Getting To The Heart Of The Story

Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 20: Getting To The Heart Of The Story

Writers Write is a comprehensive writing resource. In this post, we suggest ways of cutting to the chase and getting to the heart of the story.

Welcome to week 20 of Anthony’s series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week’s post here.

Goal setting

  1. Continue writing the scenes of your novel

Breaking it down

Pacing and plot

Recently, I found a pristine paperback of James M. Cain’s 1934 noir thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice.  I’ve always wanted to read it – and I’m glad I did.

I was amazed at the pace of the plot for a book written more than 80 years ago. In Chapter One, a drifter named Frank arrives at Nick the Greek’s roadside diner where the older man offers him a job. It’s clear that he has his eye on Nick’s sulky wife, Cora. It’s clear from just a few lines. Then I saw her and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them for her. This first chapter is just two pages long.

By Chapter Two, Cora and Frank have had their first erotic encounter in the kitchen – famously filmed in the 1981 version with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson – and by Chapter Four, the pair is already plotting to kill her husband.

For my book, I realised that I was taking too long to get to that all-important inciting incident.  So I set myself a challenge of setting up the central tension in less than 250 words. It worked rather well. I brought together my three main characters in a few short, vivid paragraphs. It’s something I may use. Is this something you could try? 

Finding the beating pulse

In Postman, the beating heart of the story is the desire of Frank and Cora to be together – a desire that will lead to murder, betrayal, and another shocking death. This is something that the writer latches on to early on in the story and doesn’t let go of it. It’s possible that his experience as a screenwriter taught him how to keep it lean, fast, exciting.

This week a student asked me, ‘Do you always need a subplot in a novel?’ The answer is, ‘Not always.’

There’s no subplot in James M. Cain’s novel. He keeps us locked into the main storyline and doesn’t let up— driving the story towards the next brutal plot point. However, keep in mind it’s a very short novel, just over 120 pages. The writer kept the story constrained to create that claustrophobic tension.

What is the heart of you story? For my novel, it’s Jenna’s will to protect her relationship with Matt – and herself – from a dangerous third party in their relationship. At an elemental level, it’s a will to survive the antagonist. I need to remember this, if I’m to stay on track. 

The argument for unlikeable lead characters

Staying with Postman, there’s no denying that Frank and Cora are not heroic characters. Selfish, greedy, brutal – these two bad people find each other and bring out each other’s ‘badness’ to a whole new level.

That works well if you’re writing a noir thriller. But if you want the reader to feel empathy for a character – especially the main character – you have to pay attention to their actions, motivations, and decisions.

This is something I’m struggling with in my novel. For Jenna, my main character, to agree to a threesome with her boyfriend, Matt, and the antagonist, Monty, seems like something that could erode the reader’s belief in her.

I had to rethink her motivation as I went back to my character sheets and synopsis. What if she doesn’t agree? What if she is the one who makes a decision to stop the seduction before it goes too far? (Of course, it will still be too late as Monty is already in their lives.)

Part of me likes this approach, as it empowers Jenna. Your lead should always be making the most decisions. On the other hand, I worry that the readers may feel cheated of a big moment in the story. I think this is something I should experiment with – and try writing the scene both ways. 

Timelock — 2.5 to 5 hours

Write for a half hour or hour a day.

5 Quick Hacks

  1. Rewrite your opening as a short poem – focus on the imagery and emotion rather than the plot.
  2. Take a scene you’ve already written. See if you can take it in another direction. List five possible ways it could be different.
  3. Your character sits on a park bench feeding the pigeons. What’s on their mind? What do they regret? Do they recall a fond memory? A good joke?
  4. List the decisions your main character has made so far in your book in a line or two. Are there enough strong decisions?
  5. Shake up your writing routine. If you usually write in the morning, try writing at night. Try writing from a different location – in the car waiting to pick the kids up, at a coffee shop.

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘If your writing doesn’t keep you up at night, it won’t keep anyone else up either.’ — James M. Cain

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Anthony Ehlers

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 19: Turning The Screw
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 18: Shading A Scene
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 17: Expect The Unexpected