Aspiring writers are forever searching for The Secret: the single trick or technique that will elevate their writing from promising to publishable. Old pros say there is no secret to getting published, that it’s simply the result of hard work – reading a lot, writing a lot, getting feedback on your work, learning how to market your work, etc. – and I wouldn’t dispute that. But there is one element missing all too often from beginners’ fiction, and I’d argue that it’s one of the most important aspects of creating successful, compelling stories, and it’s as close to The Secret as anyone is likely to get: writing with an emotional core.
Successful stories should entertain, stimulate the imagination, and provide an artistic experience, but they also need to move readers emotionally. At the heart of a story – and there’s a reason we call it the heart – should lie a strong emotional core. It is, in a very real sense, what a story is ultimately about. For example, on the surface the movie Back to the Future appears to be about a teenager who goes back in time and prevents his parents’ meeting, thereby endangering his own existence. He needs to get his parents together, save himself, and then return to his own time. That’s the premise and basic plot of the film. But the emotional core of the film – why it moves audiences – is Marty McFly’s relationship with his parents and with Doc Brown. He gets to know his parents as teenagers like himself, gaining a new perspective on them. He feels connected to them as a family despite the gulf in years, and because he loves them, he can’t stop himself from trying to make their lives better in the past, even at the risk of altering the future in potentially disastrous ways. It’s the same for Doc. Marty loves him, and he can’t stand the idea of Doc getting killed in the future, so he tries to prevent it, despite Doc’s wishes. Simply put, the emotional core of the movie is love of family. Without this core, the movie might’ve been a fun adventure, but it wouldn’t be the much-loved classic it is today. The emotional core is what connects an audience to a story; it’s what makes a story matter to them.
Here are some things to think about in order to strengthen the emotional core in your stories.
What is the main emotional relationship/connection between characters in the story?
In Silence of the Lambs, the main emotional relationship is between Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling, between predator and potential prey or, if you prefer, between wild animal and hunter. Starling wants to use Lector to catch another killer, and Lector wants to use Starling to amuse himself – and escape confinement. But the power dynamic between the two constantly shifts, and it’s unclear to the audience, as well as to the characters themselves, how they feel about each other and their roles. This ever-shifting unease – will Starling remain uncorrupted by Lector, can Starling’s inherent goodness, if not redeem him, reveal that he at least possesses some small measure of humanity? – is the true mystery that powers the story. And just like Back to the Future, it’s the emotional core that makes this story a classic, elevating it above a run-of-the-mill thriller.
So consider the characters in your story and decide what connects them. This doesn’t mean they have to have a positive relationship. Ahab’s relationship to Moby Dick isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy. Once you firm up the emotional relationship between the characters – once you’ve created a strong emotional core – then you can use that relationship as a foundation upon which the rest of your story rests. Or perhaps more accurately, as the seed from which your story will grow.
How is the emotional core reflected in the plot?
In Jaws, the emotional core is Sheriff Brody’s need to protect the people in his community. This creates conflict in the story because while Brody wants to keep people from being eaten by the shark, he always has a duty to protect the town’s economy, and the town depends on the money the summer people pump into it every year. If Brody closes the beaches, he kills the town. If he doesn’t close the beaches, more people will die. Brody is trapped in an impossible situation. He cannot protect everyone in every way. He must choose (just to be clear, this economic aspect of the story is more prevalent in the novel than in the film).
In my novel Mouth of the Dark, a middle-aged man’s twenty-year-old daughter is missing. The emotional core comes from his need to find her because he believes he’s failed her too many times in the past, and he’s determined not to fail her again – no matter what. Everything in the plot revolves around this need, and the character does things he would ordinarily never think of doing in order to find his daughter. In acting, this is called motivation, but when it comes to creating a story, the emotional core doesn’t just motivate your character, it motivates the story’s events as well. Write the emotional core of your story at the top of a piece of paper or Word document and list all the ways the core could be expressed in terms of plot events. If you have a plot event that doesn’t relate somehow to the core – especially for a short story – don’t include it when drafting.
