Writing fiction requires a process. At some point in the throes of drafting, revising, and fine-tuning, as you struggle to see your way through the fog of potentialities of character and plot, you may gain a sense for your story’s essence: what it’s about, where it’s going. This essence – or we might say its “heart” – grasps something important, something universal about your protagonist’s lot, about the human condition…at least it had better, or why write the story in the first place?
Maybe you won’t know its essence until you finish the story. Maybe it will take writing the story to discover it. It won’t be a tidy little moral, unless you want to write didactic fiction (which, for most writers, isn’t recommended). Probably it’s more like a clearance in that fog – perhaps a partial illumination regarding your character’s overall arc, his or her coming to some sort of knowledge – something you as the writer now glimpse with more clarity. But it’s likely still a little hazy and indecipherable, because the best writing doesn’t reveal or tell all to either author or reader. Different readers will come away with different takes, different interpretations – within a reasonable range – and that’s good. That’s what you want.
But maybe that haze is still a little thicker than you’d like it to be, and you’re not quite sure how to identify your story’s soul. What do professional writers say about grasping this “heart” of a story or novel?
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Identifying the essence of your story or novel
First, it should be noted that writers conceive of this matter of “aboutness” (to borrow a term from other disciplines) in different ways, in different terms. For some writers, the word heart isn’t the right term.
According to Peter Selgin, novelist, short story writer, and memoirist, it’s “too metaphorically and sentimentally loaded.” He prefers instead “thematic core or center.”
Lise Haines, author of the novels When We Disappear and Girl in the Arena, points out that “works of great fiction have at least two hearts to keep blood pumping in many directions.”
For Meg Howrey, author of the highly acclaimed novel The Wanderers and two other novels, spine is a better word. “The spine is the thing to which other things – like hearts, or metaphors, or plots – can attach,” she says.
Word choices aside, what does this key substance consist of?
For Peter Nichols, author of The Rocks and several other books of fiction, the unifying element – as with most literary writers – is character, not plot. “I am initially attracted to a situation around a character, or characters, which resonates with my own emotional experience. I see that person or people, but not clearly or completely,” he says.
Plot, for Nichols, comes out of character: “Often I have only the haziest idea of plot and may not discover the heart of a story until I’m well along in the writing of it. I find only by going where to go.”
For Haines, a plot-driven story lacks richness and complexity. When she asks her Emerson College students what a particular story is about, she hopes “to hear several different answers.” Receiving just one answer, says Haines, means “the story has fallen flat and that often means a plot-driven or idea-driven story that only had one lightweight purpose in mind. I’m intrigued by the kind of fiction that delivers meaning over time, even to the author.”
Nichols experienced this very thing after his novel The Rocks was accepted for publication. “When it was bought, and my editor took me to lunch, I asked her what it was about, and she told me what she thought. She told me things about the story, themes, I hadn’t seen,” he says.
The pre-writing stage
Should you decide in advance of drafting exactly what your story or novel will be “about?” Should you nail down as well as you can your characters, storyline, and thematic ideas? How much should you know in advance, and what’s the best way to get into your story or novel: by reason or by intuition?
For Howrey, the spine of her story usually comes about more intuitively than rationally.
She tends to begin with a “central question or group of questions,” which amount to “some curiosity or problem or preoccupation that makes me want to write a book.” Then, as she “mulls this question,” characters or a story idea will “begin to emerge.”
Her process is one of being open to her characters, who become like real people she is conversing with. “[It’s] mostly a matter of sharing the problems with my characters, and we all try to figure things out together,” she says.
In the case of her most recent novel, The Wanderers, which deals with astronauts on a mission to Mars, Howrey had several pre-writing questions in mind. These questions were all related to the subject of “simulations” – which, early on, she grasped as key to her novel: What makes an experience “real?” In what ways are all of us living in simulations? How do we carve out space for ourselves, and what price are we willing to pay for this space? Pondering these questions created a much more intuitive approach than using reason and analysis to form a story idea.
Rebecca Chace, author of Leaving Rock Harbor, an Editor’s Choice in the New York Times Book Review, uses a similar approach. She begins with a question she thinks is “both emotionally compelling and complex,” and then begins to further complicate it. This process yields both a narrative and characters that are “in service of answering the question.”
In the manuscript she’s currently working on, she posed this question: What would a person do if she was unable to contact or see the person she had devoted her life to when he needed her most? She then “built outward from this question.” Her story revolved around a 20-year-long secret affair. To trouble the water, she brainstormed as many questions as she could related to her central question. These questions served as a method of inquiry: She was acting in a discovery mode instead of a decision mode.
It’s all about discovery, says Selgin. “To use a painterly analogy since I also paint, it’s like going into the studio knowing, or thinking you know, exactly which colors to put where on the canvas. You get a result, sure, but the result is as dead as a painting by numbers,” he says. Switching metaphors, Selgin states: “As useful as it might be to have a formula (one part intuition to one part intellect), writing a novel or story isn’t like making a bowl of soup or a martini; you don’t start with a recipe and ingredients. At some point, you have an idea. Who knows where ideas come from? They may grow out of an experience, or they may be handed to you in a dream.”