How to Nurture the Heart of a Story

As writers, we’re not just writing monologues about the joy of a perfect pie crust. We’re also trying to convey abstract concepts - like love and hope and despair - to our readers, so they can truly understand the heart of the story and feel its truth.

What is the heart of a story, though?

The heart of a story is the greatest foundation you’ll have in writing. It provides strength. Without it, your story will meander and struggle to find its way. Think of it like a map that can be used to find your way home whenever you feel lost.

It may be strong, but the heart of a story won’t thrive on its own. It needs you to nurture it. To nurture it, you need to know what it is; focus on what you’re trying to create; realize how to protect it; and give it room to breathe.

A grand task, to be sure, and I know you’re up for it!

Clarify the Heart of the Story

To unearth the heart of a story you’re writing, you need to take a good look at what you already know.

If you can remember, start at the very beginning: what was it that inspired you to write this story in the first place? Was it an article in the local newspaper? Was it a historical figure? Was it a quote? Was it a classic novel? What was it about this nugget of inspiration that lured you in?

Assuming your story hasn’t strayed too far from the original inspiration, this could be exactly where you find the heart of your story. I just finished reading a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a book called Jane of Austin by Hillary Manton Lodge. From a reader’s perspective, I would say the heart of Jane of Austin is the bond between the three sisters and how they’re navigating major upheaval in their lives, just like in Sense and Sensibility.

If you can’t recall the genesis of your story or it’s wandered far afield, the heart of it may lie elsewhere. Look to your main characters, setting, plot, and theme.

What does everything in the story revolve around?

What matters the most?

Is the story essentially a love note to Paris? Does the story revolve around the main character’s love of weaving, both the actual craft and a metaphorical weaving of connections between people?

The heart of a story could be a few things, not just one, but it will be more potent the more you narrow it down. Think of an onion: the papery outer layer is okay for broth, but you’re not about to stir-fry it. The stiff-and-slimy layer that comes next can be edible, but it’s still not the best of the best. Keep peeling back layers, and you’ll get to the heart of the onion, where it’s sweetest and smoothest.

If you’re really struggling to narrow down the heart of your story to just one thing, try taking each aspect of story craft (characters, setting, theme, and so on) and figure out the heart of each aspect.

Who or what most represents the heart of your story in each of these areas?

In Lord of the Rings, for example, the heart of the characters to me is Samwise Gamgee. He embodies everything steady and good and kind, and the Shire shines in his heart long past the moment he leaves it behind to join Frodo on his quest.

The heart, or the core, of the setting might be the blanket of malice overwhelming Middle Earth, snuffing hopes as swiftly as it burns everything it touches to ash.

And the heart of the theme could be the power of strong hearts, even in the smallest numbers, to overcome great odds.

When all this comes together, what strikes me the most is the idea of an eternal flame, one that lives inside the very soul, stoked and nurtured by what's important to the characters and what keeps them going, no matter what. So long as nothing extinguishes that fire, there's still hope ... and even if the fire goes out, all it takes is a bit of kindling from a like-minded soul to spark it to life once more.

Once you find the heart of your story (wherever and however you discover it) write it down somewhere you can find it easily. This could be on an index card that gets taped up above your desk; an image created in Canva or Paint as wallpaper for your computer; or a page in your bullet journal.

Focus on Creation, Not Avoidance

There are an infinite number of possibilities in the world. If you spend too much time thinking about what kind of story you don’t want to write, you’ll exhaust yourself by trying to cover an infinite number of bases, when what you should be focusing on are the specific possibilities you want to bring into being with your story, to show its heart to the world in the best possible way.

For example, if you think, “I don’t want to write a cliched love story,” you’ll busy yourself thinking of all the cliches you despise, looking up lists on Pinterest, and watching every vaguely romantic movie on Netflix to make sure you don’t create what you’re resisting … but that’s exactly where your energy is going. You may not write a cliched love story, but you’re also unlikely to write any story at all, at that rate. After all, you’ve barely made a dent in that Netflix queue!

Instead, you could be thinking, “I want to write a love story about a couple already dating when the story begins, with a shared passion for something crafty that adds to their bond and chemistry.”

Can you feel the possibilities percolating? Now you can brainstorm what that crafty passion is, how they explore it, and what triumphs and obstacles it could provide for their relationship. All your efforts will go in the right direction, because you’re focusing on the heart of the story, not every other heart in the world that doesn’t catch your fancy.

Fiercely Protect the Heart of the Story

No matter how sure we feel of the heart of our story at the outset, we’re bound to come up against resistance, unless we isolate ourselves from the world completely (and the world, in this case, includes every book, TV show, movie, and song).

