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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!


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