Monday, April 04, 2011

Getting to the Core of Your Story

I’ve been wearing multiple writing hats lately. I’m writing a new book, which I always do in layers. I’m also revising my agented book. Trying to keep my hats straight can get a bit difficult, but I’m managing.
Anyway, the last time I had my revision hat on, my agent asked me a fabulous question. “What is the most important piece of this story? What is it you want to say?” I told her my answer, and then she told me what the story means to her. On a very basic level, they were the same, but her answer went so much deeper than mine. I realized that I’ve always wanted to convey exactly what she said, but I hadn’t made myself go deep enough to be consciously aware of it. Because of that, I’m now letting everything percolate in my head before I sit down to do actual revisions.

If my agent hadn’t asked me that question, I would have been in danger of losing sight of the core of my story. But now that I’m coming back around to it, I intend to have a good, solid grasp of it before making any further changes.

This whole thing reminded me of my early novels. The ones that are now in a drawer. :) Before I knew anything about anything, I sat down to write what I thought was a fun adventure in fantasy land. That’s all fine and good, but it also wasn’t enough. My characters needed to learn something and grow along the way, but they didn’t because I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell. Is this sounding familiar to anyone, or is it just me? :)

I’ve learned a lot since then, and have realized that I need to be on an intimate level with my story’s core. What is it at its most basic level? So basic that if I changed one tiny aspect, the entire story would change. What is it that I, the author, want my readers to walk away with?

I have more than one thing that I want to convey in my stories, of course. But most are consequences of that one, single most important aspect. Once you have a firm grasp of that, then you can figure out how to tell your story in the most effective way. Maybe that means your character goes in an unexpected direction, or maybe that means certain events happen while others don’t. Or, maybe the focus on certain things needs to shift. But, if you keep the core of your story in the forefront of your mind, then you can rest assured that you are still telling the story that you want to tell.

So, how do you get to that core? Well, there’s no ‘right’ way. But there are a few things that might get you on the right track.

Explore the themes in your story. Most good stories have more than one theme, so figure out what yours are and write them down. Refine them until you come across something that feels unshakable.

Write an elevator pitch. This boils your entire story down to one or two sentences, so this is likely going to be the most important part. Or, at least, it will lead to the most important part.

From there, you can continue to explore the aspects of your story until you’ve figured out the single most important piece. The piece that can’t change because, if it did, you’d be telling a different story.


Jessie Harrell said...

wow - this is brilliant advice. truly. I'm going to have to sit back and percolate some myself.

Anonymous said...

I think this is what makes writing a query letter so difficult. We have to find the core of our story. What matters most and what is at stake for our characters. But once we find that, it's like magic--well worth the effort.

Tere Kirkland said...

I'm in the same boat, writing something new, and waiting for my agent to get back to me before I put my revising hat on. Even though I'm pretty deep into my wip, I can't help but stew about the agented novel, percolate over things, as you said.

I think that writing something new highlights the core differences between the two manuscripts, making it easier for me to look at the agented work more objectively.

Maybe I'm falling back on my academic writing too much, but to me the core is like a thesis statement, you can't really start writing in an organized way until you know what it is.

Great post!

cleemckenzie said...

That is such an important question, Tabitha. "What is it you want to say in the story? I've found that if I take time to really do a good single sentence summary and put it in my header, that helps guide me as I reach that sometimes muddled middle. Or, as is so often the case, a sub plot takes off and I lose sight of where I'm headed.

Great post.

Tabitha said...

Jessie - thanks! There is a lot to be said for percolating. I think it doesn't get enough credit in the writing process. :)

Kelly - exactly!! Knowing the core of your story will benefit you in lots of ways. :)

Tere - I feel the same way about writing and revising different works. I've also found that I will suddenly understand a concept I'd been struggling with if I write something new. And having the 'theme' is imperative for me, too! I can't get anywhere without it, and tend to meander all over the place.

Tabitha said...

Lee - yep! Having that core keeps me on track, and can also reassure me that I'm still telling my story even though certain elements have to change. Writing is so complicated! :)

Merc said...

Fabulous post, and so true! I've been thinking a lot about story core/heart, and figuring out how to dig down deep enough to nail it, so you can work outwards from there.

Thanks for this.

Catherine Stine said...

You are so spot on about the elevator pitch. If you can write that, you have most likely figured out the heart of your story.

Logan E. Turner said...

You are definitely not alone. Finding the core is what I'm struggling with in my Kyla story. I don't know what her core is. This is good stuff to think about!