Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Heart of the Story

Hemingway said, to get started on a story, "All you have to do is write one true sen­tence." Graeme Shimmin has an excellent exploration of this idea, in combination with others, but I'd like to stick with the main concept, a focal insight into why your story matters.

I prefer to call this the heart of the story because ideas can be abstract. Jurassic Park is about resurrecting dinosaurs. Groundhog Day is about a man living the same day over and over again. The idea or premise for a story is a kind of starting point that can be analyzed and embroidered. Though it might come with emotional elements for you, that isn't necessarily the case. Some people begin from an even more distant point, a prompt. The Web is full of writing prompts, which seem to do well for nonfiction, but can be unreliable for creating stories that matter. (You can even follow Twitter sites to get regular prompts.)

A premise has real value, but you often need to do a lot of hard work at finding the emotional connection. It's not often you can sit down and compose the story with the premise alone (although, the muse may, occasionally, cooperate).

In the same vein is the theme of a story. Themes, correctly articulated, can reveal meaning and provide help in rewriting and, sometimes, in development. Generally, they become accessible only after many words are written, so they aren't usually the best starting point.

But, if you know the heart, you have the idea and the emotion together at the start. How do you capture a heart?

Absence makes the heart grow - For me, this often comes from looking at a list of premises or titles I've stored away. What may have amused or intrigued me, with the passage of time, is likely to emerge with full power with a later visit. I think my subconscious picks up bit and pieces and endows them with meaning when I'm not looking.

Grand gestures - Watch for this in life. When someone surprises you by behaving out of character so they can have a big impact on someone else, notice. Absorb. Create your own version, and start writing. (I like to think of these as demonstrations of love, but, for the sake of a story, they can also be the opposite.)

Beauty - Nature and art can expose the world in startling new ways. The response is inevitably emotional. And, if we are paying attention, there is likely to be an accompanying insight that can be articulated.

To find the heart of the story, something must capture your own heart. You must allow yourself to be wooed by observations, experiences, and rich ideas. Explore, be open, treasure what you come across, and revisit whatever has touched you.

Upcoming classes

February 2-15 The Perfect Setting (online)
February 25-March 11 How to Write FAST (face to face) Westchester Community College
March 9-April 3 Career Planning for Writers (online)

No comments:

Post a Comment