Someone will doubt the heart of the story. Someone will suggest that it’s not quite right, or that it’s not as good as it could be, or that it’s dull, or that it’s not snazzy enough.

That someone could even be you.

While there is a time for flexibility (and we’ll talk about that in a moment), your story needs you to be strong. It needs you to be wary of outside influences, trying to cast aspersions on the brightness and strength of its heart. It needs you to believe in it.

This story came to you, not to anyone else, because you are the right one to bring it to life. Honour that whenever you feel doubt, from someone else or from yourself. Your story may shift and change in some respects, but the heart … the heart stays true.

There is one case where a second look is merited, and that’s when you’re made aware that you’ve been insensitive or disrespectful (to a minority, for example). Once you’re aware, you can’t use your duty to the heart of your story as a way to minimize these implications. Instead, that’s the time to realize the heart of your story may not be as pure as you think; take a good look at it, with people more knowledgeable about the slight than yourself; and decide if it’s worth reworking or needs to be set aside.

Leave a Little Breathing Room

Now that we’ve driven home your sworn duty to protect the heart of your story, let’s talk about the need to be okay if it changes.

I know, I know, but hear me out.

If an invisible muse is tiptoeing across your skin, making you ponder the possibilities when it comes to the heart of your story, that’s not necessarily something you should be resisting. Protecting something doesn’t mean stifling it, after all.

The reason we spoke so strongly about the need to protect the heart of your story is because sudden, 180-degree changes are rarely for the best. They often come about from a feeling of insecurity or, dare I say, boredom. If there are changes to be made, you need to carry them out from a place of strength, not uncertainty.

The key is to make sure, as much as you can, that the change is happening organically and isn’t being forced. One of the best ways to do this is with some bounded experimentation.

You need to experiment with a sense of freedom and play, not angst or pressure. To do this, don’t dump all the old stuff you have, no matter how enticing the new. This way, if you realize this is just a fling, not a long-term love affair, you can pick up where you left off.

Give yourself a span of time to audition these new ideas and see if this is really where the heart of the story lies now. Write down (just like we did earlier) what you imagine this heart to look like, and then do some brainstorming. Write a few scenes. Have a chat with a character or two.

There are three likely outcomes to this trial-by-brainstorm:

Outcome #1 - It feels right and is the best direction for the story to move in. If this is the case, archive the bits of your writing materials that are no longer relevant and start the next phase of the adventure with your story.

Outcome #2 - Something isn’t clicking. Nothing is clicking, in fact, not the way it did before. Spending time with these newfangled notions has helped you realize that the heart of your story was already exactly where it needed to be. Keep any notes from this experimentation that might be helpful (for this story or a different project) and let the rest go.

Outcome #3 - This isn’t working, but going back to the way things were doesn’t feel like the right path, either. If you no longer feel a connection to the heart of a story, it may be time to let it go. You don’t need to get rid of everything (in fact, I’d advise holding onto it, at least for now, in a spot where it won’t be on your mind all the time) but you need to set the story free. Give it a puff of air in your mind’s eye to send it on its way, like a dandelion gone to seed, its wishes swirling in the wind, so it can find its way to a creative soul who’s waiting to meet a story just like it… or maybe, just maybe, it will find its way back to you in the future.

The more deeply rooted the heart of your story, the more scrumptious it will be, so I hope you feel more confident in your ability to connect with it now! If things still feel a bit misty, narrow your focus to the first step: discovering the heart of your story. You can even try looking at some of your favourite books and where their heartbeat emanates from. It doesn’t have to be the same as what the author had in mind; this is just to get your wheels turning. Sometimes it’s less pressure when it’s not your own story, so it helps to break the ice.

Don’t feel the need to perfect any of this, either. While major changes to the heart of a story should make you hesitate, acknowledging that it’s not actually what you thought it was in the first place is a different matter altogether. No harm done in coming to a better and better understanding over time!

In the story I’m working on right now, the heart of it is the healing power of food, both physically and mentally, though I sometimes feel it might actually be the main character, a gifted chef who touches lives through sharing her talent. Whenever I’m unsure if something fits the story or what to write next, I can return to the heart of the story and use that as my first line of inquiry: does this ring true or does it stray too far from the heart? While it's not the answer to everything, having something I can come back to, somewhere to ground myself, makes a big difference in navigating the tangled web of storytelling.

How about you, creative soul? What’s the heart of your story?

Did your sweet WIP's heart skip a beat while you read this post? 💗 You might love Seven Ways to Court Your Muse!

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