The Heart of Your Story

Today I’m putting down yet another book that I hoped would grip me in a dramatic embrace. Nope, it didn’t. I’m quitting on page 80. If the author hasn’t snared me by now, she never will.

While there are a slew of reasons this heralded steampunk novel didn’t grab me, the most important is one that seems minor to many people, but is central to me: passion. The protagonist is quirky and courageous. But those qualities feel like trappings. The novel is tepid reading. I think the reason is that this story has no hot conviction, no basic truth at its core.

It has nothing to say.

I’ll admit this story might be a fun ride, an intelligent read, an interesting world and a memorable adventure. That’s enough for most people. On a long plane ride, it’s enough for me, too. You can write a book like that–I hope you have this author’s success–and you’ll no doubt cry all the way to the bank about the fact that your story had nothing to say about the human condition, didn’t arouse the passions of your readers. Didn’t count.

Stories that Count

But what the hell are we writing for, if not to demonstrate a truth, find an over-looked meaning, a hard-won wisdom? What are our extraordinary characters schlepping around the harrowing events of our novel if not to find out what makes them tick? Looked at another way, what are you bringing of yourself to the page? What do you know, what have you discovered, what insights have come to you at last–that I might not have heard, seen, or known by myself? In other words, what is the core humanity that we glean from your 400 pages?

If it is that a spunky young woman can overcome obstacles while fighting zombies, then I don’t have time to read this story. If it is that a woman who hates her job gets a chance to use an uncanny (supernatural) gift to aid a war in elfland (another book I gave up on) well, I’m happy for her, but I don’t have the time. I am no longer young. Great books await. I want a book that will linger with me after the final pages, that will show–in a sustained lightning flash of insight–something true about our brilliant, heartbreaking lives.

A Subtle Point

I’m not talking about a big Theme that will hit me over the head and Teach Me something.  Your point must be drawn with subtlety. Shown not told. You might place a dissenting viewpoint in the subplot. You might explore the value you’re explicating, giving nuance and depth. But, by God, you should intend to say something. And let your main character learn that hard-won truth.

What Do You Know?

This subject cuts across theme and character and premise. It is the premise of the inner story (as opposed to the fascinating outer story.) It is the profound fire at the core of the story that lights up your characters’ fleeting, hulking, striving shapes as they pursue their desires or run from their fears. It arises from your deepest beliefs, hottest angers, and your most hard-won compassion. Where have you been in your life and what have you learned? Can you express that in a way that is not melodramatic, simplistic or shallow? Another way of approaching this question is to ask what matters to you, in what surprising way? If you can craft the essence of a story from something like this, you may have a story that is really about something.

Tap into that passion. Write it fearlessly but with subtlety. Make yourself weep.

And please, make me keep reading!

12 Responses

  1. Tiyana says:

    I’m pretty sure what zombie story you’re referring to, heh, and you certainly have a point. I had fun reading it, but I can see how it lacks that depth of core truth you’re talking about. I generally don’t expect much out of most stories to begin with, though, so I guess that’s why it didn’t bother me.

    “Can you express that in a way that is not melodramatic, simplistic or shallow?”

    I think that is so hard to do! Today, even, I was dealing with a tense, ethically sensitive situation in my story that is, essentially, connected to my core truth. (And it took me almost the entire draft to realize that one had even developed, and I didn’t even know what to call it, really, at the time.) A few times I had to stop writing and ask myself, “How can I portray the greyness of this situation and the difficulty of the decision my heroine has to make without making it sound or look cheesy?”

    Sometimes I try to avoid having my characters verbally express their thoughts and emotions at all in an instance like this because when I use little phrases like, “No, don’t!” or something longer like, “I can’t save you both!” it just comes off (to me) sounding melodramatic or cliché–even if it is the logical, straightforward thing to say. But maybe that’s the problem; it’s too straightforward, too literal?

    I suppose your novels might deal with this well, expressing their core truths in subtle ways, but I haven’t read any of them yet so I don’t really know! How sad is this? (Though, I do absolutely love your blog!)

    So…I’m gonna go buy one now, lol. Amazon.com to the rescue! Any suggestions on where would be a good place to start, especially to see the portrayal of core truths in play? 😀

  2. Kay says:

    You’re right, it is very hard to write with conviction yet subtlety. One way to think of the “clutch” scenes, where you’re dramatizing the core value is to be sure it’s earned. You will almost never have such a scene in the first half of the novel. Your protagonist is still veiled, failing. But you foreshadow the big scene by bringing the question into play early. Make him wonder, make him falter. In subplot, show someone else making the contrary decision. You are bringing your value in, but letting it simmer, making us question, with you, what is right. By the time you come to your scene of the core truth (in the third act) your character has earned the right to say, No, don’t. Also, the plot should illuminate this theme. Adding on a core value dimension is not as strong as having it be the inevitable shadow cast by the action.

    For my own work, I hope I accomplish these things with subtlety. My work hasn’t been noted for it, but I think this is because I combine the deep story with high adventure, and most critics don’t look past the big hand-waving, world-building I do. I might point to Bright of the Sky. If you don’t want to get hooked into my series (although this 1st book stands on its own) you might try my PK Dick-nominated novel, Maximum Ice. Both are available on Kindle.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kay Kenyon and Jess, WWIA Organizer, M. Terry Green. M. Terry Green said: "But what the hell are we writing for, if not to demonstrate a truth…?" The Heart of Your Story by @kaykenyon http://bit.ly/98KF1h […]

  4. Paul says:

    Not to pimp your own work, but I do think that the themes of the Entire and Rose Quartet do show that you “Write what you preach” here. The relationships between Quinn and his wives, the Tarig, his daughter all illuminate a number of themes that emerge naturally in the text.

  5. Kay says:

    I think the series became increasingly value-laden as it went on. I saw that it could become an epic king-making kind of barnstormer, and I wanted it to be more, so I kept twisting the inner story. It’s amazing to me that most reviewers didn’t notice. Maybe it was Too suble!

  6. Nicole says:

    Thank you, Kay, this post really resonated with me, and I appreciate the reminder to challenge myself to think hard about writing a story that matters, rather than taking the lazy way out (which won’t do my story a lick of good anyway).

  7. Kay says:

    I need to remind myself of this, too. A great premise needs a bigger engine, or at least I want it to have one.

  8. Tiyana says:

    You give such great advice, Kay, and it always makes sense. I’m excited to put all the things I learn here to use.

    Also, thanks for the recommendations. I’ll check them both out. 🙂

  9. Rose-Marie says:

    Nice essay! I do have a question though: if the “scene of core truth” doesn’t come into play until the third act, then why give up after 80 pages? What is missing that isn’t capturing your attention (or heart)?

  10. Kay says:

    Rose-Marie – We should be writing the inner story from the very beginning. What waits for the third act is the scene in which the protagonist overcomes her more shallow self; where she uses a hard-won wisdom to act in a significant, game-changing way. That is classic story structure, anyway. In other words, early on the reader recognizes, even if only at a subconscious level, that a great issue is in play. The author does this through premise, foreshadow, characterization and smaller conflicts–all these are set-up for what is usually the climactic scene where ideally inner and outer conflict are both resolved.

  11. Very true, and well put. If all we wanted was some figures moving around and accomplishing a goal, we could just watch a game of chess.

  12. Kay says:

    Thanks, Heidi. And it doesn’t need to be deep and heavy… just meaningful.

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