The Heart of Story (any genre)
1. From A Taste of Fish to a Taste of Freedom
Thelma wanted to go fishing for a weekend with her buddy Louise. Just the two of them cutting back, drinking beer, and soaking in the great outdoors. Problem? Her good ol’ boy hubbie wouldn’t hear of it. And wide-eyed Thelma complied.
With savvier Louise’s nudging, though, Thelma does something way out of character: She leaves Hubby a note saying she’ll be back Sunday night and hops in Louise’s 1966 T-Bird convertible to hit the road.
If you’re familiar with the 1991 Thelma and Louise screenplay, written by Callie Khouri (who received an Academy Award for her first screenplay), you know that Thelma’s seemingly inconsequential decision leads to a sequence of other consequential decisions – making out with a guy at a honky-tonk, sleeping with a young drifter played by Brad Pitt, holding up convenience stores for cash.
A series of consequential decisions makes up a strong plot line but not necessarily a Story.
At the heart of a powerful story – whether for film, fiction, nonfiction – is something else. It’s useful to remember what this heart is and how to find it and use it when shaping a book, either when drafting or rewriting.
Otherwise, writers of novels, memoirs, and trade nonfiction books get tripped up.
What most writers with whom I speak and work want is a meaningful, non-simplistic way to shape their stories from beginning to middle to end. They want the heart. There is such a way.
2. Fixations Are Not the Heart
Novelists can fixate on minutiae such as their beautiful sentences or quirky characters, with the hope that somehow a series of sentences and Fellini-esque characters will make up a story (which they might), or they might obsess about their twisted plot of intrigue.
Memoirists can fixate on trying to “get things right” as if they’re journalists of their own accounts and forget that the entity on the page who shares their name is a character with a faulty memory.
Writers of trade nonfiction can fixate on communicating and explaining content and information to a targeted audience.
Great writers with whom I’ve worked have gotten lost with these fixations and forgotten about the heart of the story they want to write. The heart of story is not a twisty plot or syntax nor is it a fascinating character with wounds and scars nor is it lots of intriguing content – although all of those elements can help convey the heart.
3. We Are Yearning Creatures
The heart of story starts with want. Thelma wants to go fishing with Louise. Why? Not because she loves the taste of fish but because she wants to taste freedom. Thelma’s initial want for freedom becomes a full-fledged yearning she can’t stop. This yearning makes for story’s heart.
“We are yearning creatures,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler reminds us, “And fiction, inescapably, is the art form of human yearning.”
He goes on to write this:
Yearning is always part of fictional character. In fact, one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire. it’s the dynamics of desire that is at the heart of narrative and plot.
And because it is at the heart of narrative and plot, yearning is also is at the heart of powerful memoir and of powerful trade nonfiction.
Jeanette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle is among the most-read books of all times in the United States, according to one study. It’s ultimately a story of a young girl who, growing up among shiftless but bright parents, yearns for the safety and security of home. Much of the story’s emotional engine centers around her desire to return to her mother’s mother’s house because it was the closest to home she had experienced. The second half pivots around the teenage Jeanette’s goal to get to New York City and ultimately, ironically, leave her family so she can fulfill her yearning and find home.
Cal Newport’s best-selling trade nonfiction book So Good They Can’t Ignore You wins in part because it appeals to people’s yearning to have work they love (and because he takes a decidedly contrarian stance on the flimsy stance of “Follow your passion to find the work you love”). Seth Godin shapes his nonfiction book The Icaraus Deception around corporate workers’ yearning to be creative and to feel like they’re artists.
4. The Opening Notes of Tension
To get to the heart of your story, start with tension. Aspiring novelists and memoirists sometimes begin with quirky details, a traumatic event, or slow description. Aspiring trade nonfiction authors often start with explaining their big idea or program.
All fine for drafting, but an opening that gets to readers’ hearts starts with tension that revolves implicitly around yearning.
Take Dorothy and her yearning for somewhere else. Yip Harburg (lyricist) and Harold Arlen (composer) were tasked to come up with a song that would help the audience empathize with this orphaned sixteen-year-old farm girl.
I’ve long suggested that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” has held our imaginations and hearts captive because it’s such an eloquent expression of human yearning. But not being a music aficionado, I could never describe why the music works the way it does on our heart strings or why the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America called it “The Song of the Century.” So bear with this digression.
Rob Kapilow on NPR’s “What Makes it Great” does just that in this brief piece that breaks down how note-by-note this song is the epitome of yearning. He refers to the melody’s method as “circle and yearn.” The first two notes that accompany the word “Some-where” express the heart of Dorothy’s tension. The first low note evokes “trouble in Kansas” and the leap to the second high note evokes “hope in Oz”).
Brilliant. First note – troubled situation. Second note – hope for something else.
Troubled situation + hope for something else = creative tension.
(Such a description, by the way, doesn’t ruin the magic for this listener or pull the curtain back on the wizard; it heightens my appreciation for the creative genius behind the magic.)
When Dorothy pines to be somewhere else, it mirrors all of our desire at some point or other to be someone else.
Emphasis: When you shape your story around yearning, readers have a way in. They’re captivated. Readers of fiction and memoir see a part of their yearning selves in the character. Readers of nonfiction see their own yearning reflected back to them directly because readers of nonfiction are the heroes.
What are the opening notes of your story? What is a scene that can convey your protagonist’s tension between where she is and where she wants to be, who he is and who he wants to be? Ground the opening situation in dramatized detail so readers can engage and try to figure out and feel for themselves what the tension is.
For trade nonfiction, what is the tension in your readers between where they are at in their lives, work, parenting, or relationships – for example – and where they want to be? What are their assumptions about the subject? What have they tried in the past that haven’t panned out?
Now, at least, you have an opening that could get you to the heart of your book’s story.
If you yearn to learn more and if you’re deeply committed to shaping the brave new story that you and your book must tell this year, then consider taking the last spot at the Author’s Intensive held October 13-16 in New York’s gorgeous Hudson Valley at the Mohonk Mountain House. It won’t take you over the rainbow, exactly, but you will leave with a whole new way of mapping a book’s story, a whole new way of seeing how to get your book published, and a whole new way of building your signature presence in the world as an author.
Not everyone may agree with my claims about yearning at the heart of story. Regardless of your take, share it here. What drives and shapes the stories you tell – whether on the page, on the stage, on your blog, with your brand, on your iPhone, or around the kitchen table?
Thanks for running with me,