Finding the Heart of Your Story by Kay Keppler
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist, editor, and novelist, Kay Keppler, as she shares with us “Finding the Heart of Your Story.” Enjoy!
I was recently asked to critique a manuscript, a book by an aspiring novelist. I brewed a cup of my favorite tea, carried it to my favorite rocker, settled in, cracked the pages, and a few minutes later… fell asleep.
In my defense, I was warm, I was cozy, and I was comfortable. However—and you can trust me on this—you do not want a reader who is determined to read your book fall asleep while they’re still in the first chapter. What happened here?
When I woke up and finished that tea and subsequently, the book, I saw that the aspiring novelist had created situations but not drama. She had quit revising too soon.
Expose the Heart of Your Story
Getting a solid grip on the story is a fairly common problem, even for experienced writers.
- How do you find that kernel of truth? And how do you present it?
- How do you launch it?
You’ve been over the manuscript a bunch of times. Your writing is tight. Your descriptions are lush. Your characters are tormented. Yet, your editor says it’s not enough. What can you do?
Sometimes the problem is that there’s not enough story to begin with. You have beautiful writing but insufficient conflict to build an entire book around. Maybe you spent too much time and space on world building, leaving you plotless. Perhaps the story lacks arc.
Focus on the Action: The Heart of Your Story
A novel needs to have dramatic action, not just dramatic situations. And to get readers to have emotional responses to that dramatic action, writers need to show how the characters respond emotionally to the narrative events.
Think about newspaper headlines.
“Gas Explosion Kills Eight” is a dramatic situation, something that might trigger a novel. But to use this event in a way that will sustain a novel, you need a protagonist to take action.
Think of that headline as “Gas Explosion Victim Vows Revenge” or “Whistleblower Fights Corporate Interests in Gas Explosion Case.”
That’s your story.
The dramatic situation must create a world for the protagonist that is personal and inevitable. It must force the protagonist to take dramatic action.
Try the “In a World…” Test to Find the Heart of Your Story
We’ve all heard the movie trailers:
In a world…
These three words launch the protagonist’s dramatic situation.
In the movies, this is even a high-danger, high-stakes scenario. But your story doesn’t have to be high-danger to the outside world—just to your characters.
One man… [or woman, non-binary person, or non-gendered being]
That’s the protagonist.
Here’s where my aspiring author went off the rails. Your protagonist must take a dramatic action, whatever it is. They must do it. Their personality demands it. That’s what your readers will identify with. That’s why they will root for him/her/they.
For novelists, the “In a World…” moment should be in the first chapter, maybe even in the first paragraph. This is what one writing teacher calls “the invitation to the party.” You’re letting readers know what they can expect from the rest of the book.
Here’s what the “In a World…” test looks like for a couple of well-known stories:
- In a world…where marriage is a woman’s only path to financial security…one young woman must navigate social norms to marry a man she loves (Pride and Prejudice)
- In a world…where everyone’s too busy for you…one girl must overcome dangerous obstacles to discover that there’s no place like home. (Wizard of Oz)
Reveal the Stakes to Uncover the Heart of the Story
To ensure that readers bond with your characters, show them right away what will happen if your protagonist fails in their efforts.
How will their life be changed if they don’t succeed?
You can adapt your “In a World…” test to make sure that your stakes are clear and obvious:
- In a world… where marriage is a woman’s only path to financial security… one young woman must navigate social norms to marry a man she loves or face a lifetime of misery and unhappiness. (Pride and Prejudice)
- In a world… where everyone’s too busy for you… one girl must risk her life to overcome dangerous obstacles and discover that there’s no place like home. (Wizard of Oz)
Find the Answer
The “In a World…” test can help you fully and succinctly answer the question that readers often ask: what’s it about?
See if it helps you zero in on the story you want to tell so you can uncover the heart of your story.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
She lives in northern California. Contact her here at Writer’s Fun Zone in the comments below, or at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask questions, suggest topics, or if you prefer, complain.
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