his beliefs about why he can’t be friends with this person are challenged (like revealing that the friend cares for family and has a strong work ethic), and then show his emotional growth by having the outcome revolve around his friendship surviving an ordeal (which is not the case in the movie).
See how the story’s purpose determines the outcome of the story and the final crisis that will showcase it?
Where to next?
Taking the time to understand what drives us to explore certain aspects of a topic, enables us to imbue our stories with situations and characters that are meaningful to us and will translate into powerful tales that affect readers. It also helps make the story cohesive by keeping every decision you make focused on the right things.
Of course, everyone will have different attitudes about a topic, but yours are the only ones that matter because this is your story; it’s about what you want to speak into the universe.
If you are stuck in a rut of writing novels you never finish, never submit or aren’t sure how to fix, then it’s your lucky day. I’m offering Writers in the Storm readers a FREE masterclass, which reveals the real reasons few aspiring authors finish their novels (and how to avoid them).
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Have you found the beating heart of your story?
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Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. She writes romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US and supports fiction authors to write novels they are proud to share with the world (and which get noticed by agents and publishers), through coaching, courses and developmental editing.
Having a writing coach is like having an industry expert in your back pocket, to hold your hand through the writing process and act as a voice of reason when you’re standing on a ledge. Sandy’s Active Storytelling Method helps authors find the hidden gems in their manuscripts and make them shine.
In her spare time, Sandy composes procedures for high-risk industrial processes, judges writing competitions and runs The Fearless Novelist Facebook group.
Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.
Top Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay