Author: Sandy Vaile
Previously published on the Writers in the Storm blog 02/11/22
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:
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 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.)
Story topics to explore
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.
Story themes to explore
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.
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:
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?
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 say to 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 chat to Sandy Vaile about your next best step. Book a time here.
Empowering modern fiction authors to confidently write novels worthy of publication