Finding the heart of your story

Authors share their tips and advice for discovering the essence of your story or novel.

Heart of the story
Authors provide tips to finding the heart of your story or novel. Photo by Kan Taengnuanjan/Shutterstock

The drafting process – early and late

But what about the various stages of the drafting process itself, and, especially in the revision stage, what about that cold, critical eye? Some writers emphasize the intuitive approach, especially in early drafts, and some even in revision. 

Regardless of stage, Nichols works mostly by intuition, “trusting that a path/scene/event in the story will reveal itself to me when I sit down at my computer, or go for a walk, or read a book, or chop vegetables.” 


In The Rocks, a story idea came to him in the process of writing. “I saw this, vividly: two elderly characters – a man and a woman, who had once been married when they were very young – meet and, because of the unresolved anger between them, have an accident that kills both of them – at page 6 in the novel,” he says. 

The novel was at an end in a half-dozen pages – so what to do? He was perplexed: “I had no idea what their problem with each other was, what had happened between them, and of course they were dead, so the story was finished.” 

But he wanted to know more about them, and so he wrote his way into their lives, following them “backward in time.” He knew the ending, but he needed to find out the beginning. 

“I wrote the novel, chronologically backward, to find out,” he says. 

Nichols normally doesn’t make a habit of writing a story in this particular way, but he does trust his instincts, and this means letting the story tell itself and watching it all being revealed scene by scene, story segment by story segment. That’s how he finds out what it’s “about.” 

He describes his process in this way: “Like someone with macular degeneration trying to make sense of a movie from only a few scenes. I see it vaguely, bits of it. I try to let my imagination, my subconscious, unspool the movie, and then I write down what I see. I try to see scenes that are coming. I try to find some liminal place between waking and dreaming, where the story can play out, and I can see it. I have to have faith that it will show me where it is going.”

Lise Haines
Lise Haines. Photo by Sienna Haines

For Haines, too, the core of a story may not be apparent until she is finished. In a story entitled “The Missing Part,” recently published by AGNI, Haines dealt with the real-life abduction of Robin Ann Graham, a young woman who had disappeared from the Santa Monica Freeway in 1970, possibly kidnapped by one of Charles Manson’s gang. 

The nonfiction story served as a starting point. In her fictional version, the young woman who disappeared is named Jane. Her former boyfriend, Jim, and a female companion he meets at work set out to find Jane’s remains. 

“They have both suffered major losses, and the lines between their tragedies overlap. But I didn’t realize until after I had completed the story that I was writing about more than shared loss or the need to know what had happened to Jane. I began to see that the couple who search the California hills both believe in some essential way that they might have prevented the events that haunt them. Curiosity is the way to discover how a work of fiction speaks to us, and the way to discover it anew,” she says.

For Haines, the process of revision is “a mix of the analytical and intuitive, and I would add the work of the unconscious.” She explains: “Each story has its own demands and involves a variety of craft issues as well as the need to explore character more deeply.” 


But even in the revision stage, says Haines, “I am not focused on unifying images or the overall thrust of the story. I am looking for characters to find their way as the story deepens.”

Stories do, of course, have unifying devices – key metaphors, symbols, the title – but the question is, should you work or rework these as you see the need? And if so, when? 

Chace depends on a method of indirection with metaphors “as a way of getting at emotions of the characters, working intuitively not analytically.” When it comes to revision, she also tries to avoid an analytical approach. 

“While I do look for mechanical issues such as repetition, and overall plot and structure, I try to approach the revision process with intuition as well, even as I hone down the final draft. I never want to leave intuition outside the door when writing at any stage of the manuscript,” she says.

For Howrey, in the drafting stage metaphors need to be arrived at intuitively. “The really joyous part of writing is that things like unifying images will feel like they are emerging quite spontaneously. There’s a risk of making your work over-determined if you force that. If you’re thinking about the people of your book and the situations that they are in all the time, then the subconscious will do its nice thing and start spitting connections at you,” she says. 

But the revision stage for Howrey is a different matter. Everything, including metaphors, is fair game for rigorous analytical editing. “What’s the Hemingway adage? ‘Write drunk, edit sober?’ I think I write intuitively and edit analytically. I am a constant reviser, though, so this can happen within the same writing day,” she says.