How is the emotional core reflected in the setting?
In both Moby Dick and Jaws, the sea is the most important part of the setting. Ahab wants revenge and Brody wants to protect his town, but both of those motivations lead these characters to try to control the object of their respective hunts. But the sea is uncontrollable. It’s wild and dangerous, and it conceals rather than reveals. Struggling against it during the hunt will test each man and show what lengths he will go to, and what he’s willing to sacrifice, to find and kill his quarry.
In The Wizard of Oz, the land of Oz appears on the surface to be a beautiful, magical world, a place a little girl (in the book) or a young woman (in the film) would love to remain in forever – especially when she compares it to life in boring Dust-Bowl-era Kansas. But Oz is a confusing, dangerous place of Wicked Witches, deceitful (if ultimately kind-hearted) wizards, Tin Woodsmen created by mechanically replacing the lost body parts of a human man (read the book), creepy-as-hell flying monkeys, and other bizarre elements. It’s no wonder that Dorothy ultimately decides that the emotional core of the story – There’s no place like home – is a better choice than remaining in a beautiful but chaotic magical land.
Again, write down your emotional core and list all the ways your setting can reflect that core. Is the emotional core of your story Isolation? Think of all the ways your characters could be isolated, both the obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Is the emotional core of your story Sticking by a Friend No Matter What? Think of all the ways your protagonist could be challenged by the setting to continue sticking by his or her friend. For example, two characters are lost in the wilderness and one has a broken leg. What would make it difficult – maybe almost impossible – for the unhurt friend to remain with the injured one, despite his or her resolve to do so? Lack of food and water? Weather? Wolves?
How is the emotional core reflected in the theme?
First, a word about theme. Some writers make conscious decisions about theme while others don’t worry about it. If a theme happens to emerge while they’re writing, great. If not, no big deal. The important thing is to tell the story as well as you can. But I’d argue that an emotional core is the theme, at least with a little tweaking. Ahab wants revenge against Moby Dick, but he can never get revenge. The whale has no idea he hurt Ahab and nothing Ahab could do to him, including killing him, would ever make the whale sorry for what he did, would ever make him realize that Ahab was the one who killed him. So Ahab can never have the revenge he seeks, and thus the theme: Revenge is ultimately impossible and only leads to self-destruction. In Back to the Future, Marty’s love for Doc and his family leads to that story’s theme: Family connections transcend Time, and these connections define us, bind us, and in the end, might even save us.
Thinking about how the emotional core of your story can grow into a theme allows you to return to the story – to the characters, the plot, the setting – and strengthen the theme, making your story tighter, more focused, and ultimately more impactful for the audience.
How does the emotional core serve as a counterpoint to the plot and setting, and vice versa?
The emotional core, plot, and setting don’t have to complement each other. They can serve as counterpoints. A simple example would be a scene depicting a graveside funeral service. The emotional core is sorrow. The clichéd impact of the emotional core on the setting: a gloomy, rainy day. Counterpoint: a sunny day that seems at odds with the emotions the characters are feeling, or a pleasant, but bland day weather-wise, as if nothing important is happening when for the family, something extremely important is taking place: saying a final farewell to their loved one. By playing against the emotional core with the setting, you can actually intensify it.
In the movie Poltergeist the emotional core is the fear that your family isn’t safe even in their own home. Once the paranormal events in the house increase to a certain point, the family wants to get the hell out of there. The fear should drive them out, but little Carol Anne becomes trapped in a dark dimension adjacent to our world, a dimension only accessible through the house, so the parents must stay (they’re good parents, though, so they send Carol Anne’s older sister away rather than risk losing her, too). Plot-wise, the characters are forced to do the opposite of what they want to do, what the story’s emotional core is driving them to do. It’s the plotting power of emotional core counterpoint at its finest.
Each scene can have its own emotional core.
