The Heart of Your Story

 

I was asked to read a screenplay several years ago. It opened with two minutes during which it explained what a common household device was, showing how it was made in a factory. Then for three more minutes it had characters eating breakfast, talking about their cultural heritage. I began to wonder when the story would begin. For the next fifteen pages nothing happened, except that the father of the protagonist learned about a potential problem. But then he got killed on page 30, and the protagonist’s real problem hadn’t started yet. Instead she mourned for a while, and her problem started on page 60—an hour into the movie. Oy, that’s bad.

I see this on many of the short stories that I judge for Writers of the Future, too. I’ll get an opening hook that looks fine, but the author will spend the next five or ten pages without getting to a significant problem in the character’s life. Guess what? Your character’s biggest problem is the heart of your story. Until that heart starts beating, the story won’t budge. Oh, you can talk about your character’s past, wallow in his feelings, and describe gorgeous sunrises, but the story won’t really take off.

As new writers, we are often told that we should start a story “In medias res,” in the middle of things. But I suspect that many new writers have never studied literature enough to know what “In medias res” really means. It means that we don’t start a tale at the beginning—introducing a protagonist and his minor daily problems—but that we start at a point when the story takes on larger dimensions, when the protagonist’s conflicts are about to become significant, or monumental, in the way that Homer started out his tale of Odysseus, allowing us to begin with a significant conflict first, then supplying background information as needed through flashbacks.

In other words, get to the heart of your story quickly. Until that heart is brought to life and begins beating, the story itself cannot move.

My old mentor Algis Budrys used to have a rule with short fiction. He said that if he didn’t know who the main character was, where the story was set, and what the main conflict was by page 2, the author had failed. He was right. I have to reject a lot of pretty darned good stories simply because the author didn’t get to the heart of the matter quickly enough.

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Last chance to register for my Writer’s Peak workshop in Provo, Utah. We will be closing it soon. The workshop will be taking place this Friday and Saturday. If you want to come, learn more and register here.

3 thoughts on “The Heart of Your Story

  1. Jason Stanley

    This is exactly why I find short stories harder to write than novels. Packing everything into a smaller space takes serious precision.

    Reply
  2. Diana Patterson

    Do you take small jobs such as reading sample chapters for a book proposal before I send to agents? My Query Letter is as follows:

    November 2, 2017

    Dear Mr. Farland,
    She Pirate’s GOLD—A Treasure Found Within, is a stand alone, true-life adventure story; the first book in a series that spans the globe over thirty-five years. I am presently looking for a literary agent.
    A story of suffering, survival and redemption with a quirky undercurrent opens with an out-of-body experience, that produces a vision and prompts me to go on a magical, often-perilous journey following clues. Compare me to a female Jack Sparrow archetype from Pirates of the Caribbean as these antics have earned me the title, modern-day “She Pirate.”
    Jump ahead three years and the vision manifests in the search and recovery of the Atocha, the famed sunken Spanish galleon found off Key West, Florida, in 1985.
    I learn from this experience that a rudderless life without a map can lead to exploits beyond my wildest imagination—so long as I trust it will unfold. With nothing to loose but my mind, and equipped with only my intuition, I find a treasure within and a world of wonder without.
    The manuscript (80,000 words, 14 chapters, and some photos) is non-fiction with a fantasy edge so it appeals to readers of magical realism, mystery and suspense, romance, adventure, and self-help books. While there are numerous books on manifesting reality, there are none to my knowledge that take the reader on a real life-manifesting journey. A real world story comparison: WILD by Cheryl Strayed.
    I’m a first-time author with a natural talent for writing as the words jump onto the page. I feel divinely inspired in many ways. I often hear, “This is a story that needs to be told.”
    I have completed a book proposal, chapter-by-chapter synopsis, and chapter samples, waiting to send upon your request.
    Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you and am open and willing to listen to any and all feedback.

    Best Regards,

    Diana Patterson
    dianapatterson@live.com

    Reply

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