What about symbolism? A symbol can certainly crystallize a novel’s overall meaning. Think of the Mississippi River in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the classic green light in The Great Gatsby. A symbol (versus allegory) radiates various possible meanings. 


“What does the green light stand for?” asks Selgin. “Money? Envy? The green rawness of youth? Naïveté? Who knows. Who cares? The point is the image resonates; it carries more than its weight. Long after you close The Great Gatsby, the afterimage of that green light clings to your retinae.” 

The lesson here? Symbolism isn’t something you can force. It must come out of the power of the image itself, and from its dramatic context, or it won’t work. 

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin. Photo by Katinka Neuhof

Titles can provide another unifying element in a story or novel, functioning as “extremely useful indicators” of the core or center of the story, says Selgin, or in a story collection as well. He sees a working title as a convenient starting point for constant revaluation. In his Flannery O’Connor Award-winning collection, Selgin noticed that by and large, his stories “had water in common,” so he entitled the collection Bodies of Water. But “thematically it was wanting.” 

It wasn’t until he had read through the collection once more that he realized his stories had another, more substantial unifying element. Each story, in some way, had to do with his characters “drowning in their own uniqueness.” He then changed the title to Drowning Lessons.

The logline

The “logline,” a term borrowed from the film industry, has made its way to novel writing as well. It’s a means of summing up your completed story’s or novel’s major thrust. And you will likely need it for the infamous query letter, which calls for tight, concise language. But when do you write it? 

It isn’t something Nichols concerns himself with in the drafting stages. “I would have no idea how to do this. Except perhaps to say: ‘Two old people – once married when they were very young – meet, argue, fall off a cliff, and drown.’ Then we go back through their lives to find out why they’re so pissed off with each other and how this shaped the whole of their lives and everyone around them. This is a reductive kind of movie logline and wouldn’t be of much help to me while writing the book.” Save loglines for once the novel is completed, he advises. 

For Selgin, loglines can be helpful in the revision stage. “Anything that helps us to identify, hone, or focus the core theme or premise of our work is helpful, whether it’s arriving at a title or describing our novels or stories in a sentence,” he says. 

The downside? Loglines are notoriously difficult to write. 

“I do it very badly,” Howrey admits. “Many writers are terrible at doing this for themselves. Happily, many writers are quite good at doing this for other writers.”

Her advice? “Hand your book over to another writer and ask them to come up with a logline for you, and then take them out to dinner or give them a nice bottle of whiskey, and promise to do the same for them.”

Rebecca Chace
Rebecca Chace. Photo by Nina Subin

The logline is an “elevator pitch,” says Chace, who finds it “very difficult to come up with a high-concept description of literary fiction.” She does offer advice for it as a marketing tool: “My only advice would be to brainstorm with trusted readers/your agent who may have more perspective on the book and perhaps more of a gift for it.” Writing a logline, she says, is like writing “flap copy, and if one has any friends in publishing with experience doing that, they may be helpful.”

Haines also sees its value in the marketing stage. “It helps in the process of writing to agents and editors when promoting a novel to state in a succinct way what the novel is about. Editors are not anticipating that the novel can actually be summed up in a sentence. It’s a matter of creating intense interest.” 

She offers some advice on creating a logline: “I tend to write out a one-page description, a one-paragraph description, and finally the one-sentence description. Reading flap copy and backs of novels is one way to understand how this is done.”

Finding the aboutness

Your story or novel has to be about something. It’s probably not something so trivial as “they moved to Los Angeles, took jobs, raised a family, had their ups and their downs.” No, it’s something that penetrates much deeper than that. It’s something about them, about that life in Los Angeles, about their jobs, their family – something waiting to be revealed. Something that captures the essence – below the surface level – of their ups and downs, something universal. Surely this essence won’t be readily apparent and may require a search. But spend enough time with your story, and you will surely discover the heart, spine, and thematic core of your story. 


Jack Smith is the author of four novels, two books of nonfiction, and numerous articles and interviews.