So far, I’ve been talking about emotional cores that serve as the center of entire stories. But each scene can have its own emotional core, one that may or may not be strongly tied into the overall emotional core. The example of the funeral service I used above can also serve as an example here. Sorrow might be the emotional core of such a scene, while struggling to maintain a marriage in the face of tragedy – such as the loss of a child – might be the overarching emotional core for the whole story. Adding emotional cores to your scenes will make each one of them have an impact on your audience, and they’ll build one upon the other, increasing people’s emotional investment in your story as it progresses toward its climax.
Emotional cores in short stories versus long stories.
Short stories need to be tighter and more focused than novels (tell us something we don’t know, Tim!). Because of this, you’ll likely have an important emotional relationship between two characters and no more. There simply isn’t room to develop multiple expressions of the emotional core in a short story. So if your short story is about an elderly man mourning the death of his beloved dog – a man who can connect with animals but who has trouble connecting with people – you won’t show multiple people trying to console him and reach out to him emotionally, as you could do in a novel. You’ll have only one person fulfill this role. His estranged son. The widow who lives down the street. A neighbor he’s never gotten along with but who understands the grief over losing a pet. Two main characters, one emotional core. That’s about all a short story can handle.
A novel, however, is another story (see what I did there?). If you want to write a novel about the elderly man who’s lost his dog, you can have all of the above characters be a part of it, and you can explore the emotional core on multiple levels and in multiple ways. Some writers claim that there are short story ideas and there are novel ideas, but the two aren’t interchangeable. While there might be some truth to this, you can often turn a short story idea into a novel idea – and the other way around – by expanding or narrowing the emotional core. By doing so, I could write about the elderly man at any length and complexity – and so could you.
Which should come first when drafting? The character, the plot, or the emotional core?
Short answer: It doesn’t matter as long as everything is in its place when the story is finished and ready to submit to an editor. I suggest starting wherever you feel the most creative energy and potential with a given story. If you’re really into the characters, start with them first. If you have an awesome idea for a story, but you’re not sure of anything else, work out the idea in detail and add other elements later. If you’re a planner, make decisions about your story’s emotional core before you begin drafting. If you prefer to write by the seat of your pants, start writing and work on firming up the emotional core in revisions. How you tend to the emotional core doesn’t matter. I’d argue that since the emotional core serves as a foundation for your story, the sooner you tend to it, the better, but the most important thing is that you do tend to it before you type The End.
Regardless of what kind of fiction you write – entertainment-focused, literary, genre-oriented, experimental, or some blend of these – make sure to write it with a strong emotional core. By doing so you’ll not only produce stories that readers will love, but stories they’ll remember long after they finish reading. Stories that change them, that make a difference in their lives. Stories that matter.
And in the end, aren’t those the kind of stories we all want to read and write?
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
Your Turn to Suffer
Reviews are coming in for my latest dark fantasy/horror novel Your Turn to Suffer, and so far, readers seem to dig it.
A few quotes:
“A lot of people get to suffer in Your Turn to Suffer, and when it goes batshit off-the-rails crazy, that's where the story finds its dark, bloody, shadowy heart.” – Beauty in Ruins
“The book is chilling, gory, surreal and heartbreaking. It’s not a story for people who like everything neatly tied up in a box with marshmallow endings. Instead, it’s more like a punch to the gut again and again and again.” – OutlawPoet
“Your Turn to Suffer is the most intense book I've read in a very long time. This title is dedicated to David Lynch, and that definitely makes sense. The sudden slips between normalcy and the surreal dreamscape are nightmarish to say the least. It’s cryptic, bizarre, horrible, beautiful, and most of it remains just out of reach. Until it doesn’t.” – Yet Another Sarah
Order Links for Your Turn to Suffer
Flame Tree Website
This is my page on the Flame Tree site, where you can order any of my Flame Tree novels, including Your Turn to Suffer.
Barnes and Noble
New Video Up at My YouTube Channel
I recently posted a new video to the Writing in the Dark YouTube Channel. This one deals with my top six tips on writing extreme horror. You can check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mKqHIpVEjM